Smart People Play Chess

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A genius in three dimensions, in the process of winning his fourth straight game...against a computer.

"Chess is the ultimate test of the human mind, isn't it?"

Emmett Clayton, Columbo

A common visual shorthand to indicate that a character is smart is to have them play Chess, Go, or some similar game. After all, Sesquipedalian Loquacious dialog can disrupt pacing, and not everyone is a chalkboard-toting professor, but it's unobtrusively easy to insert a chessboard into a scene. The character doesn't even have to actually play it; simply lingering nearby with a concentrated gaze is enough to suggest deep thinking.

While this is a popular trope with The Chessmaster and the Magnificent Bastard, it's not limited to them, and having a dumb character (try to) play chess is good for laughs. A variation is having a pair of idiots play draughts with a chess set.

Other strategy games can be substituted depending on the setting. To make it easier for the audience to identify with this trope, these games will be shown as very similar to chess, either by visual cues (checkerboard designs, chess-like pieces) or described outright as "<X>-chess" (Wizard chess, Vulcan chess, etc., but not necessarily Human Chess).

If the normally very bookish character really loses his temper, he might end up Flipping the Table instead.

Also see Human Chess, Chess Motifs, Surprise Checkmate, Game of Nerds, Genius Book Club and Pastimes Prove Personality.

Examples of Smart People Play Chess include:


Anime and Manga

  • Code Geass: Lelouch Lamperouge is introduced by having him win an unwinnable (in a certain time frame) chess game. Needless to say, he is the second smartest person in the entire world of the series. The smartest guy in the world is a brilliant chess player, too. Don't look too closely at how they play, though; it's been outright admitted that the people who made the show at best only have a cursory knowledge of how the game works (enough to get the pieces right and that's about it).
    • Usually the details of the gameplay are left in the background, but when they're not, one game, Lelouch's opponent moves his king onto a square adjacent to Lelouch's king (an illegal move, since you can't move your king into check), and thus declares checkmate even though he doesn't think he has won. He did this to goad Lelouch into taking his king with his own king, but Lelouch doesn't do it because a pawn is guarding the enemy king; the nonsensical things here are too numerous to enumerate.
  • Shikamaru Nara from Naruto plays shogi which is also known as Japanese chess. It was getting beat all the time that his teacher Asuma learned that he was a lot smarter than he was letting on.
    • His father plays it better than him, and needless to say, he is also smarter than Shikamaru.
  • Hyper-intelligent Ami from Sailor Moon plays chess, which is an important part of one episode where she plays against a villain who freezes her body more and more as she loses her pieces.
  • Kaname from the Vampire Knight manga.
  • In Kaichou wa Maid-sama, Hirofumi Koganei challenges several Seika Academy students to a game of chess to prove his superior intelligence, noting that he is the fourth best player in Japan. Takumi Usui curbstomps him handily.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! zigzaggs this -- Seto Kaiba - who few would argue is a prodigy - got him and his brother adopted by beating Gozaburo in a chess game. Gozaburo, on the other hand, was a Grandmaster, and not all-too smart at all. When he later confronts Kaiba at Duel Monsters, few fans would deny that his deck strategy was very poor.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! ARC-V, there's Jean-Michel Roget, the Director of Sector Security in ARC-V's version of Neo Domino City, in the Synchro Dimension. A man who fancies himself The Chessmaster Roget seems fond of actual chess. He always has a chessboard with him, and is able to represent a Duel's progress through the board by moving the pieces accordingly to the situation as if he was the one dueling, going he was playing it, speaking in monologues of how he is "ahead" of "his" opponent. However, in reality, this is a Downplayed example, as most of his plans and actions so far were foreseen by Declan (a far better Chessmaster), thus making Roget not so smart at all. of course, he's a great deal smarter than a lot of his moronic henchmen, one of which ignores Roget's orders due to his own ego; Roget is also smart enough to fire him for it.
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, a heated match ended in 1 win for Mustang, 97 losses to Grumman, and 15 draws. Breda and Falman also have signs of this.
  • The English dub of Digimon Adventure 02 explains that one of Ken Ichijoji's many genius-level talents is "playing a single game of chess while everyone watches." [1]
  • In Gundam Seed Destiny the evil Master Mind of the series, Gilbert Durandal is often time seen playing chess while imagining ghostly apparitions that talk to him. Needless to say, he's one of the brightest people in the show. As for his ghostly "opponent"? It's Rau Le Creuset, Big Bad of the previous series, and one of the few people capable of checkmating Durandal, both morally and philisophically.
  • In Durarara!!, Orihara Izaya is far too smart to play mere chess. He instead plays a game of his own devising which uses various gamepieces from chess, Go, and several other games.
  • Played with in Monster: Hyperintelligent Inspector Runge/Lunge tells some subordinates to not "waste time with such a boring game."
  • Invoked in Legend of Galactic Heroes with Yang Wenli, who proves himself time and time again to be one of the smartest and deadliest men alive and occasionally is seen playing chess. Inverted in that he kind of sucks at it.
  • In One Piece, King Riku Doldo III (the true King of Dressrosa) is a monarch known for his wisdom and leadership skills; in the Levity Arc, he is seen playing chess with his friend and ally King Elizabello II.

Comic Books

  • Lex Luthor is often shown playing chess in his various incarnations.
    • Lex Luthor's introduction in Superman: Red Son has him winning fourteen simultaneous games of chess on his coffee break, while also reading Machiavelli in the original Italian and teaching himself Urdu by tape "to keep my mind occupied". He also only becomes truly obssessed with defeating Superman after Bizarro (a Superman clone created by Luthor in this universe) beats him at chess.
  • Dilton of Archie Comics is frequently shown playing chess.
  • Y: The Last Man has the Daughters of Amazon led by Victoria, a master of chess.
  • In an issue of the '70s version of Legion of Super-Heroes, Timber Wolf (the team's feral member) is seen playing a game of chess. He loses, and he complains he was just about to use his secret tactic: kicking over the table!
  • Brutally lampshaded and subverted in an issue of The Incredible Hercules. Facing a test of cunning set before him by a sorceress, Hercules examines a chess-like layout, then smashes the whole thing apart, claiming the answer was that the only way to win was to change the rules. The sorceress applauds him, even as her advisor points out that all he had to do was move one of the rooks. (She was target-locked on ol' Herc at this point, so some leeway isn't surprising.)
    • In a related vein, one issue of Mighty Avengers shows Herc's Teen Genius ally Amadeus Cho—described as the 7th smartest person in the world (Herc fans suspect Cho might deserve a higher ranking) -- defeating The Vision at chess.
  • Obadiah Stane, Iron Man enemy, was pretty chess-obsessed, extending the metaphor to his mooks he employed. The movie gives him a pretty neat set to toy around with.
  • Taken to extremes in Cerebus. Suenteus Po, an old wise philosopher, has grown so weary of the world that he hides in his small apartment and plays chess against himself... for decades. All of which seems to have been a way to protect his secrets from the Big Bad, who can read minds. When she tries to read Po's mind, she sees chess...and nothing else.
  • Bamse: Skalman plays chess - generally against himself, since other people aren't much of a challenge.
  • Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom can play a game of chess in their heads, while wandering Doom's castle in Latveria, while having various other deep discussions, with some Xanatos Speed Chess besides (i.e. Doom launching an attack on the other three with Reed having set some countermeasures in motion).
  • In an issue of Justice League, Mr. Terrific plays two games of chess against Red Arrow and Black Canary... blindfolded!

Fan Works


  • During the Matchmaker scene in Disney's Mulan, the heroine briefly passes by a game of Chinese chess, then makes a move that clearly benefits one side.
  • In My Little Pony The Movie, The Moochic and his rabbit assistant Habbit are seen playing three-dimensional chess. Habbit wins.
  • Star Wars features R2-D2 and Chewbacca playing holographic chess ("dejarik") during the trip to Alderaan, suggesting R2's intelligence, Chewbacca's temper, and C3PO's timidity. And an early example of Chewbacca's high intelligence. It's only later that we see him doing starship repair and rebuilding destroyed protocol droids.
  • All of the live-action X-Men movies prominently feature scenes of chess. The first two feature Professor Xavier and Magneto playing against each other, a tradition started in X-Men First Class. Later, this becomes a metaphor for their struggle over the future of mutantkind
    • And subverted in real life. Everyone on the set naturally assumed that the erudite Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart knew how to play chess but neither of them did. As Stewart explained, he was always too busy with his career. And they had to be taught by a world champion! (Stewart said it was "like learning to drive with Michael Schumacher").
  • Kronsteen in From Russia with Love is an actual chess grandmaster as well as being SPECTRE's chief strategist. His introduction shows him defending his title as champion of Russia when SPECTRE (SMERSH in the book) calls him into the meeting; he delays long enough for his opponent to run out of time before heading off.
  • 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, all while playing chess.
  • The Oliver Parker film adaptation of Othello has Iago (played by Kenneth Branagh) illustrating his plan with an actual chessboard.
  • Blade Runner. Eldon Tyrell and J.F. Sebastian (one of Tyrell's genetic designers) regularly play chess as an indication of their intellects. The replicant Roy Batty tricks his way into Tyrell's presence by feeding Sebastian chess moves that beat Tyrell—indicating Batty's intellectual superiority.
  • During Spock's memory test in Star Trek IV the Voyage Home, he is shown playing spherical chess on a computer screen. Given that it is Spock, the computer stood no chance.
  • In Silverado, Sheriff Langston plays chess with himself, showing that he is intelligent and Surrounded by Idiots. Specifically, there is a deputy sitting opposite him at the chess board; Langston makes a move, and then stoically turns the chessboard around so that he is now playing the opposite side's pieces every move.
  • Famously parodied in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. The two title characters die and meet the Grim Reaper, who offers the traditional "play for your lives" challenge. Being the ditzes that they are, Bill and Ted proceed to play and beat Death at Battleship, Clue, Twister, and other (less cerebral) games.
  • Subverted in Wag the Dog. After a particularly devious play in their campaign to create a fake war, the film producer remarks to the spin doctor, "I'll bet you're great at chess." The spin doctor replies, "I would be, if I could remember how all the pieces moved."
  • The Thomas Crown Affair original has characters incarnated by Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen play sexy chess prior—until he suggests they "play a different game."
  • The Avengers 1998. Mrs. Peel and Steed play a game of chess. Mrs. Peel has been portrayed as a genius up to this point, and she plays from memory and handily defeats Steed to show her intellectual superiority.
  • In Pi, Max and his mentor play Go, which factors into several mathematical and visual motifs.
  • The Big Bad in The International is shown teaching his son Go.
  • In Twelve Rounds, the villain interrupts a chess game between two random strangers playing by the street, and defeats the other player in four or so moves.
  • Independence Day has Julius and David Levinson playing chess together early on, with David winning easily. He spends much of the rest of the movie talking in Chess Motifs.
  • Played with in Blazing Saddles, as Bart and the Waco Kid build their friendship by playing chess. While neither man is particularly smart, they're geniuses compared to the other characters in the film.

Bart: "As I am your host and you are my guest, what do you like to do?"
Waco Kid: "Oh, I dunno... Play chess... Screw..."
Bart: "Let's play chess!"

  • Charlie Wilson's War. Insurgency strategist Mike Vickers is introduced playing chess in a park against four opponents simultaneously. In the non-fiction book however there's no mention of Vickers playing chess at all.
  • Green Lantern introduces professor Hector Hammond, zoologist and alien examiner, by having him play chess over the internet.
  • In A Beautiful Mind, the genius John Nash is seen playing Go with another really smart guy. When John lose, he have an emotional reaction that is easily mistaken for being a Sore Loser. However, it's actually the beginning of a revelation that will eventually land him a Nobel Prize.
  • In Tron: Legacy, Kevin Flynn is a wise Deity of Human Origin who is said to often play Go... and who usually wins, because he avoids impatient and aggressive strategies.
    • This is also a Genius Bonus: unlike chess, no current AI can beat even an amateur human Go player.
  • In the second Sherlock Holmes film, Holmes and Moriarty frequently play against each other.
  • Inverted in Bad Company, in which Chris Rock's character is adept at chess. He's street smart, but not book smart.


  • Happens regularly in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels:
    • Lord Vetinari has an elegant Thud! board in his main viewing room, and plays it remotely with a friend in Uberwald.
    • In Going Postal, the Thud! board is also used to contrast Reacher Gilt and Lord Vetinari's ways of thinking, as well as Crispin Horsefry's ignorance.
    • The Assassin's Guild are also said to play "Stealth Chess", a chess variant with an additional "assassin" piece. Vetinari is a grandmaster of this game.
    • Lord Hong from Interesting Times measures the intelligence and tactical minds of his colleagues and rivals by what exceedingly long length of time they'd spend analyzing a chess board before making their move. He gives Vetinari a rather high honor by suspecting the time between moves would last for days. Whether intentional or not, this is brought up again in Going Postal. While discussing a communications breakdown, Vetinari mentions that in a way he's pleased by it, as it gives him a few more days to consider his next move in the aforementioned long-distance Thud! game.
    • Samuel Vimes can't stand chess; he doesn't understand why the pawns don't overthrow the kings and set up a republic. While a bit Book Dumb, Vimes is still one of the smartest savviest people on the Disc.
    • A running joke is that Death hates playing chess because he can never remember how the knight moves.
  • Averted in the first Harry Potter book. Ron is skilled at "Wizard Chess", but is not exceptionally intelligent otherwise. Fandom tends to ignore the chess part entirely, as well as his seven OWLs, and turn him into a complete idiot.
    • And Hermione is the smartest of the group but terrible at it.
    • And to round out the trio, Harry keeps getting whooped at it by Ron throughout the first book.
    • May be justified, considering that in Wizarding Chess, strategic mastery is only half the game. The other half is successfully gaining the loyalty of your sentient chesspieces such that they'll actually do what you tell them.
  • The Star Trek Expanded Universe novel The Final Reflection, by John M. Ford, reveals that Klingon military strategy is the province of military "thought admirals", who hone their skills in klin zha (Klingon chess). The (Klingon) protagonist's father, who is a thought admiral, also studies other races' equivalents of klin zha, including the Human game "chess", to gain insight into the races that play them.
    • In Star Trek: The Brave and The Bold, Captain Robert Desoto of the Hood, Riker's former commanding officer, is a champion-level Go player. His reputation is such that he could never find anyone to play him, so he resorted to teaching some of his naive staff the game...including Riker, a "brash young lieutenant who didn't like games where he couldn't bluff", and his current first officer, which he regretted as she went from the standard handicap to regularly beating him inside of a year.
    • My Enemy, My Ally by Diane Duane includes the revelation that Dr. McCoy is pretty darned good at chess, too -- good enough at one point to take over and turn around a game against Spock that Kirk had resigned. Bones uses chess as a way of assessing personalities; play a game with someone and you get an idea of how he or she thinks, which may help diagnose psychological difficulties.
  • Several of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe books show Marlowe studying chess problems during his down time. (Although he's never seen playing an actual game, because that would presuppose that he had friends to play with.)
  • Sort of played with in the first of Jacques Futrelle's "Thinking Machine" mysteries. The title Great Detective has never played chess before and doesn't have a high opinion of it, but is somehow able to use his clever reasoning to beat a chess champion on his first try.
  • The StarCraft novel Liberty's Crusade shows Arcturus Mengsk as an avid chess player, complete with a chess set in his command center.
  • In Twilight, Bella classified Eric as a "chess nerd". This is frustrating for anti-fans, because a) Bella is judging Eric by his looks, and b) never, at any point in the series, do we see Eric playing chess.
    • Alice and Edward play chess together, because, you know, Edward being a telepath, another psychic is the only opponent who can give him a good game.
  • Lord Loss, from Darren Shan's The Demonata series, is exceptionally intelligent and very manipulative. Chess is his second favourite pastime (after torturing humans)
  • Does Tara in the beginning of Chessmen of Mars count?
  • The Forrest Gump book has Forrest learning to play chess rather well, going up against various masters of the game.
  • Timothy Zahn once said that writing the Magnificent Bastard Grand Admiral Thrawn is like playing chess with himself.
  • In Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein, Major Aardmore shows his superiority over the Big Bad by offering the solution to a chess problem. The Big Bad can't figure out how it works; months later, after his defeat, he asks Aardmore about it. Aardmore admits that he had no solution and was simply bluffing. The Big Bad either kills himself in disgrace or dies of apoplexy or frustration; we're not sure which.
    • Smart People Play Chess is a frequently recurring motif in Heinlein's work, usually taking one of two forms: a four-year-old child playing chess against adults, or two characters passing the time in a stressful situation by playing without a board.
  • In a variant, Theo in The Westing Game plays chess with someone who only makes moves when he's out of the room. At first, all we know is that Theo's opponent is sneaky, not necessarily smart. However, an eventual Batman Gambit move by Theo's opponent reveals to Judge Ford that the other player is the brilliant Sam Westing, who isn't dead after all, because she's seen that same tactic before.
    • Eventually, grown-up Turtle beats Theo's opponent in a chess game, which makes sense because she turned out to be the only one smart enough to solve the Westing Game as well.
  • Cluny the Scourge, in Redwall, makes a vow to himself to learn to play chess while his Evil Plan is falling into place, going by the logic that since his real-life tactics work so well he'll be unbeatable. He never does get the chance to try, though.
  • Several really smart characters in the Codex Alera are fond of the chesslike game ludus. Tavi learned to play from Ambassador Varg (one of several Chessmaster types), and also plays against Worthy Opponent Nasaug... in the middle of a battle between their armies.
  • Subverted in Market Forces by Richard Morgan, a 2004 sci-fi novel in which Corrupt Corporate Executive types battle for promotion by fighting Mad Max-style road duels. The protagonist Chris Faulkner has been manipulated into a fatal road duel with his friend Mike Bryant (a more skilled driver) in order to eliminate them both as potential rivals. In a Just Between You and Me moment the antagonist derides Faulkner and Bryant's chess hobby, pointing out that its restricted field and strict rules make the game useless training for real life.
  • In Peacebreakers by Mindy Mackay, Isabella Sordeno is shown playing chess, as is her brother and two of her minions. Subverted when accomplice Jackson becomes the only one to beat her since her ascension to Chessmaster, as he is characterized more as reckless than intelligent.
  • Telzey Amberdon in James H. Schmitz's Federation of the Hub is a superpowered Teen Genius telepath, introduced in one story, playing in the planetary championship games.
  • In Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts' Empire trilogy, characters who are good at chess are inevitably good tacticians, especially the lords of House Anasati, and their utterly unbeatable True Neutral genius advisor.
  • "Stones" (a fictional game that bears a resemblance to the Chinese boardgame Go) fulfils this trope in Wheel of Time. Morgase Trakan, Pedron Niall, and Thom Merillin are all master Stones players and excellent strategists and politicians, and often make observations about other characters based on their ability at the game. Matrim Cauthon is a strategic whizz and rather a good Stones player, but too impatient to beat the best players. The villainous Moridin is described at a master not just of Stones but of every game of skill he's ever bothered to learn and, Chessmaster that he is, tends to visualize his entire Evil Plan as a vast boardgame where he controls all the pieces on both sides.
  • In The Goddaughter Duet, not only does Daphne Whitford play chess, when she's informed that George liked chess already, Daphne upgraded it to speed chess.
  • One of Artemis Fowl's covers was a chess prodigy. The guard, also a chessmaster (not that kind), didn't believe it, and challenged him to a game. Artemis beat him in six moves.
  • In The Dark Tower series, Smart Tacticians Play Castles.
  • Some of the Forgotten Realms novels have a drow variant of chess called sava, where there is an extra component: a pair of dice. A player can opt to not move their own pieces in favor of rolling the dice. If they get a double spider, they can move one of their opponent's pieces. This is supposed to represent the drow tendency for treachery.
  • Warhammer40000 has its own version of chess called "regicide" (the rules are never detailed). Ciaphas Cain writes in his memoirs that he was able to regularly trounce Lord General Zyvan, who was probably Cain's superior in actual military strategy and tactics, at it and adds that he suspects that Zyvan found the game too abstract for his tastes.
  • The Draka play chess; unfortunately, owing to the author's Critical Research Failure, the only moves quoted in The Domination are complete nonsense ("Knight to King's Pawn Four" is syntactically invalid, never mind whether it would be a good move or not).
  • Averted in The Stefan Zweig novella The Royal Game. The world champion in the story is a Book Dumb savant from a poor rural village. The amateur who defeats him is not presented as exceptionally intelligent either.
  • One-Shot Character Kurt from The 39 Clues.
  • A short story, "Check ... and Mate," focused on main character Freddy bonding over chess with his girlfriend's father, who'd regarded the young fellow as an Upper Class Twit until discovering he was very good at the game. Freddy, for his part, hadn't much liked chess back when his grandfather taught him, but now his prospective father-in-law was such a excitingly challenging opponent....

Live-Action TV

  • In the original Star Trek, Mr. Spock would often play 3-D chess when off duty (usually against Captain Kirk). One episode has Spock discovering that the ship's computer was tampered with when he managed to beat it at the game; Spock's reasoning is that because he programmed the computer to play chess, it would be unlikely he could manage more than a draw when playing against it.
    • Subverted in the 1st season episode "The Corbomite Maneuver", which has Spock making chess references left and right, trying to use it as an analogue for the situation the ship finds itself in. Kirk eventually realizes that the best game analogue should actually be poker, and proceeds to bluff the alien ship about what would happen if he fired on the Enterprise. The alien buys it (or is at least intrigued enough by the bluff to play along).
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation
    • A brilliant tactician defeats Data at a chess-analogue game. In the rematch Data defeats him by using Real Life anti-computer tactics.
    • In another episode, Troi beats Data at 3-D chess. (To anyone who understands chess strategy or game theory, this scene (mentioned in more detail on the Straw Vulcan page) is a case of Did Not Do Research, as Troi extols the virtues of "intuition" in a game that is fundamentally brutally mathematical, and at which Data would likely have an unfair advantage.)
    • In yet another episode, after Barclay's encounter with a Cytherian probe, he gains an understanding of chess as a residual ability from his period of super-intelligence.
    • Ironically, the game of choice for the Enterprise-D's crew is Poker, which requires a different sort of strategy based on statistical analysis and, frequently, cold reading. Even more ironic is that Troi doesn't seem to have any advantage at this game even though intuition would make much more of a difference (and her superpower). At the beginning of the series, Data had little understanding of the various subtleties involved in poker (Riker had to outright explain what a bluff actually was). However, as the series progressed, Data gained an understanding of the game, and used the fact that he didn't have emotions to create the perfect poker face.
      • It could very well be the case however that Troi simply refrains from using her empathic abilities during poker because she feels that doing so would constitute cheating.
  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Benjamin Sisko has a 3-D chess set in his office.
  • Star Trek: Voyager also had kal-toh, a Vulcan strategy game. It was played by Tuvok, Harry Kim, Icheb, and simulations of Socrates and T'Pau. Harry once called it "Vulcan chess", a comment which Tuvok dismissed, claiming that "Kal-toh is to chess as chess is to tic-tac-toe."
  • In Andromeda, another tv series based on one of Gene Roddenberry's ideas, captain Dylan Hunt preferred 3-dimensional Go.
  • One episode of The Big Bang Theory had Sheldon and Leonard play 3D chess to demonstrate Leonard's ignorance.

Sheldon: Obviously, you're not well-suited for three-dimensional chess. Perhaps three-dimensional Candy Land would be more up your speed.

    • Sheldon also made a 3-player chess board and new pieces.
    • And then there's chess surrounded by laser burglar alarms...
    • Leonard teaches Penny to play plain chess... and loses to her in their first match.
  • Gideon from Charmed plays chess with an evil version of himself from the Mirror Universe.
  • In Heroes, Sylar manipulates Danko into cooperating with him while toying with the pieces on a chessboard.
  • In the drama Leverage, team mastermind Nate Ford frequently plays online chess.
    • And in "The Juror Number Six Game", Earnshaw, the lawyer opposing them, also plays chess. Ford uses Chess Motifs to explain her tactics.
    • It is interesting in The Three Card Monte Job that contrasts Nate's chess with his father's three card monte, a game based entirely on deception.
    • Worthy Opponent Sterling also plays chess. He and Nate play a game at the beginning of "The Queen's Gambit Job" that ends with only the two kings left standing.
  • During the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Superstar", one of the first things Jonathon does is beat Giles at chess (while simultaneously teaching slaying strategy to the rest of the Scoobies).
  • Chessboards appear in Dollhouse, though they are rarely prominent in the plot. Topher, the Los Angeles Dollhouse's resident programmer and genius, usually has a board in his office, and has an improvised, chalk-drawn one beside the sleeping pod where he holes up after losing his mind in the dystopia of "Epitaph One." Also, "Getting Closer" includes a scene in which Bennett and Echo while away the hours with chess while repairing the hard drive containing Echo's original personality, Caroline. (Though the real Caroline was smart but no genius, Echo—thanks to the repeated personality imprints on her brain—by then has 40 minds to draw upon and might well be a match at chess for Bennett or Topher.)
  • In The West Wing, President Bartlett plays chess. At one point he plays several games simultaneously while solving a crisis related to Taiwan. Later Leo insists that he continue to play weekly, in order to make sure his multiple sclerosis isn't affecting his reasoning ability.
  • In Father Ted, faced with a choice between a game of chess or Buckaroo, Man Child Dougal predictably goes with the less cerebral option, prompting Ted to roll his eyes and say "Buckaroo: the sport of kings."
  • In Red Dwarf, the highly-advanced AI Holly, with an official IQ of 6000, plays chess—but not very well. (Although, to be fair, the only time we've actually seen the outcome of one of his games, it subsequently turned out that he'd been playing to lose, and against himself.)
  • In the new Outer Limits episode "I, Robot", Leonard Nimoy's character, a retired lawyer, plays chess a lot. He comes out of retirement because it bores him.
  • In the Frasier episode "Chess Pains", Frasier gets irritated that Martin is a better player. Frasier keeps forcing Martin to play chess until he finally wins a game.
    • The subversion of this trope lies in the fact that Frasier is a highly-educated and sophisticated psychiatrist, while Martin, his father, is a working-class Book Dumb retired cop. Martin points out that the reason he's so good is that a lot of the skills he acquired as a detective apply to chess (devising strategies, staying one step ahead of the other guy, etc). Which makes Martin far from dumb. Indeed, many episodes imply that Martin is Obfuscating Stupidity, making this a double subversion.
  • One episode of House has a prodigy chess player as a patient who plays a game with Dr. House. He would have lost, but he bluffs House out, which results in him technically winning.
  • It isn't enough that Charlie Eppes of Numb3rs could multiply four-digit numbers in his head when he was three, graduated from high school and entered Princeton at 13, completed his bachelors degree in three years and is a multiple Ph.D. No, just so we'll know he's really smart, he regularly beats his father and his former academic advisor (both portrayed as above average intelligence) at chess, too. (But he's Not Too Perfect: he doesn't do so well at Scrabble.)
  • On one episode of Lost, Locke unlocks a secret message by beating a computer game of chess.
  • Warehouse 13 does this double in one scene; Artie is pondering over a game of chess with himself and says that it's White's move and White's about to lose, while Lena tells him that Claudia's not such a bad kid. Claudia then walks by, moves a piece, announces checkmate, and walks off.

Artie (astounded): "I'll be damned."
Claudia: "Well, maybe, but I'm not one to judge."

  • A different version of this trope is seen with war games (the kind played on a board). Two examples include a Columbo movie in which the killer used the playing of the game as an alibi (he'd actually set up the game hours beforehand) and an episode of The Equalizer where a former general set up a complicated revenge against McCall's client. In both examples the villain becomes unstuck due to the game—the misplacement of a single soldier exposes the false alibi in Columbo. The general, once his Evil Plan has failed, plans to kill the Equalizer and his client with the cannons (rigged to fire poisoned darts) on his model of Pickett's Charge. Only a single cannon fires though—at the general, as McCall has got at the model beforehand. The dying general is impressed, and concedes the game to his opponent.
  • On the Wizards of Waverly Place episode "Make it Happen", the Russo's kids have to choose an alternate career in the case of they don't become wizards. Justin's first idea is to make money by travelling the world defeating robots at chess.
  • White Collar frequently depicts Neal and Mozzie playing chess. An oddly organized pursuit for anarchistic Mozz.
  • Farscape had Crichton play the game against Harvey (the neural clone in his head). They appeared to be relatively evenly matched, with the outcome being appropriate to the larger situation they were in.
    • Sikozu also once brought the game to Scorpius (whose intelligence was the only one on board she saw as on par to her own) so they could play.
  • Occasionally pops up in Doctor Who:
    • The Fourth Doctor would often be seen playing chess against his robot dog K-9. And would often lose.
    • As fitting the Seventh Doctor's status as The Chessmaster, this would pop up from time to time in his era. He's participating in a chess game against an unseen opponent in "Silver Nemesis", and the climax of "The Curse of Fenric" hinges on whether the Doctor is able to flummox his opponent with a chess puzzle.
    • Eleven is seen playing an agent of the Silence at 'Live Chess', a varient where moving a piece too many times causes it to give an electric shock to the player if touched. He forces his opponent to continually move his queen until the shock the piece harbors is lethal, then concedes the game, sparing his opponent from death, in exchange for information.
  • The Sarah Connor Chronicles. A flashback scene shows Sarah Connor entering a South American guerilla camp; sitting in a jungle clearing is her son playing chess with their commander.
  • In an episode of Stargate SG-1, Sam is playing chess with Cassandra. Cassandra mentions O'Neill, and states that he's not as dumb as he pretends to be. The example she gives of his Obfuscating Stupidity is that he insists on calling the knight pieces "horses."
  • One scene in John Adams shows Benjamin Franklin playing chess... in a bathtub with Madame Helvétius.
  • On an early episode of The Wire, D'Angelo Barksdale finds his lieutenants Poot and Bodie playing checkers with a chess set. He teaches them the rudiments of the proper game and sets it up as a brilliant extended metaphor for the Barksdale drug organization. Bodie recalls it three seasons later, shortly before he's killed.
  • On The X-Files, child psychic Gibson Praise is first seen playing an adult in a chess tournament.
  • In one episode of Criminal Minds, Spencer Reid is seen playing chess...against himself.
    • Throughout the first two seasons, he and Gideon played frequently with Gideon beating Reid almost every time. Gideon claimed that to win and be a good profiler, he needed to learn to think outside the box.
  • Jared Padalecki of Supernatural fame. Tends to come off as rather silly at times, yet a part of one DVD episode's commentary the director mentions his complete and utter destruction of chess opponents.
  • In the Mysterious Ways episode "The Big Picture," Declan asks Miranda (his assistant and a very intelligent physics grad student) to play chess with him. She replies that last time she beat him in nine moves.
  • A non-chess example. One one episode of The Daily Show, Neil De Grasse Tyson has a cameo to answer one of Jon's questions. Someone handed him a Rubik's Cube as a prop just before he walked onto the set. He solved it while answering the question and dropped it on the desk before he walked off set.
  • Inverted in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Maddie is smart and London is really, really dumb, yet Maddie can't beat London at chess.
  • The Suite Life On Deck had an example similar to the Zack and Cody one. After losing an arm wrestle to Bailey's redneck boyfriend, Cody suggests that he's probably not so good at more intellectual endeavors such as chess. Wrong.
  • In an episode of Small Wonder, Ted programs Vicki to play chess, and she checkmates him in four turns. She claims that had he programmed her correctly, she could have won in three turns. Ted doesn’t like this, and adjusts her settings with the intent to make her easier to defeat, only for her to win in three turns. Now you programmed me correctly,” she snarks.

Newspaper Comics

  • Inverted in FoxTrot: the Bumbling Dad Roger is almost always clueless, and he's the only one in the family that enjoys chess. Jason, the smartest of the family, only plays when Roger ropes him into a game, and wins in three moves.

Print Media

  • This concept was used to lampoon pro wrestling in MAD magazine's "A Mad Look at Wrestling" by Sergio Aragones. One of the short strips starts with two wrestlers in a locker room, playing chess, one of them carefully considering his move as chess players are wont to do; a manager comes in to warn them that the press is coming, and they quickly shift "into character", yelling and cussing at each other.


  • Subverted in the musical Chess. Molokov and Walter manipulate world-champion chess masters against each other for political purposes, but they themselves don't play the game.

Tabletop Games

  • White Wolf's Exalted brings us Gateway, a Chess-extract used to teach military strategy and politics to the children of the Scarlet Dynasty. Most members of the Dynasty are Terrestrial Exalts... superhumans with sometimes reflexive mastery over elements, regular skills (each individual with their own 'prodigy' knacks), and lives that often extend up to and beyond three centuries. the 'Hunting Cat' rule variation allows Gateway to serve as a meditative game of solitaire, while monks use the 'Spirit Frog' rule variation as an allegory to teach philosophy and ethics. It might be aptly said that Gateway is what Chess would be, if Chess were designed by people who had gotten bored with Chess.

Video Games

Harman Smith: Nothing has changed for 30 years. No matter how many times you try, the result will be the same.
Kun Lan: Ahh, yes. Like our chess games, you always seem to win.
Harman Smith: Do you know why?
Kun Lan: You tell me.
Harman Smith: Because you're a bad player.

  • Inverting cause and effect, The Sims plays this by increasing you sim's "logic" stat by playing chess.
  • Miles Edgeworth of Ace Attorney fame has a chess set in his office. Phoenix notes that the problems he sets up tend to have the red side utterly dominating the blue side, if you get my drift.
    • Also, Ace Attorney Investigations 2 is confirmed to feature a Logic-chess system, which Edgeworth uses to corner his witnesses and force them to reveal their secrets, simmilarly to how Phoenix did it with his Magatama.
  • Mori Kibbutz from Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony plays and easily wins chess game with his brother while doing a boxing workout. The he boasts about his academic achievements.
  • Saints Row The Third has the chess matches between Pierce and Oleg.
  • Escape From St Marys: This is the game of choice for the "A level" students in the game.

Web Comics

  • Discussed in the Insecticomics. While trying to dissuade a Mary Sue from shoehorning her way into the Decepticons, Kickback uses Dreadmoon as an example: he's both intelligent and extremely good at chess, but this doesn't make him a genius tactician in real life.
  • In Schlock Mercenary, AIs play chess for fun. You can tell when one of them is seriously outclassed because his opponent will be able to predict the entire game before the first move is played.

Web Original

Western Animation

  • In Justice League, Amazo, the super-intelligent evolving android that at this point in the series is nearly a god, likes to play chess with Aquaman. Aquaman never actually beats Amazo, but is at least commended for taking longer to inevitably checkmate.
    • Aquaman is also shown playing against Shayera Hol—reportedly, she used to give Batman a run for his money, but now she's barely even trying, demonstrating how much of a funk she's been in.
  • Subverted in The Simpsons episode "The PTA Disbands": Bart is seen in the park playing several games of chess at once; he loses all of them. A parody of a scene in Knight Moves.
  • Code Lyoko,
    • Aelita and Jérémie are sometimes seen playing chess; Aelita and Yumi are seen playing Go in another episode. Another time, when Ulrich gets easily beaten by Jérémie, he suggests a karate rematch.
    • Yumi and Aelita are also shown playing Go at the beginning of one episode.
  • In one episode of Teen Titans, Cyborg and Raven, generally portrayed as the two smartest team members, are shown playing chess with each other.
  • Xiaolin Showdown: Raimundo shows a surprising knack for it while playing against a talking dinosaur with a British accent.
  • Played for Laughs in Futurama, Zoidberg is seen contemplating a chess board... and then eats one of the pieces.
  • Done subtly on Phineas and Ferb. Mad Scientist Dr. Doofensmirtz seems to be a fan of chess. When he is bored, he suggests that he and Perry use his travel chess set. He even schemes to freeze every evil scientist nemesis and turn them into a live Animal chess set.
  • Family Guy: Brian/Stewie play chess during their cross-country trip with Quagmire.
  • In the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002 version) episode "The Roboto Gambit", Man-at-Arms builds Roboto to play chess with Man-e-Faces (because he can beat everyone too easily in his super-smart robot form). In later episodes, Roboto plays chess with Orko and Sy-Clone.
  • Bruce plays chess with Alfred in the third episode of Beware the Batman; Bruce says he does it because it "keeps me sharp".
  • In the Harley Quinn episode "There's No Ivy In Team" the Riddler (who, as fans know, is an Insufferable Genius) traps Poison Ivy and Nightwing in a room with a Descending Ceiling along with a chess table and an android opponent, challenging them to "escape with a nimble checkmate". Nightwing assumes they simply have to defeat the android, but while he manages to do so, it doesn't stop the ceiling; in fact, it sprouts spikes as a result. Ivy figures out that what the Riddler meant by "nimble' was not win a game of chess, but finish as quickly as possible. Nightwing realizes that the fastest way is a "fool's mate" so she does that and they escape.

Real Life

  • Inverted by Norbert Wiener, inventor of Cybernetics, path integrals, and large parts of applied fourier analysis. He would often play chess, but was usually beaten after making simple mistakes. On one occasion, a student who didn't know about this tendency spent ten minutes trying to work out what strategy he had thought of that would enable Wiener to checkmate him by sacrificing his queen. He asked Wiener what this was, and Wiener promptly asked to take back his previous move, not having realized he had put his queen in a position to be captured. The reason is that chess requires a lot more than mere intelligence. As the Carl Sagan quote indicates, chess requires "strategy, foresight, analytical powers, and the ability to cross-correlate large numbers of variables and learn from experience". While these traits can accompany high intelligence, they are not guaranteed.
  • Humphrey Bogart liked to play chess and stated in an interview that it was one of the things he treasured in life. He shares a love of chess, incidentally, with Philip Marlowe, who he played in The Big Sleep.
  • As RZA discusses in this interview, the Hip-hop Chess Federation clearly believes in this trope, using chess as a tool to teach strategy, life-planning and impulse control.
  • Often partially inverted in real life chess champions—Kasparov, as mentioned above, follows some very questionable historical theories, while Bobby Fischer was notoriously self-absorbed and ragingly anti-semitic (despite being half-Jewish) and early 20th century chess champion Aleksandr Alekhine was a raving egomaniac with possible Nazi connections. See more at Crazy People Play Chess.
    • But then again, you have Jose Capablanca, who managed to secure a Cuban diplomatic post (even if it was primarily due to his chess skills, some level of social ability is needed to both get and keep a political patronage job) and Paul Morphy, a talented attorney (said to have memorized the entire Louisiana legal code) who resented being unable to start a successful law practice because of the attention drawn to his chess ability.
    • And then again, you have the real smart people, like Emanuel Lasker, who had a doctorate in mathematics, wrote works of drama and philosophy, and held the world championship for 27 years. Or Max Euwe, who also held a doctorate in mathematics and, before he became world champion, used mathematics to show that the rules of chess as they then stood did not preclude the possibility of neverending games. Or Mikhail Botvinnik, who was one of the best electrical engineers in the Soviet Union (he played a key role in developing early chess computers), in addition to being the first world champion after the second World War and winning his title back after it was taken from him by a younger opponent. Twice.
  1. The clip is set in a park with a ring of chess tables. Ken is, as the narration states, playing one game, while the single occupants at all the other tables turn to watch.