Ron Weasley and the Most Epic Chess Battle of All Time

by Dawn Henderson

 

Although the climax of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is no doubt the moment that Harry faces off against a creepy combination Quirrell-Voldemort in front of the Mirror of Erised, a definite runner-up for the most dramatic moment in the story is when Harry, Hermione, and Ron engage in a spectacular game of wizard chess to reach the Sorcerer’s Stone. Professor McGonagall’s bewitched and larger-than-life chess pieces set readers’ imaginations on fire, and when the first film was released, fans couldn’t wait to see the game rendered in live action.

This ultimate game of wizard chess has been the subject of much discussion and debate – both among Harry Potter fans and chess lovers – in the years ever since.

 

Why Chess?

The Hogwarts staff opts to guard the Sorcerer’s Stone with a variety of magical (or simply downright frightening) obstacles. Among them, we find a terrifying three-headed dog, a mass of Devil’s Snare, a roomful of flying keys flitting around near a securely locked door, a game of wizard chess, and (in the book, at least) a lineup of potions – only one of which will allow someone to move through a wall of fire.

It seems only natural that chess would make an appearance among the final challenges since it pops up repeatedly earlier on in the story. Ron teaches Harry how to play wizard chess using a hand-me-down set Ron received from his grandfather. (In the film, Ron’s chess set is a gorgeous recreation of the historic 12th-century Isle of Lewis chess pieces found in Scotland.)

Typically, Ron isn’t very fond of his hand-me-downs (which includes everything from his clothes to his pet rat, Scabbers). His beat-up old chess set is an exception, however, because over the years, the chess pieces have come to know and trust Ron – and while Ron might not excel at studying or casting spells, he’s uniquely good at chess.

Contrast this with Harry, who is new to the game and (in the book) starts out playing with chess pieces borrowed from his buddy Seamus Finnigan. The pieces don’t trust him and (hilariously) keep trying to direct him:

They kept shouting different bits of advice at him, which was confusing: ‘Don’t send me there, can’t you see his knight? Send him, we can afford to lose him.’

Later, Harry receives his own chess set for Christmas and breaks it in “by losing spectacularly to Ron”.

While Harry is a Quidditch champion and Hermione excels at book smarts, Ron is the undisputed chess champion of the three – making it a natural challenge for him to step up to lead the chess game in the final part of the story. Harry may be the unspoken leader of the group, but each person has their individual talents, and Ron directs the chess pieces with the same expert confidence Harry displays whenever he dons his Quidditch robes and mounts his broom.

 

Bringing Wizard Chess to Life

After the book was released, fans ached for a way to play wizard chess in real life. In 2016, InfiVention Technologies created an explosive Kickstarter campaign for Square Off, the “smart” chess board that enables players to move pieces without touching them (you direct the pieces via the Square Off app). When it was first introduced, the game drew gasps of astonishment and immediate comparisons to wizard chess.

Sadly, though, the Square Off pieces don’t whack their opponents with swords or demolish one another. This was the challenge faced by film creators back when the first Harry Potter movie was still in the works: While magical chess pieces that move on their own are fascinating, movie audiences want drama and plenty of action.

In the tension-filled final challenge scene in the book, Rowling doesn’t describe exactly how the game plays out. After the trio replaces three pieces on the chess board (Harry a bishop, Hermione a rook, and Ron a knight), the game begins with Ron directing Harry to move diagonally four squares to the right. After that, the scene plays out in a manner that doesn’t specifically describe who moves where but focuses more on the danger the three find themselves in and the bravery of Ron’s sacrifice.

For the film, director Chris Columbus designed an action-packed wizard chess game with 12-foot-high pieces that towered over the young actors. To make the scene even more dramatic, rather than dragging one another off the board, these pieces mimic exactly what viewers saw when Ron and Harry played regular-sized wizard chess earlier in the film: chessmen attacking and demolishing each other in spectacular fashion. With debris flying and flames pouring out of the destroyed pieces, it’s clear that the white chessmen aren’t just obstacles in the game: They’re absolutely menacing.

 

Wizard Chess Strategy

Because the book was vague in terms of the chessmen’s actual movements, this gave Columbus lots of wiggle room in terms of how he depicted the gameplay on-screen. One of the biggest gripes chess fans have is that when the game appears on-screen, it’s never done in a realistic way. Boards are often set up wrong and illegal moves are the norm in countless films and TV shows. Putting aside the fact that larger-than-life chess pieces that move by themselves and attack one another are obviously beyond the bounds of realism, the film’s creators wanted this game of chess to play out according to the rules.

This is why they brought elite chess player Jeremy Silman on board to create the chess position for the scene. For those who are unfamiliar with the chess world, Silman is an International Master (IM), which means that he was in the top 0.25% of all tournament players when he received his title. He’s won events from the US Open, the American Open, and the National Open, as well as writing dozens of chess books. His impressive knowledge and skills have made him one of the greatest brains to pick for those who hope to improve their chess game or get any sort of chess-related training or advice.

Silman worked with filmmakers over a period of weeks to lay out the exact movements of each of the chess pieces as the game plays out, starting with the movement of the doomed pawn that confirms to Ron that the game “is gonna be exactly like wizard chess.”

The game as it was initially planned is laid out on Silman’s website. He purposefully chose the white Queen to turn into a real villain in the eyes of the audience – something that made it all the more satisfying when Harry conquers her toward the end of the game.

The final film result wasn’t quite what Silman had initially envisioned, however. He says, “Unfortunately, movie dynamics once again turned a well[-]thought[-]out[-]chess situation into mumbo-jumbo (though it looked very energetic on the big screen).”

It did make for a frighteningly explosive scene, however – and one that has remained a favorite of chess players and movie fans in the almost 20 years since the film’s release.

 

The World Still Waits for Wizard Chess

Speaking of it having been nearly two decades since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone first appeared on movie screens, the world is still impatiently awaiting the appearance of a real-life wizard chess set to play at home. While we still don’t have an actual board game in which the pieces attack and shatter each other to bits, there are some pretty impressive Harry Potter-themed chess sets on the market, including detailed replicas of the one featured in the final challenge.

Meanwhile, those of us out here in audience-land will rewatch the films, reread the books, and ponder this: If faced with the same situation, would we have the courage to do what Ron did – to step out of Harry’s shadow and ride that knight directly into the path of danger? For an aspiring Gryffindor, there’s only one answer.