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Chess in the arts

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Honoré Daumier (1863), The Chess Players
In 1975, former President of Pakistan Zulfi Bhutto gifted a carved ivory set of chess to the former United States President Gerald Ford.

Chess became a source of inspiration in the arts in literature soon after the spread of the game to the Arab World and Europe in the Middle Ages. The earliest works of art centered on the game are miniatures in medieval manuscripts, as well as poems, which were often created with the purpose of describing the rules. After chess gained popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries, many works of art related to the game were created. One of the best-known,[1] Marco Girolamo Vida's poem Scacchia ludus, written in 1527, made such an impression on the readers that it singlehandedly inspired other authors to create poems about chess.[1]

In the 20th century, artists created many works related to the game, sometimes taking their inspiration from the life of famous players (Vladimir Nabokov in The Defense) or well-known games (Poul Anderson in Immortal Game, John Brunner in The Squares of the City). Some authors invented new chess variants in their works, such as stealth chess in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series or Tri-Dimensional chess in the Star Trek series.


10th to 18th century[edit]

Some of the earliest examples of chess-related art are medieval illustrations accompanying books or manuscripts, such as this chess problem from the 1283 Libro de los juegos.
Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game, 1555, National Museum, Poznań, Poland

Palatine Chapel in the Norman Palace in Palermo you can admire the first painting of a chess game that is known to the world. The work dates from around 1143 and the artists who created the Muslim players were chosen by the Norman king of Sicily Roger II of Hauteville, who erected the church.

The earliest known reference to chess in a European text is a Medieval Latin poem, Versus de scachis. The oldest manuscript containing this poem has been given the estimated date of 997.[2] Other early examples include miniatures accompanying books. Some of them have high artistic value. Perhaps the best known example is the 13th-century Libro de los juegos. The book contains 151 illustrations, and while most of them are centered on the board, showing problems, the players and architectural settings are different in each picture.[3]

Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles or the Book of Chess (1473)

Another early illustrated text is the Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles or the Book of Chess (Latin: Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum) which is based on the sermons of Jacopo da Cessole and was first published in 1473.[4]

The pieces illustrating chess problems in Luca Pacioli's manuscript On the Game of Chess (Latin: De ludo scacchorum, c. 1500) are described as "futuristic even by today's standards"[5] and may have been designed in collaboration with Leonardo da Vinci.[6]

After chess became gradually more popular in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, especially in Spain and Italy, many artists began writing poems using chess as a theme.[7] Chess of love (Catalan: Scachs d'amor), written by an unknown artist in the end of the 15th century, describes a game between Mars and Venus, using chess as an allegory of love. The story also serves as a pretence to describe the rules of the game. De ludo scacchorum (unrelated to the manuscript mentioned above) by Francesco Bernardino Caldogno [it], also created at that time, is a collection of gameplay advice, presented in poetic fashion.[8][9]

One of the most influential[1] works of chess-related art is Marco Girolamo Vida's Scaccia ludus (1527), centered on a game played between Apollo and Mercury on Mount Olympus. It is said that, because of its high artistry, the poem made a great impression on anyone who read it, including Desiderius Erasmus.[1] It also directly inspired at least two other works.[10] The first is Jan Kochanowski's poem Chess (c. 1565), which describes the game as a battle between two armies, while the second is William Jones' Caissa, or the game of chess (1772). The latter poem popularised the pseudo-ancient Greek dryad Caïssa to be the "goddess of chess".[10]

19th century onwards[edit]

Chess Set by Man Ray
Bauhaus chess set by Josef Hartwig

Since the 19th century, artists have been creating novels and – since the 20th century – films related to chess. Sometimes, they are inspired by famous games, like John Brunner's The Squares of the City, structured after the famous match between Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin; Poul Anderson's short story Immortal Game, inspired by the 1851 game played by Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky (which also appears in the film Blade Runner); or Waldemar Łysiak's Szachista (Polish: The Chess Player), centered on a game played between Napoleon Bonaparte and The Turk. The game Frank Poole versus HAL 9000 from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey is also based on an actual match, albeit not widely known.[11]

Other artists have drawn their inspiration from the life of players. Vladimir Nabokov wrote The Defense after learning about Curt von Bardeleben,[12] while the musical Chess was loosely based on the life of Bobby Fischer.[13] Some authors invented new chess variants in their works, such as stealth chess in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series or Tri-Dimensional chess in the Star Trek series.

Another connection between art and chess is the life of Marcel Duchamp, who almost fully suspended his artistic career to focus on chess in 1923.[14] Salvador Dalí and Man Ray were also chess players and both designed chess sets.[15] The three artists played chess together, and one of the chess sets designed by Dalí is called Echecs (Hommage à Marcel Duchamp).[16][17] Duchamp's 1910 painting The Chess Game depicts his brothers Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon playing chess in the garden of Villon's studio.[18] Another Duchamp painting from the following year again depicts his brothers at the chess table.[19] Duchamp wrote a book titled Opposition and Sister Squares Are Reconciled which was published in 1932.[20] Man Ray and Duchamp are seen playing chess in René Clair's film Entr'acte.[21] A book titled Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess was published in 2009.[22]

Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris were also chess players, and both made many references to the game in their work.[23][24]

The design of Bauhaus professor Josef Hartwig's early 1920s chess set uses the shape of each piece to indicate its permitted movement.

Artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Barbara Kruger, Damien Hirst, Gavin Turk,[25] Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tim Noble and Sue Webster,[26] Rachel Whiteread, Paul McCarthy, Tom Friedman,[27] and Tracey Emin have also either designed chess sets or made works that reference the game.[28][29]

In literature[edit]

Georgian writers, Ilia Chavchavadze and Ivane Machabeli playing chess in Saint Petersburg, 1873


"White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves." Table of contents of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1871)


Short stories[edit]



In film and television[edit]

Feature films, short films and made-for-TV films[edit]

A Chess Dispute (1903)

Television series[edit]

In painting[edit]

As the popularity of the game became widespread during the 15th and 16th centuries, so too did the number of paintings depicting the subject.[40] Continuing into the 20th century, artists created works related to the game often taking inspiration from the life of famous players or well-known games. An unusual connection between art and chess is the life of Marcel Duchamp, who in 1923 almost fully suspended his artistic career to focus on chess.[41][42][43]

Jean Metzinger, Soldat jouant aux échecs (Soldier at a Game of Chess), detail chessboard and table
Juan Gris, September 1915, Jeu d'échecs (The Checkerboard), oil on canvas, 92.1 x 73 cm, Art Institute of Chicago (detail)
Juan Gris, 1917, Chessboard, Glass, and Dish, Philadelphia Museum of Art (detail)

In video games[edit]

  • Parasite Eve II (2000) features GOLEMs, villainous genetically enhanced cyborg super soldiers that are divided into different types named after chess pieces: Pawn GOLEMs, Rook GOLEMs, Knight GOLEMs, and Bishop GOLEMs, plus a unique leader known as No. 9 (King GOLEM).
  • Killer7 (2005)
  • Deadly Premonition (2010)
  • Baba Is You (2019) features the objects Pawn and Knight in its level editor.

In music[edit]

RZA at a Hip Hop Chess Federation Tournament

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Litmanowicz (1974), p. 13
  2. ^ Gamer, Helena M. (1954). "The Earliest Evidence of Chess in Western Literature: The Einsiedeln Verses". Speculum. 29 (4): 734–750. doi:10.2307/2847098. JSTOR 2847098. S2CID 162079385.
  3. ^ Sonja Musser Golladay (2007). "Los Libros de Acedrex Dados E Tablas: Historical, Artistic and Metaphysical Dimensions of Alfonso X's Book of Games". University of Arizona. Archived from the original on 2011-07-17. Retrieved 6 August 2010.
  4. ^ The Immortal Game: A History of Chess
  5. ^ Raymond Keene (10 March 2008). "Renaissance chess master and the Da Vinci decode mystery". The Times. Retrieved 2022-12-04.
  6. ^ "Experts link Leonardo da Vinci to chess puzzles in Renaissance treatise". Winnipeg Free Press. 14 March 2008. Retrieved 4 August 2010.
  7. ^ Litmanowicz (1974), p. 11
  8. ^ Litmanowicz (1974), p. 12
  9. ^ a b "Elenco romanzi e racconti sul gioco degli scacchi" [List of novels and short stories on chess]. Terni Scacchi (in Italian). Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 2 August 2010.
  10. ^ a b Litmanowicz (1974), p. 14
  11. ^ Roesch vs Willi Schlage (1910) in chessgames.com
  12. ^ Tim Krabbé. "Open chess diary 1–20 (entry 3)". Tim Krabbé's blog. Retrieved 4 August 2010.
  13. ^ Harold C. Schonberg (8 May 1998). "Does Anyone Make a Bad Move In 'Chess'?". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-27.
  14. ^ Marcadé, Bernard (2007). "XIX CHESS MANIAQUE A BUENOS AIRES". Marcel Duchamp : la vie à crédit : biographie (in French). [Paris]: Flammarion. ISBN 978-2-08-068226-0. OCLC 319214976.
  15. ^ "Dont forget. Marcel Duchamp. A game of chess with Man Ray and Dalí". Murcia Today. Retrieved 2022-12-03.
  16. ^ Dalí, Salvador. "Echecs (Hommage à Marcel Duchamp)". Christie's. Retrieved 2022-12-03.
  17. ^ "Imagery of chess exhibition brochure, Duchamp Research Portal". www.duchamparchives.org. Retrieved 2022-12-03.
  18. ^ "The Chess Game". philamuseum.org. Retrieved 2022-12-03.
  19. ^ "Portrait of Chess Players". philamuseum.org. Retrieved 2022-12-03.
  20. ^ Castle, Jack (2020-03-31). "'Finding the right move': Marcel Duchamp and his passion for chess". Christie's. Retrieved 2022-12-14.
  21. ^ "René Clair. Entr'acte. 1924 | MoMA". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 2022-12-04.
  22. ^ Oisteanu, Valery (2009-11-05). "Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess". The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved 2022-12-03.
  23. ^ Picasso, Pablo. "Chess, Paris, autumn 1911". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 2022-12-03.
  24. ^ Gris, Juan. "Chessboard, Glass, and Dish". Philadelphia Museum of Art. Retrieved 2022-12-03.
  25. ^ Turk, Gavin. "The Mechanical Turk". Christie's. Retrieved 2022-12-04.
  26. ^ "Tim Noble & Sue Webster – DeadAlive, 2012". www.timnobleandsuewebster.com. Retrieved 2022-12-04.
  27. ^ "Yayoi Kusama, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Paul McCarthy and Tom Friedman star in The Art of Chess | art | Agenda | Phaidon". www.phaidon.com. Retrieved 2022-12-04.
  28. ^ "7 Chess Sets Designed by Famous Artists". Widewalls. Retrieved 2022-12-03.
  29. ^ "Checkmates: how artists fell in love with chess". the Guardian. 2012-09-06. Retrieved 2022-12-04.
  30. ^ Arthur C. Clarke. "Quarantine". IBM. Retrieved 2 August 2010.
  31. ^ Dario Salvi (2017). Richard Genée's The Royal Middy (Der Seekadett). Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 9781527505292.
  32. ^ Bell, Steve; Gorce, Tammy La (2016-12-02). "Which Famous Actor Hustled Chess Games in New York City?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-12-17.
  33. ^ Christie, Ian (2000). A "Matter of Life and Death". London: British Film Institute. p. 77. ISBN 0-8517-0479-4. A chess game as a metaphor for the struggle for life eleven years before Bergman's The Seventh Seal: to Powell and Pressburger the idea may have been suggested by the death of Alekhine in 1946, the very year in which they made this film.
  34. ^ "The Actual Chess Endgame in the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Movie". The-Leaky-Cauldron.org. Retrieved 2023-12-10.
  35. ^ "The Jeremy Silman (Harry Potter position) – Chess Forums". Chess.com. Retrieved 2023-12-10.
  36. ^ hbo.com
  37. ^ "The Saga of Noggin the Nog". BFI Screenonline. Retrieved 31 July 2010.
  38. ^ "Columbo: Season 2, Episode 7". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2024-02-20.
  39. ^ Heisler, Steve (15 August 2011). "The West Wing: "Hartsfield's Landing"". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 2021-12-28.
  40. ^ Władysław Litmanowicz, Dykteryjki i ciekawostki szachowe (Chess trivia and anecdotes), in Polish. Warsaw: Sport i Turystyka. 1974, pp. 11–27
  41. ^ "Marcel Duchamp." Kynaston McShine.1989.
  42. ^ ""Becoming Duchamp" by Sylvère Lotringer". Toutfait.com. Retrieved 2014-05-11.
  43. ^ Brady, Frank: Bobby Fischer: profile of a prodigy, Courier Dover Publications, 1989; p. 207.
  44. ^ ""Becoming Duchamp" by Sylvère Lotringer". Toutfait.com. Archived from the original on 12 March 2013. Retrieved 11 May 2014.
  45. ^ Wilkinson, Roy (July 1997). "One of these men is God". Select: 60.

Further reading[edit]

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