“You sit at the board and suddenly your heart leaps. Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it. But what chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it’s really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas.”
― Stanley Kubrick

Here’s a potpourri of excerpts and links showing Kubrick’s fascination with the game.

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Stanley Kubrick’s films seem like they’re the very spine of modern cinema. They rank among the very greatest of its cineasts — Welles, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, and Ford being a few others in the same, small category.

“Traversing genres and technically astute, his visual style could be at once formal, comical, and surreal, his subject matter both fantastical and brutally real. He wasn’t afraid to deal with daunting, complex issues like free will, the nature of good and evil, nuclear war, the dynamics of a couple’s relationship, or the question of a supreme being and the anxious fate that awaits us in the heavens.” [1]

Aside from filmmaking, chess was Kubrick’s chief preoccupation: that quest for the perfect move. “Chess helps you develop patience and discipline in choosing between alternatives when an impulsive decision seems very attractive,” he mused – an apt definition of his directing style. An avid chess player, his movies have the measured intellect of a chess player’s moves.

Chess appears as a motif or a plot-device in three of his films, The Killing, Lolita, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001. The story of evolution

Sometime in the distant past, someone or something nudged evolution by placing a monolith on Earth. On Kubrick’s screen, people set out their pieces in neat rows and start to play, only to find that the very chessboard itself reaches out and turns them into pawns in some other, some deeper and less tangible game. . .[2]

Lolita. The Enchanted Hunters and the Hunted Enchanters

“Lolita was Kubrick’s first film to generate major controversy. The book, by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, had been one of the most controversial novels of the century, given its theme, when Kubrick embarked on the project. Chess was a favorite motif of both men. In the film, “Kubrick creates a cinematic chess game, reminiscent of both his earlier films and Nabokov’s novel, that opposes Humbert’s White to Quilty’s Black. Chess, of course, superbly objectifies a state of paranoia and the themes of deception and entrapment; it demands from each player a constant vigilance lest he become the butt of an opponent’s malicious joke.” Thomas Allen Nelson in Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze [3]

Filmmaking and chess analogy

“In the actual making of the movie, the chess analogy becomes more valid. It has to do with tournament chess, where you have a clock and you have to make a certain number of moves in a certain time. If you don’t, you forfeit, even if you’re a queen ahead. You’ll see a grandmaster, the guy has three minutes on the clock and ten moves left. And he’ll spend two minutes on one move, because he knows that if he doesn’t get that one right, the game will be lost. And then he makes the last nine moves in a minute. And he may have done the right thing. Well, in filmmaking, you always have decisions like that. You are always pitting time and resources against quality and ideas.” Kubrick in Rolling Stone interview [4]

Chess as a psychiatrist’s tool

“He could learn more about a person by playing chess with them for an hour than a psychiatrist could learn after a year of therapy…

There’s something very Machiavellian about playing chess. Somebody who really understands the game could create a situation to draw you into a trap, giving up the queen to win the game. He was a master, a real master at creating traps, of feints and illusions. Contrary to that perception, the image we have of Kubrick, that fierce, scowling face, that’s the image he released to the world and it’s something he was very much in control of. Like the Wizard of Oz, Toto goes back and pulls back the curtain and you realize it’s just a little guy pulling some levers.” Matthew Modine on www.theprovince.com [5]

Chess as a mistake preventer

“Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you’re in trouble. When you’re making a film you have to make most of your decisions on the run, and there is a tendency to always shoot from the hip. It takes more discipline than you might imagine to think, even for thirty seconds, in the noisy, confusing, high-pressure atmosphere of a film set, But a few seconds’ thought can often prevent a serious mistake being made about something that looks good at first glance. With respect to films, chess is more useful preventing you from making mistakes than giving you ideas. Ideas come spontaneously and the discipline required to evaluate and put them to use tends to be the real work.” Kubrick in Playboy interview [6]

Meaning of our existence

The most terrifying fact of the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment.

However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

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Kubrick is probably now out in space playing chess with some alien fetus. [7]

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Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) is a documentary where the career and life of Stanley Kubrick is explored through pictures, clips from his films, his old home movies, and comments from his colleagues (narration by Tom Cruise.)

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1. The Original Creators: Stanley Kubrick

2. The Kubrick corner

3. Two views of Lolita

4. 1987 Rolling Stone interview with Stanley Kubrick where he compares aspects of filmmaking to chess

5. Q&A with Dark Knight Rises star Matthew Modine (on www.theprovince.com)

6. Playboy Interview with Eric Nordern, Sep 1968

7. Bill Wall, Stanley Kubrick and chess


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