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Chess in Pop Culture

Photo by Jeff Dahl (via Wikimedia Commons)

You may not be well versed in the world of chess, but a quick look around you will show that chess is everywhere. T.V., books, movies, music, even fashion. Don’t believe it? Well, here are a few examples of chess in pop culture that will prove you wrong.

Chess in T.V.

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Showcase’s “Endgame” follows former chess champion Arkady Balagan as he assists the police in the solving of crimes. After his own wife is murdered, Arkady develops Agoraphobia, restricting him to the hotel that he lives in. From the confines of his room, Arkady plays a crucial part in the investigation of local murders. His background in chess helps him, as logic, strategy, and foresight are very important in police work.

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In  “Mulch Ado About Nothing”, an episode of the popular Disney Channel series “The Suite Life on Deck,” Bailey’s old boyfriend, Moose, comes aboard the ship. Afraid that Moose might win Bailey’s heart once again, Cody challenges Moose to a series of competitions. Though most of these challenges are physical, the final competition is a game of chess. Chess, in this instance, represents cunning and wit. Bailey falls for the man with intellectual versus physical strength.

Endgame and “Mulch Ado About Nothing” both utilize chess as symbols and motifs in their respective show. Star Trek also uses chess in this fashion, however due to its futuristic nature, the show has created a whole new game. Tri-D Chess, three dimensional chess, was first seen in Season 1 of Star Trek: The Original Series and then subsequently throughout the following spin offs. The rules are very similar to regular chess except that moves can be made upwards or downwards to another plane. Pieces also begin on specifically designated areas of the gaming structure.

Screenshot from Star Trek, Season 1 Episode 20, "Court Martial". Copyright of Star Trek (via Wikipedia)


Chess in Movies

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The X-Men movie franchise, also uses chess as a signifier of the ideological conflict between Professor Charles Xavier, founder of the “X-Men” and his frenemy, Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a Magneto. In the second movie in the series, X2, Professor Xavier  visits imprisoned Magneto where they play a game of chess, using a clear plastic set, while discussing serious matters. The game is echoed in the 2011 prequel X-Men: First Class. Chess is also used to allude to Magneto’s return to power at the end of X-Men: Last Stand. His chess partner dead. Magneto is seen dressed as an old man playing chess by himself in a park. Without touching it, he nudges a metallic chess pieces forward.

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In the beloved romantic comedy Pretty Woman,  Vivian Ward is hired by Edward Lewis, a powerful businessman, as an escort for various social functions over the course of a week. During one memorable scene, they engage in a chess match where Vivian convinces Edward to take the day off and spend time with her. Here, chess is not used as a symbol of intelligence, but a vehicle for flirtation. Vivian attracts Edward by asserting her dominance through chess.

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Much like its use in Pretty Woman, chess represents flirtation and a substitution for sex in Breaking Dawn: Part 1, the undeniably explosive fourth movie in the Twilight series. Newlyweds Edward and Bella honeymoon off the coast of Brazil. Edward, though, doesn’t want to have sex, for fear of hurting the human Bella with his vampire strength. Instead, the two play chess as a substitute.

Artwork by Robert McCall. Copyright of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. (via predictabilityofstupidity-alfindeol.blogspot.com)

The 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is about a mission in space with an advanced computer system called HAL, voiced by Douglas Rain. During the space mission, one of the astronauts, Frank, played by Gary Lockwood, plays a game of chess against HAL. Just like in “X Men,” the game of chess is a battle of the mind, calling to question who would win in a fight between Humankind and machines.

Chess in Literature

In the first book of the classic young adult series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry and Ron engage in a game of Wizard’s Chess. Wizard’s Chess is no different from regular chess except that the pieces are enchanted alive. One plays by calling out moves to the chess pieces. Although whether or not they will listen can be tricky. Initially an innocent game between friends, the stakes are raised when Harry and Ron must play for their lives in an larger-than-life version enchanted by Professor McGonagall to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone, proving that Wizard’s Chess is more than just a game. Below is a translation of the game that was created for the 2001 movie.

Copyright of Puffin Books (via Wikipedia)

The beloved young adult book, The Westing Game, opens with the death of Sam Westing, millionaire eccentric of His will brings together his 16 “heirs” to compete in a contest to inherit his fortune and company, Westing Paper Products. Along with the 4th of July and costumes, chess was one of Westing’s favorite pastimes. It is an overlaying theme throughout the story, showing up in clues and character developments. At one point, Judge J.J. Ford, who played against Sam as a a little girl, finds herself playing chess with an unknown person within the Westing mansion. The opponent is later revealed to be Sandy McSouthers.

Chessboard Countryside from "Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There". ImageBy ???? ??????? (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

In the innovative classic writing, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Alice returns to Wonderland. Seeking a way back home, she finds that she must travel across a large chess board and become a Queen. Along the way, she encounters many creatures, good and bad that resemble chess pieces. Alice, merely a pawn at first, moves from square to square across the board, which are fields, divided by streams. Whenever she crosses into another square, the plot advances. Chess, then, is a visible theme in Through the Looking-Glass, which can be compared to the theme of cards he used in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This, again, testifies to the argument that chess is more than just a game.

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Chess in Music

Chess is often used as a symbol or motif in song lyrics as well.This is especially apparent in Jay-Z’s song This Life Forever, off of the soundtrack album for the movie Black Gangster. He specifically references the game here: Poppa raised me to chess moves

And though you’re gone I’m not bitter you left me prepared

We got divided by the years, but I got it from here

Don’t sweat that, sounds bump from Marcy to Lefrak

To that pocket in DC where my man caught his death at

Over my years I’ve seen Rooks get tooken by the Knight

Lose they Crown by tryna defend a Queen

Checkmate, in 4 moves the Bobby Fischer of rap You can hear it here: YouTube Preview Image In 1963, Bob Dylan wrote the song A Pawn in Their Game, about the slaying of civil rights activist, Medgar Evers. By alluding to Evers as a “pawn”, Dylan comments on the role his death played in the bigger battle of the Civil Rights Movement. In chess, pawns have little power and are often sacrificed in protection of more powerful pieces. The imagery of chess in this song can also allude to the white vs. black racial tensions of this time. Here is a snippet of the original song: YouTube Preview Image This definition of “pawn” can also be seen in Black Sabbath’s anti-war song, War Pigs. The lyrics suggest that politicians and people of power send soldiers out to war, controlling them like pawns on a chessboard, and treating war like a game. YouTube Preview Image Chess is also a 1984 musical by Tim Rice loosely based on “The Match of the Century” between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. The story revolves around the rivalry between Freddie Trumper, the American chess delegate, and Anatoly Sergievsky, his Soviet counterpart. Interestingly, the plot of Chessdiffers between the original West End production in London and the Broadway production in New York.

Chess in Fashion and Advertising

In 2010, Dutch designer clothing company, G-Star RAW, featured top ranked Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen in their Fall/Winter ad campaign. G-Star RAW states that Carlsen’s “uncompromising approach to the game [of chess] mirrors G-Star’s own hardcore design philosophy.” In addition to the ad campaign, the clothing company organized the RAW World Chess Challenge, which pit Carlsen against a “World Team” of 70,000 players, led by three grandmasters. While Carlsen is the top ranked Grandmaster, he is not the World Chess Champion. This match and his ultimate win created a platform to prove that he was the world’s best chess player.

Master fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s Spring/ Summer collection of 2005 featured chess in a very unique way. The show, titled It’s Only a Game, took place on a large chess board. Each model was wearing clothing meant to represent a specific piece on the chess board. The show ends with a checkmate and blackout, a finale to the dramatic swell of music as the show progressed. In McQueen’s own words,

“In this collection the idea of the chess game meant that we looked at six different types of women, women on opposing sides. We had the Americans facing the Japanese and the redheads facing the tanned Latinos.”

Design by Alexander McQueen (via The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

 When looking at the show, it is clear which ensembles take the lead. One of the more iconic pieces in the collection was McQueen’s interpretation of the Knight. This garment, made of leather and horsehair, consists of a structured bodice with a free-flowing skirt. The headpiece, which is also composed of leather, features a bit, the part of a horses reins that enter the mouth. The model’s hair is pulled out of the top of the headpiece, meant to look like a horse’s tail.

Design by Alexander McQueen (via The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Another piece that stands out from the rest in the collection is the dramatic interpretation of the queen. McQueen, taking influence from medieval royal dress, crafted a short dress for the queen’s of each opposing side. The shoulder’s broad, asserting dominance, make reference to the queen’s immense power in the game of chess.

Design by Alexander McQueen (via The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

One of the most interesting pieces is McQueen’s interpretation of the king. Dressed in an American football ensemble covered in traditional Japanese tattooing, this look brings a masculine energy to the board.

For a better look at the rest of the show, or if you are just interested in seeing how a chess fashion show could possibly work, you can take a look right here!

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