Regency Chess has a chance encounter – How good are board game cafes?

  Chance & Counters

Last week we paid a visit to a newly opened café in Bristol, Chance & Counters – the first café in Bristol to cater exclusively to board games, created by friends Richard Scarsbrook, Steve Cownie, Alex Ratcliffe and Luke Neal. It’s our intention here at Regency Chess to really reach out to the growing number of establishments that are providing a home for chess, and board games more broadly, within the cosy, vibrant environments of cafés and bars. Whether you’re a board game enthusiast or simply looking for a new experience, the prospect of having a venue to sit down with a group of friends (or strangers!) over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine to play a game of chess, monopoly or whatever you should fancy is an exciting one.


Outside Chance & Counters
Outside Chance & Counters

Nestled at the bottom of Christmas Steps, Bristol, just off Colston Avenue, Chance Encounters looks very much like a standard café, innocuous in its appearance. What stands out, however, is its quirky sign, attached to the side of the building; and, of course, your eyes are immediately drawn to “board game café”. At first it’s a little bit of a curiosity, but when you stop and think about it, it’s very much an obvious direction for a café or bar to go in. When it comes to creating a diverse, dynamic and inspired environment, building it around inherently social activities is a no-brainer.

Upon entry, both Julian and myself were very much impressed; Chance

A huge selection of board games...
A huge selection of board games…

Encounters is an excellent example of how to put such an enterprise to together. Not only were we treated to great customer service, a very friendly and open chat about how the business came together, but we were able to witness the fruits of their hard work paying off first hand. Although it was quiet when we arrived (roughly 10:30 in the morning), we witnessed a steady stream of customers coming in during our time there, all of whom were sampling the games on offer.


The décor is modern and minimalistic, and although it’s still in the early stages of development, it’s clear that the focus is on the interactions of players and of what’s going on across the purpose-built tables. And that, arguably, is exactly where it should be. The vast array of boards games, tastefully and clearly positioned on a wide black shelf in front of the counter, are the centrepiece of the café’s aesthetic. The selection they have on offer is quite eclectic, and there’s certainly something for everyone within their current selection of over three-hundred(!), a number which is sure to grow as the business picks up speed.

Julian versus Ross (Round 1!)
Julian versus Ross (Round 1!)

The time we spent there was fun and interesting, and we even had a chance to chat with one of the owners, Richard Scarsbrook, enjoying our tea and coffee and treating ourselves to a game of chess. Chance & Counters in part comes off the back of Scarsbrook’s own background, writing his MBA dissertation on small businesses – specifically a case study in board game cafés. When asked about the ratio between customers coming in just for a drink or a slice of cake, against those who do so to play a game, he said roughly “95% of customers are gamers”. That’s quite a percentage, and definitely speaks to the demand for such a business and the interest in alternative venues.


Like many small businesses with nascent ideas, the guys turned to Kickstarter in order to fulfil their goal. Crowdfunding campaigns are a great way to assess interest and get yourself off the ground, whilst also rewarding backers for their support. The team set themselves a £10,000 target, but like many of the best campaigns rocketed on past it to over £13,000, allowing them to stock more games and expand the café. The reward tiers included a variety of different membership deals (discounts, lifetime membership, etc.) and more personal rewards, such as having tournaments held in your name, or “thank you” cards within a board game of your choice. The campaign took place over the course of a month – January to February – and in spite of a few inevitable delays, the campaign’s success allowed them to open at the end of May.

The Kasparov Set
The Kasparov Set

For our game of chess, Julian and I opted for the ‘Kasparov Championship Chess Set’. It comes with a sleek, elegant wooden board with nine-centimetre pieces. The game was short, and Julian lost – too busy enjoying his coffee, I should imagine. I’m sure he’ll have a chance to come back in the future. On the subject of coffee, it’s worth noting how reasonably priced the café is for the quality on offer. Lattes and cappuccinos are in the £2 range, tea a very reasonable £1.80 – coming in a narrow mug – with a good selection of affordable wines (which we hope to sample the next time!)

As we were leaving, Scarsbrook was leaning over the table of a young couple playing a board game that was relatively new to them, and he was enthusiastically, and politely, explaining how to play it. The enthusiasm on display is evident and the guys’ passion for their business clear. It’s fantastic that they’ve managed to get this up and running in Bristol, and we highly recommend you pay it a visit the next time you’re in town.

Coffee and Chess
Fun, refreshing, and relaxing – cappuccino and chess!

The Essential Information

Tel: 0117 329 1700




The Digital Chess Masters

Computer Chess
Computer Chess

Having used the onset of summer to probe a handful of New York City’s many sites in which members of the public can meet one another and play a game of chess (or two!) with human partners, we thought we’d look at one of the flip sides to public play: computer chess in the digital era.

Many of the activities that we were once required to actively seek out can now be accessed on a single device. Rather than carry your dog-eared paperback book in your bag, you can carry hundreds of them on a Kindle Fire; similarly, you can just download an app to your phone that allows you to play chess on a bus, a train, or anywhere you like and at any time. And it’s not just a throwaway bit of light entertainment in an age of endless diversions, either. You can have your small, portable chess board with you at all times, playing games of varying lengths against strangers or friends or, more interestingly, the computer itself.


Chess on your iPhone (image courtesy of Arizona-Software
Chess on your iPhone (image courtesy of Arizona-Software)

Digital incarnations of chess have been available for some time now, dating from the mid-70’s, before really picking up the pace and coming to the fore in the 1980’s. But there’s no doubt it has become increasingly widespread in the world of smart phones, laptops and tablets. The game is there at your fingertips, whenever you should wish to match your skills against an artificial opponent. This hasn’t had a discernible impact on sales of chess boards (there will always be a demand for chess boards as a decorative item), but rather it has arguably expanded the game’s influence and, ultimately, made it more accessible to people who might not otherwise have taken an interest in the game. So much of the digital era is catered to accessibility and instant gratification; as a delivery model, it is unsurpassable.

There is also the added advantage of being able to tailor the game to your skill level. Your computer opponent can be tweaked to have different response times in-between moves, and you also have the ability to see what moves each piece can make by clicking on them, should you be new to the game. Other features include undoing moves and being able to trace back your steps, which is perhaps a tidier method of deconstructing the game rather than writing down every move you make as you go. Some apps even have notifications describing certain moves. And almost all of this is happening on smartphones. The possible iterations of chess on mobile devices – the form it can take, the ways in which it can teach and educate, and so on – are infinite. It’s certainly our intention to take a look at several of these apps in the near future to take a closer look at what they have to offer. After all, one of the most important features all of these devices have in common is connectivity. By simply being able to access chess on your smartphone or your tablet puts you into contact with people all over the world, fostering an entire community of novices, experts, and people who simply want to reach out and play the game with someone on the other side of the globe, probably on the bus to work.


The Thing (1982)
The Thing (1982)

When we think of computer chess, our minds go straight to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)…yes, we know, our minds tend to gravitate towards film on a fairly regular basis! But it’s a great example in and of itself, and hey, this is the decade in which computerised chess started to take off! The film’s ambiguous opening sequence begins with a helicopter chasing a husky across the Arctic wilderness, frantically firing at it for reasons as yet unknown to us. We then segue to the American camp, Outpost 31, where life, as yet undisturbed by the coming menace, continues banally – men of various professions are seen reading, playing pool, and doing whatever else they can to chip away at their six month isolation.

One man, Kurt Russell’s R.J MacReady, is sitting alone in his shack (‘alone’ being a condition they won’t want to find themselves in soon enough), playing none other than chess on his computer, with a glass of whisky in his hand. The computer itself, ‘Chess Wizard’, is fictional, but there were many such devices available at the time. There’s a lot of room to explore the relationship of chess to the film itself, but we’ll only take a cursorily look here.

MacReady contemplates his next move...
MacReady contemplates his next move…

First and foremost, it sets up the conflict nicely; throughout the film, MacReady is constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the malevolent alien that has taken human form, in the hope of outsmarting it before it can decimate the camp. Towards the end of his game, MacReady thinks he’s got it sussed – “Poor baby, you’re starting to lose it aren’t you”, only to be beaten with the next move (the film concludes with MacReady defeating the Thing, only to realise his victory is more tenuous than he initially believed). He couldn’t beat the machine, which can process multiple possible moves at once, in a similar fashion to the Thing itself, which has many disguises with which to rely upon. But perhaps what is most interesting is that in this all-male cast, the computer is voiced by a woman (provided by director John Carpenter’s then wife Adrienne Barbeau). “My move, rook to knight six. Checkmate, checkmate.” Displeased with his unexpected defeat, he pours his whisky into the machine, killing it off. “Cheating bitch”, he declares, leaving the shack. It’s a hell of an introduction for the character, and by genderising his opponent – a machine – it establishes the tone of masculinity that runs throughout the course of the story. Genderising and anthropomorphising machines is fairly common, but here it has a particularly interesting part to play – is the Thing itself genderless, or is their nemesis in fact female? I’m not sure Carpenter ever gave it that much thought, but that’s easily one of the delights of film criticism: finding meaning (here at Regency, it’s primarily the role of chess) out of the assemblage of pieces within the film itself. One of the problems with that, coined by the excellent ‘FILM CRIT HULK‘, is avoiding undue extrapolation. Only ever work with what the film gives you!

MacReady's Chess Wizard
MacReady’s Chess Wizard

Although the ‘Chess Wizard” device did not exist, the program MacReady was playing was quite real: a feature of an Apple II computer. According to notes by co-producer Stuart Cohen, the crew tried to capture a shot of MacReady playing the game in real time in a single frame, but this did not work out.



At the time, chess computers were becoming more and more widespread, and were consistently able to defeat strong players. This culminated in the late 1990’s – 1996, in fact – when Deep Blue, a computer designed by IBM, was able to defeat reigning chess champion Garry Kasparov in the first game of their six-match confrontation (however, Kasparov was able to secure overall victory). Following an upgrade to the Deep Blue a year later, Kasparov again came face-to-face with the machine, and he – the world champion – was beaten in a match that applied the standard rules of the game. Kasparov called foul play, and it has been suggested that the match was in part composed in order to boost their market value. A documentary of this was produced in 2003 – Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine. That, however, is a subject for another time, and another post.

As technology continues its rapid expansion, we’re seeing increasingly more powerful computers capable of extraordinary feats, and one wonders if they will reach a point in which “solving chess” – the optimal strategy in which victory can always be attained or at the very least the game forced to a draw – will come from that of an artificial intelligence, and not a human world champion.

I, on the other hand, have been dabbling with a chess app on my Android device, and it has thus far beaten me exactly 81 times! I’ve yet to douse the phone in a glass of whisky, but 100 may prove to be the breaking point…and I’m no Gary Kasparov.

CategoriesRegency Chess Co. News

‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ – Public Spaces & Chess

 Chess in Public

Last week we explored the exceptional documentary Brooklyn Castle and the lives of its incredibly talented young chess players four years on. This week, we’re going to be looking at another film, again ostensibly about chess, but rather than devote the entire post to it, we’re going to use it as a jumping off point for something very different: chess in public spaces, with New York City as our focal point. And with summer just around the corner, the timing couldn’t be better!

Searching for Bobby Fischer

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

In Steven Zaillian’s 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, the young chess master, Josh Waitzkin, played with wonderful sensibility by then eight-year-old Max Pomeranc (at the time of filming, he was in the top 100 U.S chess players), is introduced to the game whilst playing in Washington Square Park. Here he meets Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne), a speed chess hustler who begins teaching Josh unorthodox play styles, much to the chagrin of his mentor, Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley). There are so many directions to take with Zaillian’s debut it was difficult to settle on one topic. We have its biographical roots, the source book having been written by the real-life Waitzkin’s father, Fred Waitzkin (here played by Joe Montegna), a writer for the New York Times. Fred Waitzkin and Bruce Pandolfini alone make fascinating subjects in the world of chess. And then there’s the film’s thematic elements. Searching for Bobby Fischer is totally invested in the question of genius and its place in an individual’s life and is eloquent in its sentimental approach to it. Where does it take us, and is there a cost to that? The quiet pain of Kingsley’s Pandolfini carries the weight of that question as much as Josh Waitzkin does. And, of course, there’s the titular Bobby Fischer, a spectral presence in the film, the oddity of which is more haunting than reassuring in Josh’s journey to realise his potential without sacrificing his decency. And a lot of that comes down to his time playing chess in the park.

Chess in the Park

Josh plays Vinnie in Washington Park
Josh plays Vinnie in Washington Park

New York City and chess are a frequent pairing in cinematic language, and it’s a fairly iconic image. But Fischer takes the time to investigate the nature of playing chess in a public space, and it proves essential to the film’s empathetic core – something its antagonists, singularly obsessed with the game, conspicuously lack. His mother, Bonnie (Joan Allen), is understandably nervous when Josh takes an interest in the park’s players, who are seen gambling for drugs and hustling their opponents. But there’s a vibrancy to the proceedings in the speed at which the games are played, the swelling crowd of spectators, and the systematic breakdown of social barriers as we’re drawn into the game. Josh starts playing there for the love of the game and his love of the people with whom he is playing – a far cry from the halls of the Metropolitan Chess Club. Pandolfini asks if Bonnie and Fred can stop Josh from playing in the park, but having grown to appreciate their worth, Bonnie declines. “No. It’d kill him not to play in the park, he loves it.” The message couldn’t be clearer.

As Chess in NYC’s slogan goes, “More than a game, it’s our culture.”

Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park; Photograph by Alexander Porter
Washington Square Park; Photograph by Alexander Porter

A section of Washington Square Park – a hub for all kinds of public activities –  is decked out in stationary chess tables, and attracts a variety of players from across the social spectrum. There’s something here for everyone to enjoy and become involved in, and again we come back to the idea that ran through Brooklyn Castle – chess takes many forms, but is, above all else, a powerful educational tool. It’s an obvious and perhaps even trite point, but the notion of chess being available to everyone in a delineated public space (for $5 a pop!) engenders a sense of social compassion.

The park went through a series of renovations throughout the 20th century, and saw a $16 million refurbishment in 2007. It has continued to be an enduring icon of New York City. Significantly, Bobby Fischer, much like Waitzkin, played in Washington Park, tutored by his mentor, William Lombardy, who lived close by.

However, Washington Park’s chess culture took a hit a few years ago with the closure of the Village Chess Shop in Greenwich Village (a block down from the park), which had opened its doors in 1972, the year in which Bobby Fischer won the World Championship in a match against the USSR’s Boris Spassky. The store sold a variety of chess-related products, and arguably contributed enormously to New York’s chess scene.

Bryant Park

Manhattan’s Bryant Park, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and 40th and 42nd Street, is another great chess locale. Here, there is a dedicated Bryant Park Games station, where visitors can enrol to play a variety of different games, chief among them for our purposes is chess! This includes Chinese Chess, called Xiangqi, which, whilst bearing many similarities to its Western variant, features some slightly different rules.

Central Park and the Check and Checkers House

Central Park is a must-see destination in Manhattan, which offers, among many other sights, a place to play chess, checkers and backgammon. The Check and Checkers house provides visitors with pieces for games should they wish to play.

An Enduring Legacy

What is perhaps most striking about staging many of the scenes sequences in Washington Square Park, and, more broadly, chess in the public, is that without it, there may not have been a Joshua Waitzkin. There may have been no book, no film, and no enduring legacy in that regard. That’s just speculation, of course. I’m sure there are many ways in which Waitzkin may have discovered chess, but the possibility that his walk through the park could have been experienced sans chess tables does open up the idea that chess and Waitzkin may never have come together. The real-life Waitzkin describes his first experience of encountering chess in the park thusly: “I remember the shape of the pieces, I remember the experience of chess as this jungle that pulled me in, and I remember this feeling, this bizarre feeling, of discovering a lost memory, as if I’d seen chess before.” It’s an interesting and powerful statement, one I think that is suggestive of a child’s ability to immediately latch on to something and begin learning without actually realising it, which is something Waitzkin himself similarly describes. Indeed, Waitzkin dismisses the idea of being a “prodigy”, instead arguing that chess – and anything else, really – is something that anyone can learn, providing they’re willing to put the work in. It’s the 10,000 hour rule – apply a substantial amount of time and effort to a given skill, and you will absolutely master it. Chess permeates the city of New York and creates a kind of cultural memory, a resonance that many people are familiar with, as the game is married to our image of the city. It gave us Joshua Waitzkin, and all the possibilities in which this post could have been.

The opportunity to access that in a public space is absolutely essential, engendering learning, social compassion, and great scenes with Laurence Fishburne and Max Pomeranc moving pieces around the board at a blistering speed!

CategoriesNew Products

New range of croquet sets on sale at Regency Chess Company in the UK

Croquet set
The Townsend Croquet Set

Croquet Set on the lawn




In the past we had offered a small selection of croquet sets, more as a basic side line than anything else. As part of our drive to add more products throughout 2016 we’ve totally over hauled the range on offer. The basic range of sets has now gone and been replaced with the full range of sets offered by Garden Games Limited, a UK based company who offer an excellent range of croquet sets as part of their collection of outdoor games.

We also have plans to add other high quality brands to the range and develop the section on our website further. We feel it’s important that we only offer well made, high quality croquet sets so we’ve picked the range very carefully. The range of sets will all be offered with our super fast shipping and we can ship them all over Europe at highly competitive rates.


A little bit about Croquet

Croquet setsThe game of croquet has been played in some form or other for hundreds of years, in the 1800s it was formalised as the game we now call ‘Croquet’. It remained hugely popular for many years but eventually became eclipsed by tennis. Many croquet lawns were converted into tennis courts and today tennis courts outnumber croquet lawns by quite a margin.

Fun Croquet Facts

  • An early version of Croquet was called ‘Pal Mal’ which loosely translates as ‘Mallet & Ball’ in Latin
  • Wimbledon tennis club started life as a croquet club
  • Croquet as we know it was first played in Britain in 1851
  • John Prescott is alleged to have increased sales of Croquet equipment at Asda by 300% after he was famously caught playing it
  • There is more than one version of the game: Association, Lawn, Garden, Golf, American six wicket, nine wicket and ricochet


CategoriesRegency Chess Co. News

Brooklyn Castle Four Years On – What Are The Students Doing Now?


At first glance, the 2012 documentary Brooklyn Castle is ostensibly a film about chess, and the child stars who come to master it. Intermediate School 318 is a junior high school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with an exemplary chess course, now known throughout the U.S for having secured, at the time of release, no less than 26 national chess titles. That’s an impressive feat for a school classified as a “Title 1 School”, meaning, in the words of former principal Fortunato Rubino, that they “have a poverty level of above sixty percent. Ours is closer to seventy, seventy-five.” Against the odds of their surroundings, chess is a way for these kids to not only understand accomplishment, but to understand aspiration, and that’s something this film absolutely understands.

Playing Chess at I.S.318.
                 Playing Chess at I.S.318.

In this sense, Brooklyn Castle is not a film about chess. It’s about something much larger and more important than that: education. Education, as the film constantly reminds us, has countless permutations, each one judged on the basis of its effectivity in relation to every individual child. In Brooklyn Castle, that permutation is chess, deploying the game as an educational tool in an extraordinary way. Whilst these underprivileged children are able to compete in national chess tournaments across the country (hosted annually by the United States Chess Federation) and win in big and exciting ways, what’s truly special is how the game is used as a springboard to accomplish what may otherwise have been out of reach. Chess has been woven into the lives of these students (and their teachers’), and through it they experience friendship and family, failure and success, and, when it’s all said and done, hope.

Elizabeth Vicary
                    Elizabeth Vicary

Directed by Katie Dellamaggiore, who funded a lot of it herself, the film is an absolute success. When these kids sit down to play chess, the first moves are made with electricity, and pieces vanish from the board with incredible assurance. “The geeks,” as Rubino says, “they are the athletes.” As it should be, given the school is home to some of the best young chess players in the United States. The school’s chess story started in the 90’s when it was decided that its small group of chess devotees should compete in the nationals. In a surprise turn of events, they won. The school is now widely recognised as having the best chess program for a middle-school in the entire country, masterminded by assistant principal John Galvin and chess wizard Elizabeth Vicary.


Life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Their success has not been without its bumps, though, and the point of drama around which the film pivots are the budget cuts that were enforced as a result of the financial crisis towards the end of the last decade. I.S.318 saw 1.3 million dollars taken out of its budget, with the immediate knock-on effect of limiting after-school activities which, as the film indicates, includes more than just chess, but many more essential after-school programs that keep kids going. And the reality is that these cuts keep on coming, too; Brooklyn Castle’s story isn’t bookended with a neat beginning and end. It’s a story that’s still going today.

When the film takes us into the private lives of its young protagonists, we realise how stark that reality can be. They’re all from low income families desperately trying to stay ahead, working day in, day out to keep the lights on and hopefully keep a little extra for their child’s college fund. They don’t have the money to attend state-wide chess tournaments, so the opportunities to travel and experience new places the school offers is a gift none of them take lightly. What makes the film so endearing is that none of this stops the kids from having big, big dreams. Their accomplishment in chess is only the beginning; it gives them the aspiration to achieve more, and it’s this idea that the film always doubles down on. Vicary, their chess teacher, emphasises the nebulous nature of chess as a subject. There’s no clear right or wrong in the game. And so when she says, “[It’s] very hard to know what that best move is”, you can’t help but extrapolate that statement to life itself, and ultimately to what these kids really need.

Where are they now?

Although the film follows five students, we thought we’d check in on three of them and see where they’re at now, four-five years after filming.


Rochelle Ballantyne

Rochelle Ballantyne
                    Rochelle Ballantyne

The timid, eager, and unassuming Rochelle Ballantyne was only 13-years-old at the time of filming, but distinguished herself as the best chess player in the school. Now, she holds a scholarship to Stanford University, and is on track to becoming the country’s first African-American chess “master”. It’s a goal that is nurtured throughout the film, as she weighs up the demands of fulfilling her dream and the ordinary, but no less important, demands of high school. Rochelle manages to find the line and walk it.




Alexis Paredes

Alexis (2)
Alexis Paredes

The smart and talented Alexis Paredes dreams of becoming a lawyer or a doctor, of making it big so he can live a good life and provide some financial relief to his South American parents. The trials and tribulations of parenthood are a running theme throughout the film, and it always draws attention to the quiet heroism of mom and dad. Unlike in Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), chess doesn’t alienate parent and child – it brings them together. Paredes is now a chess instructor and studying political science and government at the University of Albany.





 Oghenakpobo ‘Pobo’ Efekoro

Oghenakpobo ‘Pobo’ Efekoro
           Oghenakpobo ‘Pobo’ Efekoro

And there’s Oghenakpobo ‘Pobo’ Efekoro, keeping the team together with open, honest intelligence and an easy going charm and grace. Born to Nigerian parents, Pobo had never left New York state until he was afforded the opportunity to do so by I.S.318’s chess program. Pobo’s charm is infectious, to both the audience and students alike, and his success has far exceeded his evident skill at chess. After becoming student president during the course of the film (with the campaign slogan “Pobobama”), Pobo has gone on to study Foreign Affairs and Sociology at the University of Virginia, and is a star player on their track and field team.



Their aspirations know no limit, and their enormous success at chess gives them the hope they need to aspire to them. Their accomplishment feeds their aspiration, teaching them that it is entirely possible to fulfil their dreams. It’s not difficult to stress how important the chess program has clearly been for the students at I.S.318, both those in the film and those we don’t get to meet, but who are surely reaping the benefits of such a meticulously planned, and carefully supervised, activity such this chess program. It teaches patience, goal-oriented thinking, how to plan, logic – all of which are essential attributes that can be taught in a variety of ways. It just so happens it was chess.


CategoriesRegency Chess Co. News

Chess in Film

Chess in Film

Chess has always possessed a cinematic quality, making the game a popular recurring feature, prop or motif in the history of film. It has been used by film-makers for decades to denote logic and intelligence, craftsmanship and art, and power and class. This is, of course, to say nothing of the films devoted to chess in and of itself – for instance, the superb Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), and the award-winning Brooklyn Castle (2012).

But when we think of chess and film, there’s a tendency to gravitate towards those works that utilise the game in specific ways. This can either be in a singular, resonate moment where chess is meant to exemplify a conflict (see Bryan Singer’s X-Men, 2000) or as a thematic through line, demonstrated in some of the films we will be exploring in this post.

The Seventh Seal – 1956

The first film, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1956), features one of the most iconic images in cinema: Max von Sydow’s fearful, disillusioned knight facing the striking figure of Beng Ekerot’s Death incarnate over a game of chess with a very unusual chess set.

Block challenges Death to a game of chess.
Block challenges Death to a game of chess.

Instead of yielding to Death on the shores of his homeland, medieval knight Antonius Block challenges Death to a game. If he should win, he proposes, he can go free, and if he should lose, then he will willingly accept his fate. Amused by this proposition, Death agrees. But it is not Death that Block fears. It is the fear of having lived a meaningless existence, with nothing but a series of violent crusades behind him and a plague-ridden land ahead. Their game of chess, from its physical manifestation as a board and pieces to its symbolic significance, subsequently becomes the literal object between life and death. It is a temporary measure enacted by Block in an errant attempt to secure for himself the faith that he has lost. Every move matters, either moving him further, or closer to, a fate he gradually comes to accept as inevitable.

Whilst we witness the pair playing the game three times over the course of the film, it pays little to no attention to the chronology of the game itself, as has been noted by Stuart Reuben. However, intentional or not, the arbitrariness of the board’s pieces plays perfectly into the film’s hands. Block’s pursuit of meaning, be it incarnated in God, the Devil, or the heavens, is heavily suggestive of his desire to at least be a pawn, not a knight, in a grander scheme. His quest homeward takes him through the hierarchy of medieval society. His only companion at the beginning of the film is his squire, but he eventually acquires a family of struggling performers, a blacksmith and his wife, and a poor peasant girl. They are all inexorably swept up in his journey, their fates, save for the performers, tied to his. The lack of continuity on the chess board is thematically convenient for the film’s suggestion that in the tailspin of existence, there is no end but death.

No matter the move he makes, the game is always skewed to favour Death. Block manages to spare the life of the family by allowing them to escape whilst Death has his back turned. This qualifies as his meaningful act – one chosen willingly as opposed to divinely ordained – but still prays for himself and his doomed companions when Death finally closes in and the game comes to an end.

The Dance of Death.
The Dance of Death.

Blade Runner – 1982

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is another film that explores the question of a meaningful existence, albeit one set in a dystopian future as opposed to the unforgiving dark ages. Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is hired to hunt down and ‘retire’ a group of artificial beings called ‘replicants’. They have returned to Earth in order to find the man responsible for their creation, Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkell), and prolong their limited four-year life-span. In order to reach him they acquire the services of one of Tyrell’s geneticists, J.F Sebastian (William Sanderson).


Batty examines Sebastian's chess game.
Batty examines Sebastian’s chess game.

Sebastian is locked in a chess game with his superior, remarking that he’s only ever been able to beat Tyrell once. It is Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), one of Tyrell’s own replicants, who succeeds in securing victory. Blade Runner, like The Seventh Seal, is a film that has been the subject of vast amounts of film criticism and interrogation. This likewise goes for its use of chess, which has been compared to the famous ‘Immortal Game’ between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky in 1851 (Scott has apparently denied this).

Whatever the case for that comparison may be, Blade Runner’s chess game is arguably about power, and the exertion of that power over life and death. Tyrell holds both Batty and Sebastian’s future in his hands, to the extent that in Batty’s case, it is a matter of his mortality. He has succeeded in creating a being who can overcome him in intelligence, but Batty’s maker, his ‘God’, so to speak, is unable and unwilling to extend the replicants’ existence. The replicants are desperate in their pursuit to be something more than just pawns to human hands. And when science can no longer satisfy that need, they must rely on what little time they have left – on their experiences – to do so. In the end, Batty is hunted down by Deckard, but quickly turns the tables, and the hunter becomes the hunted. “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?” Batty remarks, holding Deckard’s life in his hands as he dangles from a rooftop.


Tyrell is taken by surprise at Sebastian's sudden move.
Tyrell is taken by surprise at Sebastian’s sudden move.

The book on which the film is based, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), places a far greater emphasis on animals and the status they denote to their owners. To possess a real animal is to acquire a higher status than one with an artificial animal. Acquiring a living, breathing animal with blood running through its veins is the prime motivator for Deckard, so he may replace his robotic sheep. This theme is generally absent from Scott’s film. It is only mentioned when Deckard visits Tyrell’s office and encounters a synthetic owl. On asking if it is artificial, he is countered with, “Of course it is.”

It is interesting to note, then, that the grand and baroque chess sets used by Tyrell and Sebastian are markedly different – one with human pieces, the other with animal pieces. Whilst Tyrell’s pieces are definitively human in form, Sebastian’s are ornate birds. In keeping with Blade Runner’s flirtation with noir and history, they are both anachronistic sets, but defer separate meanings on their owners. Tyrell is transfixed on the human form and likely spends more time in the company of human beings than he does replicants, but much of Sebastian’s old-world apartment is artificial and, ultimately, lonely. He does not have the luxury of owning an artificial owl as Tyrell does (let alone a real one, should they even still exist) and instead must marvel at their image on his chess board.

This post only examines in brief the potentialities of theme chess represents in these films, and only covers two to boot. There are many examples, perhaps not all of which are equally as interesting, but will very likely always serve as functional, thematic features appropriated for the cinematic medium.