by Ian Rogers
Chess films tend to stick to a simple formula; struggling outsider/underdog kids taught by a devoted coach become world-beaters and find themselves.
From Ben Kingsley in 1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer to Elizabeth Vicary in the 2012 documentary Brooklyn Castle, the coach is always a Yoda figure, imparting wisdom for its own sake.
Life of a King, released early this year, fits this formula perfectly, with Cuba Gooding as the ex-convict rehabilitated by teaching unruly kids to succeed at chess. Worthy, but little more.
The recent New Zealand movie The Dark Horse is a far more complex beast and is arguably the best-ever chess-themed film.
(A short list of top chess films would also include The Luzhin Defence, which has the head start of not featuring a chess coach and rough diamond students.)
The Dark Horse is based around the life of Genesis Potini, the enthusiastic but sometimes abrasive New Zealand player who died in 2011.
Potini struggled with mental illness and mentoring at a junior chess club helped to stabilise his life, using chess’ parallels to Maori culture to engender interest among the youngsters.
However the core of the movie is the battle Potini has with his brother over the fate of Potini’s nephew, who is due to be initiated into a Maori gang.
It soon becomes clear that The Dark Horse has more in common with NZ classics Once Were Warriors and Broken English than Hollywood redemption tales such as Dangerous Minds.
Cliff Curtis – aided by chess advisor Ewen Green, Bobby Cheng’s early coach – is a convincing Potini and most of the coaching and tournament scenes are true to life, a rare achievement in a film. (If life indeed imitates art, New Zealand may soon change their national junior championship to a knock-out event; on the screen it certainly looked far more dramatic than your average junior tournament!)
Overall, The Dark Horse packs a punch and sets a high bar for any new ‘coach meets underdogs’ chess movie to reach.
[Editor – new video of Genesis Potini on the benefits of chess in the curriculum]