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The Chessmaster / Film

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Chessmasters in movies.


With Chess Motifs

  • Hades from Disney's Hercules has a large chessboard at his place in the Underworld, with pieces representing the Olympians and his forces. He usually uses this chessboard in order to think out strategy how to kill Hercules or to attack Olympus. Note that, unlike in most instances, this is mostly used to portray Hades as a Know-Nothing Know-It-All with only one real strategy (throw another monster at Herc); Jafar even mocks him for it in the crossover special between their respective Disney Afternoon shows.
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  • Frozen: Prince Hans of the Southern Isles is revealed to be a cold and calculating Manipulative Bastard, and possibly the most notorious case of this in Disney films. The scene where he gives his Motive Rant has a chess set visible, symbolizing his exploitation of Anna as a "pawn" in his plan to seize control of Arendelle by faking his romance with her. On a grander scale, he proves to be a very effective and crafty Villain with Good Publicity, even fooling the viewer into thinking he's a Prince Charming and Knight in Shining Armor. The infamous betrayal scene revealed just how duplicitous this man is.

Without Chess Motifs

  • Miles Axlerod from Cars 2. In order to turn all the cars in the world away from alternative energy, Axlerod actually invents an explosive chemical called Allinol which he pretends is actually a safe alternative fuel, and he promotes Allinol with the World Grand Prix, a series of races where the world's fastest racecars must compete in three races taking place in different parts of the world. Axlerod then order his Dragon, Professor Z and his army of Lemons to use a powerful radiation cannon to blast away said racecars once the race is in session, then makes everyone think that Z is the one behind the evil plot and not him. After the second race, which takes place in Italy, Axlerod tells everyone that Allinol is actually dangerous and forces the racecars to use ordinary fuel, because since Axlerod secretly owns the largest oil supply in the entire world, he and the Lemons will become unstoppable once alternative energy has been shunned from society, but tricks Lightning McQueen into still using Allinol so that the Lemons can blow him up. Unfortunately for Axlerod, Sarge secretly removed the Allinol from McQueen's body and instead replaces it with Fillmore's, and as a result he has no other choice but to install a detonator onto Mater's body as a last-minute attempt to kill that racecar.


With Chess Motifs

  • Paul Newman's character in Absence of Malice is a good guy (and thoroughly unexpected) Chessmaster. He manages to play the DA, the police, and a newspaper against each other without anyone realizing what he's up to.
  • Dangerous Moves subverts the trope: the two grandmaster chess player protagonists are realistically high strung and emotional, with little aptitude for or interest in the manipulation of people and events. It's the hangers-on and government handlers surrounding them who engage in all the intrigues, scheming, and chess metaphors.
  • Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars rolls into town, sizes up the situation, and immediately starts playing the two local powerhouses against each other.
  • The titular character of the movie Fresh develops a plan to get himself and his sister out of the ghetto, and getting revenge on everyone who screwed either him (metaphorically) or her (literally). The plan shares more than a few aspects of the chess lessons his father gives him, and results in Fresh sacrificing his savings and friendships (and one friend), half a dozen gangsters killing each other, with the survivors being arrested thanks to Fresh calling the cops and planting evidence. He and his sister get put into witness protection far away from his old home. Oh, and Fresh is 12. The What Have I Done bit at the end is quite understandable.
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  • Chili Palmer in Get Shorty moreso than in the novel (as mentioned in Literature); in the movie he seems accustomed to running games on anyone he perceives as a threat.
  • Michael Corleone of The Godfather trilogy - especially Godfather II. He started out as a Nice Guy who becomes a true Mafia Chessmaster, only to lose it all in the end. At the height of his power, he proved quite adept as a Mafia Don, with amazing intuition, excellent observational skills, good combat instincts (he did earn a Navy Cross in the Marines, after all), a keen understanding of masculine psychology (arranging the suicide of one of his enemies, for example), the ability to pick the right people for the right job, and sharp financial acumen.
  • Historical gangster "Bumpy" Johnston (played by Laurence Fishburne) is depicted in this manner in the film Hoodlum. The director even goes so far as to show Johnson playing chess (playing the black pieces, and knocking over the white king) in the film's Spinning Paper sequence.
  • James Bond
    • Kronsteen in From Russia with Love who is an actual chess grandmaster as well as being SPECTRE's chief strategist. His plan in the film tops even that of the book for complexity, involving pitting members of the British and Russian secret service against each other in order to acquire a valuable coding machine.
    • M certainly counts. In Tomorrow Never Dies she even uses chess-based code names when corresponding with Bond.
  • Allenby and Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia. They spend as much time plotting against each other as fighting the Turks.
  • In Lucky Number Slevin there is a scene where Slevin and the Boss discuss how Slevin will kill the Rabbi's son, interposed with a scene where Goodkat tells the Boss how he can manipulate Slevin into performing the murder, while all are playing a chess game. The scene takes on new relevance when it turns out that "Slevin" and Goodkat were working together from the beginning to manipulate the Boss AND the Rabbi, in order to get revenge for them murdering Slevin's parents.
  • Momentum: Near the end of the movie assassin Mr. Washington attempts to recover a data drive from Alex Faraday, an ex-CIA operative turned thief.
    • Mr. Washington plays chess and fancies himself a master. He prides himself on outsmarting clever opponents, and knows what tactics to employ to gain their co-operation. While interrogating a captured Alex he challenges her to a match. She refuses.
      Mr. Washington: You might want to rethink this whole chess thing. It's good for people in our line of work. This situation - that's what we call check.
    • However, it's Alex who turns out to be the real chessmaster, with a brilliantly planned and executed strategy that incorporates elements of Xanatos Speed Chess.
      • Prior to her capture (which is part of her plan), Alex plants the data drive on Mr. Washington himself during a struggle, using his tie as a hiding place. This ensures the drive will remain hidden, but always be close by.
      • Alex plays the tough Deadpan Snarker while undergoing physical torture, but later - after Washington brings up her tragic CIA history and suggests Females Are More Innocent and can't compartmentalise - she pretends to break, fooling him into thinking he has the upper hand.
      • Alex lets Mr. Washington see a brush pass exchange with an accomplice, pretending to be sloppy because of an injury. In reality this is an intentional Divide and Conquer strategy that forces Washington to split his team up and send a henchman after the accomplice, thus leaving himself more vulnerable.
      • Alex pretends to be reluctant to open a storage locker, making Washington think it's a trap. When he threatens to inform a security guard, Alex appears to give in. She continues the bluff by hesitating several times while opening the locker and metal case inside. Only when Washington is convinced it's safe does he instruct his henchwoman to retrieve the data drive. Of course it was never there, and the case really does contain a bomb.
      • Lampshaded in a post-reveal exchange.
        Alex: I had to let you catch me, otherwise this wouldn't have worked.
        Mr. Washington: You... MAGNIFICENT BITCH!
      • And even more explicit lampshading later.
        Alex: Queen to bishop five. Checkmate.
      • Alex sets up Mr. Washington one last time, making him think she's hidden something else behind his tie. When he instinctively reaches to check, all Alex has to do is provoke the nervy police into firing.
        Alex: Gun!
  • Inspector Clouseau is revealed to have been this all along at the end of the remake of The Pink Panther (2006), having screwed around with his English teacher after taking in the proper pronunciation of "hamburger" (a pronunciation he demonstrates to Dreyfus at the start of the sequel to shut off an alarm) and deliberately caused a scene at an airport checkpoint involving the improper pronunciation of the word "hamburger" after letting a hamburger fall out of his pocket so he'd get photographed at the exact right moment so he could inspect the photograph for an important clue to the murder mystery he's in the middle of investigating (seriously, Don't Try This at Home; he's a trained professional at pretending to be clumsy for the sake of his investigations).
  • Lord Cutler Beckett of Pirates of the Caribbean. He even had a strategy board, one with a little Beckett piece-. (R.I.P.)
  • Andy from The Shawshank Redemption, is an example of a Chessmaster who is the "good" guy. (Well, relatively speaking.) It's clear from his conversation about halfway through the movie that he's very clever, talking about using invented fake names to help his boss launder money and all, but it later turns out that even that isn't the start of it. The further aspects of it shouldn't even be spoiled even from behind spoiler tags, but let's just say he figures out a way to kill ever so many birds with one stone. Well, figuratively speaking. As for the Chess Motifs, it's repeatedly mentioned in the movie that Andy likes chess, and he remarks that he finds it to be a "civilized" game.
    Red: I like to think the last thing going through [Norton's] head, other than that bullet, was to wonder how the hell Andy Dufresne ever got the best of him.
  • Professor Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is this to Sherlock Holmes's Guile Hero. The film even climaxes with them playing speed chess and finishing their game verbally.
  • Miles Cullen, a nebbish bank teller whose two hobbies are tropical fish and chess, suddenly turns into a master of Xanatos Speed Chess when he decides to horn in on a planned robbery of his bank in The Silent Partner. His chess set is given more screen time than some of the actors, even though he's never actually seen playing it.
  • Cardinal Richelieu's Evil Plan makes up most of the plot of The Three Musketeers (2011) and he uses Chess Motifs quite frequently. Most notably when he plays a game of chess against himself as he cannot find a Worthy Opponent.
  • In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Control affixes photos of his five suspects, including Smiley, to chess pieces, with a six representing Karla. When Smiley takes over the investigation he removes his own piece and adds a with a photo of a Polyakov. Neither Control nor Smiley uses the pieces on a chess board, and the symbolism of each piece is debatable, in contrast to the more straight-forward symbolism of the codenames (Tinker = Alleline, Tailor = Hayden, &c) which is played down in contrast to the book and miniseries. It is notable that Smiley and Karla are both represented by the most powerful piece, the Queen.

Without Chess Motifs

  • The Red Skull, as portrayed in Captain America: The First Avenger, was so clever in dispersing his resources throughout Europe that he was able to make his Doomsday Device. Captain America and his allies were only able to stop his final plan at the last possible moment.
  • For a character who claims to hate the convoluted plans, The Dark Knight's Joker is skilled at making them. Unless he's lying or making it up as he goes along, which is quite possible. The Joker's sadism also leads him to pull off some nasty (although thwarted) Evil Plans.
  • In Death Race, the Warden is clearly the Chessmaster, with the way she manipulates the convicts to play in the Game Show race. In view of the fact that the audience is made not to like her she's also the Anti-Hero, and she's a Manipulative Bastard.
  • Den of Thieves: Donnie. First, he spends years working at a bar that he knows is frequented by employees of the Federal Reserve, and uses his service job to eavesdrop on their conversations to accumulate enough information to plan the heist. Then he lets Merrimen in on the heist, convincing him that Merrimen and his crew get to reap the lion's share of the cash. He plants his own people inside the Reserve to facilitate access to the Reserve, or enable lifting the prize out of the garbage dumpster. This trope most clearly shows when he deliberately allows both Merrimen's crew and Nick's posse to subject him to Butt-Monkey treatment, causing both groups to grossly underestimate him. He lets Merrimen think Merrimen's crew will take the most active role in pulling off the heist, but in truth he is taking the relatively safest role for himself while allowing Merrimen's crew to take all the physical risks upon themselves. Once he's made it to the garbage dumpster, he switches out the prize cash to his own driver, and leaves Merrimen's driver with useless shredded cash. Merrimen dies without ever knowing he's been double-crossed, as it's Nick who opens the bags with the shredded cash. He also has no issue with walking down the street from the Reserve to present himself as an easy nab for Nick, but the point there is that he's all too ready to give up Merrimen's location to Nick. Then he picks his handcuffs and escapes while Nick's posse is engrossed in an intense and extended fire fight with Merrimen and his crew. And to top it all off, he uses his cash to open a bar in London near the diamond exchange, so that he can gather intel for a heist on the exchange, and coincidentally setting up a Sequel Hook along the way.
  • CRS in The Game.
  • Vito Corleone in The Godfather would serve well as the very definition of a Chessmaster. In the book and the movie, he planned out every detail of every part of the story perhaps even his own death.
  • In Little Sweetheart nine year old Thelma (8 and 364 days at the start of the movie) manipulates her new and only friend, her mother, her uncle, the police, the new neighbors who happen to be bank robbers on the run and everyone else she meets throughout the movie. Only one thing goes wrong: her friend doesn't die after going face down in the ocean after an arm shot and what was either a torso or headshot for several minutes. The friend is also nine.
  • The Matrix
    • The Oracle is a sentient computer program capable of predicting Neo's reactions so well that she essentially made Neo the One. All of Neo's heroics are all essentially part of her chessmaster plan, even Agent Smith.
    • The Architect, who managed to manipulate all previous "Ones" into his plan by threatening them with the extinction of the human race.
  • Tommy from Miller's Crossing is a very prolific anti-heroic example. Nearly every character in the movie is deceived by him in some capacity. In fact, he manages to take down Casper's gang simply by sowing seeds of mistrust. Even his closest friends are lied to and manipulated, albeit for their own safety. By the resolution of the movie, even the people he saved are are unaware of the entirety of his schemes.
  • Dylan in Now You See Me.
  • Rotti Largo from Repo! The Genetic Opera is so good at these, it sometimes gets hard to find things that aren't orchestrated by him.
  • Both Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier are chessmasters in the 1972 version of Sleuth.
  • Senator/Chancellor/Supreme Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Got a less-than-scrupulous faction to blockade/invade his backwater homeworld just to get the old leader kicked out and himself elected in the process. Then gets his apprentice to start a war to increase his authority under "wartime powers". Then gets his sworn antitheses to attempt to thwart him so he can declare them enemies of the state and use his "severely disfigured in an attempt on my life" sob story to get enough sympathy to be named dictator for life. While playing both sides of the board, so as to have a backup plan if something went wrong (presumably, just sabotage the clones from the Republic side and conquer the galaxy with droids. Not that he ever needed to.)
    • You have to give Luke Skywalker props for this as well. At the start of Return of the Jedi, his positioning of Artoo, Threepio, Leia, Han, Chewie and Lando in the rescue of Han is actually quite brilliant, as each of his friends ended up with a very particular role to play.
      • Artoo smuggled in his lightsaber; Threepio's obliviousness to the plan ensured Jabba didn't get wise to the other players, either.
      • Leia brought in Chewie, freed Han from carbonite, and later killed Jabba.
      • Han's subsequent failure to escape ensured Jabba thought he'd won, as well as his part in the sailbarge fight later.
      • Chewbacca...well, when ISN'T a 7-ft tall Wookiee useful in a fight? There's also his role in Leia's cover, and as a warm-up blanket for Han in the prison cell.
      • And Lando, who infiltrated Jabba's palace before anyone, ensured Han and Chewie would end up in the same cell after Han thawed, and helped clear the prisoner skiff for their escape by sneak attacking the guards while they distracted by Luke's Force-powered acrobatics.
      • And lastly, Luke, who holds everyone's attention with the OMFG JEDI factor so his comrades can do their tasks.
    • That's quite a few pieces that needed to be in JUST the right places to make the whole thing work.
    • Subverted (like many other tropes) in The Last Jedi with Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke imitates Palpatine by allowing Kylo Ren and Rey to communicate mentally, using his apprentice's internal conflict as bait to trap Rey. However, it backfires tremendously when Kylo Ren betrays and kills him, taking his title as Supreme Leader of the First Order, when Snoke orders him to kill Rey.
  • Wild Things peels back layer after layer of deception until the real Chessmaster is revealed. The studio must have liked this idea, because they did it two more times with direct-to-video sequels.
  • Ichirō Yashida was behind most of The Wolverine's events, directly or indirectly.
  • In The Wrong Arm of the Law, Pearly Gates develops into this over the course of the war against the IPO mob. This was played up in advertising.


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