Capablanca in the Movies: Chess Fever (1925)

Capablanca in the Movies: Chess Fever (1925)

NM SamCopeland

Like many, I'm a huge fan of cinema. Last year, I completed a personal challenge to watch all of the Best Picture winners from 1927-today Smile The best? I unoriginally stand by "The Godfather". The worst? Unquestionably 1933's "Cavalcade" - there is a reason it is the only Best Picture winner not distributed on DVD Frown

Like many chess players, I'm not a huge fan of the depiction of chess in cinema. Illogical and incorrect chess scenes are quite a trope in the movies. My personal favorite trope is the "check, check, check, checkmate" dialogue in which two players seem to always be able to parry a check with another check.

There are a few excellent chess movies in existence. Of course, everyone knows "Searching for Bobby Fischer". My favorite by far is "Brooklyn Castle". "Geri's Game" is also an outstanding and Academy Award winning short, and I'm very excited for "Pawn Sacrifice" (trailer below) which is coming out later this year. I think the trailer shows great promise despite falling into quite a few Oscar trailer cliches as depicted by Cracked.


A movie you may not yet have seen is 1925's "Chess Fever" by director Pudovkin. This is a Soviet silent film about a young man who is so consumed by chess that he finds himself neglecting all other aspects of his life including his fiance. The movie is quite a good representation of the silent film era. It shares a visual style, humor, and typically hapless protaganist with the classic works of Buster Keaton (do yourself a favor and watch Sherlock Jr. now!) and Charlie Chaplin. The film has some excellent site gags (the scene with the cats and the flyers in particular) that support the depiction of the protaganist's all consuming passion for chess. For chess players, the best part may be the final minutes in which Capablanca arrives and plays the role of the hero. Capablanca is remarkably good on screen; he presents an excellent face for chess.

There are also many cameos by other chess players including Frank Marshall, Richard Reti, Frederick Yates, and Ernst Gruenfeld. All these players were competing at the 1925 Moscow tournament which was eventually won by Bogoljubov ahead of Lasker and Capablanca. Bogoljubov's victory at Moscow was one of his better ones, and it helped him achieve a World Championship match against Alekhine in 1929. Unfortunately, he was duly crushed in the match by a score of 15.5-9.5.

As a 90 year old classic, the entirety of Chess Fever is available on YouTube, and it is well worth watching. The whole movie is only 20 minutes long, typical for the silent movie era in which the 90-120 minute feature length standard had not yet been set.