Chess was a lifelong fascination that Kubrick acquired from his father. “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.” For Kubrick, his love of chess was closely connected to his attraction to the subject of war and to the process of moviemaking.
Kubrick saw the mental discipline required by the game as crucial to his success as a director: “Among a great many other things 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 are in trouble… It takes more discipline than you can 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 from being made about something that looks good at first glance.”
In contrast, war, according to Kubrick, “acts as a kind of hothouse for forced, quick breeding of attitudes and feelings. Attitudes crystallize and come out into the open. Conflict is natural, when it would, in a less critical situation, have to be introduced almost as contrivance.” The subject of war clearly held a powerful fascination for the director; it is the focus of three of his films and of two unfinished projects.
The chessboard appears in his films in various forms: in the floor of the château in “Paths of Glory” and that of the Roman Senate in “Spartacus.” There are actual games of chess played in “The Killing” (at Maurice’s club), in “Lolita” (between Humbert and Charlotte), and in “2001” (between Bowman and HAL 9000). Kubrick played chess with actors on set and with favored writers and friends at home.
The consortium of war, power, and the game would be revisited over the course of Kubrick’s career, represented literally and conceptually. It can be observed that all his films investigate power struggles and calculations of probability that call on both caution and daring.