Chess Player on Set: Life a King
By Daniel Rensch   
January 15, 2014

Me [probably speaking louder than I should]: "Hey, he's talking about the bishop but he's holding a rook!?"

Director [whispering]: "What?" [waves hand dismissively] 

Me [definitely too loud]: "He's holding the wrong piece. I think we should cut!"

Director [clearly frustrated]: "Cut!!!"

[Director rips off headphones. Storms past me and the crew to ask his lead actor to reshoot the scene. Not sure what reaction he would get... BUT Cuba agrees it's no good if he was holding the wrong piece, and says to run the scene again. Director returns to area where we watch the scene being shot. Apologizes briefly for his outburst at me. Yells for "Quiet on the set!" so we can run the scene again.]

Director: "Action!"

Welcome to Hollywood...

Crew in the back left, Me, Jake (pink shirt, Director) Tatiana (Producer)

In October of 2012 I had one of the most interesting experiences of my life: I taught movie-stars how to play chess! Along with IM David Pruess (my good friend and former partner here at, I spent the better part of a few weeks in Los Angeles (or traveling back and forth), pretending to be Movie Directors, Art Coordinators, Prop Technicians and just about any other role / task that "involved chess" on set.

David and I were brought in to be the go-to experts on all "chess aspects" of a movie whose title (then working title) is Life of a King. In addition to working privately with the actors on their chess skills, to make the close up scenes (of which there are many) look as authentic as possible, we were also on call constantly to make sure every chess position, chess phrase, chess term, chess banner, etc., was 100% authentic.

Getting off set as fast as I could, after ensuring a "legal chess position" remained on the board before the next scene. Cuba (behind me) is in character.

Even though it was the first movie experience for David and I, we learned that the filming Life of a King was also a very unique, slightly stressful experience for the entire crew. Not only for us, just making sure that no illegal moves or non-sensical chess things happened, but for everyone, as they were under pressure to complete the entire project in just 3 weeks.

For a script that had been "bouncing around production offices" for years, any chance to make it happen was worth taking. But for budget reasons and to fit within lead actor Cuba Gooding Jr's schedule, the movie was to be filmed in L.A. - even though it's "based on the true story of the inner city of Washington DC."
photo of my son Nash (white) playing David in between takes, as Cuba rehearses lines in the background...

What we learned is that even by "small budget / rushed film standards" this was going to be an exciting (and stressful) project for everyone involved. One experienced camera man from New Zealand told me on set, towards the end of filming, that "this had been by far the most hectic, rushed shooting of [his] career."

Cutting corners wherever possible, saving time and money on anything they could, and attempting to waste very little if not no time in filming by doing far "less takes" of a scene than would be normal - hence the "tongue lashing" I received from Director Jake Goldberg for my... err... unnecessary "Cut!" (Don't worry, we're cool now. And Jake really was awesome. I would have yelled at me too!) In short, we were all in for a wild ride!

To digress for a moment, the movie is based on the real life story of a true chess hero, Eugene Brown. If you ever have a chance to meet him, do! Eugene really is a great person and an example of overcoming obstacles to achieve nothing short of what I would consider "real life heroism". If you want to know more, look him up here at his website - or wait for the movie!

Me with real life Eugene Brown (right in the checkered hat) and his son, left.

David and I were called in based on the recommendation of Robert McLellan, USCF Marketing Director and Co-Producer of the critically acclaimed film Brooklyn Castle. He said had "the best set of young chess guys for the job" and we hoped not to disappoint.

Final confirmation that they needed us was not even finalized (from what I remember) until a couple days before filming was to begin. We would come to learn that filling an important role (keeping the chess real) not more than 48 hours before "go time" was actually a pretty typical reflection of life on set.

Not only was the production company's ambitious timeline hard on the Director and Crew, but to expect David and I to turn a group of young people and Cuba (who knew close to nothing about chess) into believable (even brilliant) chess players was not easy.  Though I think the movie turned out great -- and I will be curious to receive feedback from my chess peers about the believability of the actors -- I must admit that there were definitely times where David and I were rushed off set by the Director and Crew before feeling confident that we had left our actors with enough knowledge to avoid screwing up the scene's chess-bits.
Nash plays Lucas (another one of the awesome actors who is involved in what of the more intense chess scenes) in the background, while David and Warner (my then 3-year old) watch the busy crew bustle around set. Lucas is an active Member and was one of the only "chess experienced" cast members.

Our task was clear from Day 1, and we set to work right away: Organizing small "training sessions" with the cast in between takes, while also keeping an eye on filming. David was also consulting with Jake (who also co-wrote the screenplay in addition to directing the film) on scenes and dialogue that David and I felt could use some improvement if they were to seem authentic to a chess audience.

Though David and I did not get our way as often as we hoped, I'd like to think we had a good working relaitonship with Jake and the writers. They took all our feedback and input to heart (some lines were definitely adjusted), but when something could not be changed (either because it was too late, or because they thought the original had more "Hollywood flair") David and I compromised ( if we had a choice, right?).
As I furiously setup the position to be "legal again" (which is something we had to do less and less of as filming went on as the actors all became pretty decent chess players!) - Jake talks to Tahim about how he wants him to deliver his lines.

To give my own personal review of the movie, David and I (and David can comment to clarify his thoughts if I am speaking out of turn) both felt the storyline was strong, the characters were represented very well (great acting) but that a few of the conversations between the characters and the "extra drama" of a few scenes was a little unrealistic as far as "the chess" goes and might have actually hurt the "flow" of the movie overall (if indeed people do perceive the scenes as "over the top").

Some of the dialogue isn't quite, how do I say it, "the way chess players would talk in real life." However, when I asked the "non-chess crowd" (which is of course more important) what they thought, many felt the extra chess dialogue was kind of cool, and made them think "wow, chess masters must actually approach life like it's one big chess game." So even if some lines (we felt) were perhaps a little forced, it turned out to be OK - at least according to the folks I asked at the L.A. Film Festival Premiere After Party (which was fun!). One photo below, and click here for my album from the Festival.

Fun, because I'll likely never get to go again!

Ok, back to our "on set system." Often, we would split up, David normally working with the actors (which he confessed was the most rewarding part of the job for him - to teach a group of interested beginners and watch them grow as chess players!), while I was often more interested in watching the filming (the entertainer in me I think) and making sure things went smoothly there. Though we both did a little of each, I think we became comfortable with our roles.

David doing what he does best: Teaching Chess! The actors were captivated by his enthusiasm for the game...

We both got a couple of chances to work with Cuba, and one lesson (where we were together) was particularly memorable, as Cuba entertained the onlookers with, um, loud and animated descriptions of the pieces (not all of which was PG-Rated). And while the multiple classroom scenes were fun (my hand-writing on the blackboard) as well as the "Big Chair Chess Club" takes (where both my 6 and 3 year old sons got to meet Cuba and the cast for the first time) - it all paled in comparison to the work and fun of the final "Big City Championship" chess scene.

In preparation for the big event, I brought with me hundreds of boards, sets, clocks, and extra "chess paraphanlia" to help the vibe look BIG and REAL! Props (the name for the Art and Prop department) had secured things on their end as well. Though not required in my duties online with, I still had tons of chess stuff at my finger tips from my first business, American Chess Events LLC.
Crew getting ready to film some big chess scenes!

We spent time setting up the tournament scene, while working with "Tahim" (Malcom Mays) and his rival "J. Thomas Gaines" (Blake Cooper Griffin) to scope out the entire last chess game, meant to have the "real meaty chess shots" to show how good Tahim's character had become. This is where David and I really got to put our own personal stamp on the movie: Crafting a battle scene to re-enact (though there were many shoots and they didn't always get it perfectly) a game between David and I from years ago at the Bay Area International (I won the game, for the record, but I won't tell you which character plays "my chess side" so as to not spoil the ending of the movie).

Everyone felt a sense of accomplishment on this day for sure! We were surrounded by lots of extras whom I recognized from the chess community (some of you in the Southern California area may be reading this now?). Many waited around through hours of different shots, just to have a chance for a close up as an extra. Unfortunately, I could not convince my 6-year old son to take a seat (little more shy than his daddy still these days - though he's 8 now and growing out of it), even though Jake promised to get him on camera and in the final cut of the movie!

One final "encounter" I'd like to share, before giving thanks, is my last (movie related) conversation with Cuba. I approached him in between scenes and suggested that he might not be playing the role as authentically as he could (yep... I did that... *gulps now in thinking about it*). Cuba seemed "proud and impressed" (in his facial expression) by something that was taking place on the chess board with Tahim (not saying what to keep it interesting for you when you see it). And I suggested to Cuba that a player of Eugene Brown's knowledge would not necessarily feel that way while watching the game (me knowing what's happening on the board)...

Cuba nodded and acknowledged that he understood my point. But then countered with, "See, I already thought of that. And I know what's going on on the board. BUT knowing my character and his point of view, I think he would have already been very proud and impressed with his student, regardless of the moves on the chess board... and conveying that emotion is what I am going for..."
"Wow", I thought. "He's right."

I stood corrected.
Me, Cuba and David.

Really, Cuba was super impressive on and off camera. Fun. Outgoing. Kind to the entire cast and crew. And, for someone who knew really nothing about the game, pulled off his character in amazing fashion. As chess players, there is a certain "body language" you notice and look for in a confident, experienced chess player (you all know what I mean) and I *like* to think Cuba, Tahim and others involved in the intense chess scenes pulled off this "chess swagger" with the help of David and I, often directing them about how they should look and "feel" about moving the pieces in that situation, as much as the moves themselves. It really was one of the most fun, and interesting challenges I've had as an "Chess Professional" to date.

Click here for more photos from the set.

In conclusion, I want to express just how thankful I am to the producers, the cast and crew, everyone from arts and props we worked so closely with on the chess scenes (especially Michael for hanging with my son, if you read this) and everyone involved with the project for giving David and I this unforgettable experience. Including Robert with the USCF for making the recommendation for "Team" to help out!

I hope everyone goes to see the film this Saturday in theatres, January 17th (also available for download on iTunes on that day, I think)... AND if you watch closely as Eugene Brown and Tahim Sanders register for the big event, you may see a lowly Vice President of taking the entry "giving a good hard look to make sure it's legit" and saying "yep" to confirm registration of our hero's "boy wonder" chess student... among other cameos by David and some friends.

Who knows, maybe it won't be our last experience helping out on the set of a chess movie?

Happy Movie Going! And remember "Keep Your Eye on the Endgame..."

This piece originally appeared on