Stanley Kubrick and Chess
Stanley Kubrick was born on July 28, 1928 in the Bronx, USA. His father, Jack (Jacques) Kubrick, was a medical doctor. His mother, Gertrude, encouraged him to read and study.
His father, Jack, taught Stanley how to play chess in 1941, when Stanley was 12. Stanley quickly became a skilled chess player and chess hustler in Central Park.
Jack gave Stanley a camera for his 13th birthday. Stanley became an avid photographer.
At the age of 16, he snapped a photograph of a news vendor in New York the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died (April 12, 1945). He sold the photograph to Look magazine for $25, which printed it. At the time, he was a student at Taft High School, which he attended from 1941 to 1945. He was unable to go to college after World War II because of bad grades.
At the age of 17, he was offered a job as an apprentice photographer for Look magazine.
During this time, Stanley was playing in chess tournaments at the Marshall and Manhattan Chess Clubs. He was also playing in the parks such as Washington Square in Greenwich, near MacDougal and West 4th Streets, for money as a chess hustler. He knew when to get a park chess table in the shade during the day and a table under the lights at night. He played chess for 12 hours a day, playing chess for quarters. He was friends with Grandmaster Larry Evans (1932-2010). Kubrick made about $20 a week hustling chess.
It was at the Marshall Chess Club that Kubrick met Alton Cook, a film critic for the New York Telegram and Sun. This got Kubrick interested in making movies and finding the right contacts.
In 1948, he married Toba Etta Metz. They were divorced in 1951.
In 1950, Stanley quit his job at Look and moved to Greenwich Village where he made his first movie, called Day of the Fight (1951). It was a 16 minute documentary. He had been publishing a photo essay of boxing for Look magazine at the time, called the Prizefighter.
Kubrick was a regular at the Manhattan Chess Club in the 1950s and played in a few rapid chess tournaments at the club. He played mostly offhand games and never participated in any other tournaments. At the time, his favorite opening was 1.b4 – the Orangutan.
This was followed by Flying Padre (1952) which he sold to RKO.
In 1952, he directed The Seafarers (1952).
In 1953, he moved to Hollywood, California and made Fear and Desire (1953). His uncle financed the movie.
In 1954, he married Ruth Sobotka. They were divorced in 1957. Also in 1954, he formed his own production company with James B. Harris.
In 1955, he made Killer's Kiss, which was privately funded.
In 1956, he wrote the screenplay for The Killing (also called Bed of Fear), based on a novel (Clean Break) by Lionel White. This was his first movie with chess in it. After getting out of Alcatraz prison after 5 years, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) masterminds a race-track heist (filmed at Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo) to steal $2 million. Clay goes to the Academy of Chess and Checkers looking for a buddy of his. He passes by several chess games in progress until he reaches one being overseen and kibitzed by big 250 pound Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani (1903-1980)). The club is run by a guy named Fischer. Clay interrupts the kibitzing to talk to Maurice. They go to an empty chess table by the window where Clay offers Maurice $2,500 to start a fight diversion for a robbery at the race track. When Clay asks Maurice how's life been treating him, Maurice says, "About the same as always. When I need some money, I go out and wrestle. But mostly I'm up here, wasting my time playing chess. But I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I didn't have this place to go to."
The Academy of Chess and Checkers was a mock up of the 42nd Street Chess and Checker Parlor in Manhattan, also known as the Flea House. Both Kola and Stanley were regular chess players there.
A mistake in the chess scene is when Maurice is kibitizing the game, he mentions a bishop move. That's impossible since both of White's bishops and both of Black's bishops have been captured and are off to one side. It seems that these are the only pieces, including pawns, which have been captured (very rare).
Kola Kwariani (Nick the Wrestler) was a professional wrestler and wrestling promoter by trade, who did play chess, and was a friend of Stanley Kubrick. Kola was killed in 1980 in a fight at the Flea House when he was attacked by a gang of 5 youths as he was entering the place.
A still from the movie made the cover of Chess Review magazine in March, 1956. The movie was released on June 6, 1956. The total budget of the film was $320,000. United Artists put up $200,000 and producer John Harris put up $120,000.
In 1957, he directed Kirk Douglas (Col Dax) in Paths of Glory. Kubrick used a chessboard pattern on the marble floor where three soldiers stood in front of the judges of the court martial. The theme was a stalemate between French and German forces in No Man's Land during World War I. The trial has been compared to a strategic chess match by some reviewers. The movie was based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb.
In 1958, Kubrick married Christine Harlan. They had three children. She was the singer at the end of the movie in Paths of Glory. She once wrote, “When Stanley is relaxed he plays chess and likes to be very quiet.”
On 1960, he directed Spartacus, based on the book by Howard Fast. There is one reference to chess. General Crassus (Laurence Olivier) was quoted as saying, "Yes, the only power in Rome strong enough to checkmate Graccus and his Senate."
It took 167 days to film Spartacus, employed over 10,000 people, and cost over $12 million to make. The original director was Anthony Mann, who was fired within a month. Kirk Douglas then brought in Stanley Kubrick to direct. Kubrick's first job was to fire German actress Sabina Bethmann and hire Jean Simmons to play the slave girl Varinia.
In 1961, Kubrick was supposed to have directed Marlon Brando (1924-2004), a chess player, in One-Eyed Jacks. However, negotiations broke down and Brando directed the movie.
In 1962, Kubrick permanently moved to England, being disenchanted with Hollywood.
In 1962, he directed Lolita (1962). It was based on the 1955 book, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), a chess player. In 1930, Nabokov wrote Zashchita Luzhina (Luzhin's Defense), which later became a movie. It was about a chess grandmaster who later commits suicide.
Professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) becomes a boarder in Charlotte Haze's (Shelley Winters) house, who has a 13-year old daughter named Dolores or Lolita (Sue Lyon). Charlotte plays a game of chess with Humbert, but is a lousy player and loses her Queen. Lolita strolls in the living room in her nightgown as Humbert and Charlotte play chess. Charlotte says, "You're going to take my Queen!" He replies, "That is my intention." Lolita says "Good night" (not good knight) and kisses her mother and Humbert. Humbert then takes Charlotte's Queen in the next move and says, "It had to happen sometime." The book has dozens of chess references throughout the book.
In 1964, Kubrick directed Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It was a novel, called Red Alert, written by Peter George. During the filming of the movies, he played many chess games with cast and crew, including games with George C. Scott (1927-1999).
When the physicist and writer Jeremy Bernstein (1929- ) paid Kubrick a visit to gather material for a piece for The New Yorker magazine about a new film project he was writing with Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey, then known as Journey Beyond the Stars), Kubrick was intrigued to learn that Bernstein was a fairly serious chess player. After Bernstein’s brief article on Kubrick and Clarke, “Beyond the Stars,” appeared in the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker in April of 1965, Bernstein proposed doing a full-length New Yorker profile on the filmmaker and his new project. Kubrick accepted. Bernstein flew to England, where Kubrick was getting ready to film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bernstein stayed there for much of the filming, playing chess with Kubrick every day between takes. When the piece eventually ran in The New Yorker it was appropriately titled “How About a Little Game?”
Kubrick did an hour long interview with Bernstein on November 27, 1967. In that interview, Kubrick discusses when he first started playing chess. When Bernstein informed Kubrick that he had to cut their conversation short, Kubrick asked why, and Bernstein told him that he had an appointment to play chess in Washington Square Park for money, something Kubrick himself did as a young man. Kubrick asked Bernstein whom he was playing, and when Bernstein told him, Kubrick dismissively referred to the man as a “patzer.”
In a September 1968 interview with Eric Nordern for Playboy magazine, he said, “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.”
In 1968, he directed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It was based on a short story, called The Sentinel, by Arthur C. Clarke, written in 1948. Clarke did not play chess and said if he did, 2001 would never have been made because Kubrick and Clarke would have just played chess.
Astronaut Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) plays a game of chess with HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). The game in the movie is from a position that came from Otto Roesch-Willy Schlage, Hamburg 1910 (Game 322 in Chernev's book The 1000 Best Short Games of Chess and game 344 in my book, 500 Ruy Lopez Miniatures). The initial position in the movie is after Black’s 13th move. The astronaut says, “Umm…anyway, Queen takes pawn. OK?” HAL responds, “Bishop takes Knight’s pawn.” The astronaut says “Hmm, that’s a good move. Er…Rook to King One.” HAL responds, “I’m sorry Frank. I think you missed it. Queen to Bishop Three (this should have been Queen to Bishop Six - the computer was cheating). Bishop takes Queen (this is not forced). Knight takes Bishop. Mate.” The astronaut responds, “Ah…Yeah, looks like you’re right. I resign.” There were several mistakes with the chess scene. The moves were in English Descriptive instead of algebraic, a move was in wrong descriptive notation for Black ("Queen to Bishop Three" when it should have been Queen to Bishop Six), and it was a mate in three, not a mate in two, since the moves were not forced by HAL.
The surname (Smyslov) of the chief Soviet scientist who visited the space station was named after former world chess champion Vasily Smyslov (1921-2010).
Kubrick played chess while on the set of 2001. One of his opponents that he played most often was physicist Jeremy Bernstein, a chess enthusiast himself. Bernstein said he played 25 games with Kubrick, winning a few. They usually played at the Dorchester Hotel in London.
In 1971, Kubrick directed A Clockwork Orange.
In 1975, Kubrick directed Barry Lyndon.
In 1980, he directed The Shining. One day, actor Tony Burton (1937- ) arrived on set carrying a chess set in hopes of getting a game with someone during a break from filming. Kubrick noticed the chess set. Despite production being behind schedule, Kubrick proceeded to call off filming for the day and play chess with Burton. Kubrick won every game, but still thanked Burton for the games since it had been some time that he'd played chess against a challenging opponent.
French film critic and film historian Michel Ciment (1938- ) interviewed Kubrick in 1980 and asked him about chess.
CIMENT: You are a chess player and I wonder if chess-playing and its
logic have parallels with what you are saying?
KUBRICK: First of all, even the greatest International Grandmasters,
however deeply they analyse a position, can seldom see to the end of the
game. So their decision about each move is partly based on intuition. I
was a pretty good chess-player but, of course, not in that class. Before
I had anything better to do (making movies), I played in chess
tournaments at the Marshall and Manhattan Chess Clubs in New York, and
for money in parks and elsewhere. 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.
In 1987, he directed Full Metal Jacket.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1987, Kubrick said, “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.”
In 1999, he directed Eyes Wide Shut. He was still playing chess with some of the actors and stage hands. He often played chess with Frederic Raphael (1931- ), the screenwriter to Eyes Wide Shut.
Stanley had a fatal heart attack in his sleep on March 7th, 1999. He was 70 years old. He had been working on A.I. Artifical Intelligence. Steven Spielberg took over as the film's director and it was released in 2001.
Kubrick only made 16 films in a 48 year career.
Kubrick is quoted as saying, “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.”
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has one of Kubrick’s chess sets on display.