Rap has a long history with the game of chess, and Jay-Z has always been one of its most vocal enthusiasts. As he recounted in his autobiography, Decoded, “My pop taught me chess, but more than that, he taught me that life was like a giant chessboard where you had to be completely aware in the moment, but also thinking a few moves ahead.” Jay has often invoked this in his music, calling himself “the Bobby Fischer of rap,” and blasting rivals who play “checkers” or “pitty pat with a chess player,” or who forget “the difference ’tween the king and the pawn.” None other than Wu-Tang maestro and chess expert RZA publicly challenged him to a game. (Jay declined.)
Given this, it’s perhaps not surprising that in Black Is King, the new film helmed by his wife, Beyoncé, Jay’s appearances find him often hovering over or near chessboards, stroking his chin and making careful moves. He’s not the only one doing so here: At a few points in the film there is a human chessboard, featuring Beyoncé as, of course, the all-powerful queen. Besides the obvious, what specific role this chess and royalty motif plays in this visually dazzling, heavily symbolic visual album I will leave for smarter minds to analyze. What I am here to do is take as close a look as possible at the chess moves played throughout the film by Hova.
The very first position we see by Jay in the movie, at about 26 minutes and 58 seconds in, shows him on the black side. Besides being thematically appropriate for Black Is King, this also means taking the second turn. (Whether this rule is racist is debated.) The showdown appears to have started as what experienced players call an Open Game, as evidenced by how his opponent seems to have pushed out his king’s pawn two squares out as his first move (a highly popular opening move that was famously favored by Bobby Fischer himself), and Jay has seemingly countered with his own king’s pawn. So far so good, Jay. This is among the most popular parries, and for good reason. We then see him move his queen’s pawn one square forward to back up his already-out-there king’s pawn, in what could be forming a Philidor Defense.
But in the very next shot (at 27:00) we see that Jay’s knight on his left-hand side is out with his king’s pawn still out in center, directly facing down his opponent’s king’s pawn, which is in turn diagonally ahead of the opponent’s knight. That is … not what we just came from. Did we flash forward a few moves? Is this a different game altogether? Is this what players call a simultaneous exhibition, with Jay playing multiple games at once? However you want to spin it, this is where we’re at: The two sides’ moves have been essentially identical, and symmetrical, in a compelling gameplay formation called a Petrov’s Defense. Still so far, so good—Jay is taking aggressive moves heralded by past masters.
In the next move we see, at 28:27, the picture quality seems to be purposefully a little fuzzy, as if to thwart viewers trying to follow the match, but it appears as though Jay’s opponent’s bishop is out and threatening Jay’s knight, which is along the diagonal white line to the king. Again, this state of play is completely different and likely could not have come from our last game, but I’ll roll with it.
Jay moves his right-hand rook’s pawn to additionally threaten the bishop. This is a solid move, known as the Morphy Defense, an effective counter to the setup known as the Ruy López, named for a Habsburg-era Roman Catholic priest who wrote one of the first definitive books about chess in Europe. This is a good defense for a few reasons: If his opponent’s bishop takes his knight or the pawn, Jay can in turn take the bishop. If he’d instead moved the knight to definitely save it from the bishop, it’s not like he’d be able to threaten the bishop anew with it, plus that would weaken the defense along the line that leads to his king. However! If his opponent were savvy enough, the opponent could set his next moves up in a way that he could endanger Jay’s king or (we shudder to think it) his queen.
Meanwhile, he ends the verse by hitting a chess clock beside the board, revealing that he has been playing with time controls all along. It’s not clear whether this is a form of speed chess or a more standard time limit, but regardless, it’s not surprising that an accomplished freestyler like Shawn Carter would be skilled at thinking under pressure.
When the chessboard next reappears, we see Jay drinking one of his favorite gold bottles next to it instead of playing anything, relieving himself of the stresses of the game. Honestly, smart move! You have to take a break sometime.
At 31:15, we see Jay hovering over a board again, and then, around 31:16, we cut to the human chessboard. There, we see a King’s Pawn start.
Shortly after, there’s a real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it move on the regular chessboard that’s hard to tell from the angle but also looks like a King’s Pawn.
Then we’re back to the human chessboard, where we basically see the board from 28:27 formed … by people! So whatever is happening here, it’s not random.
At 32:39, the view of the human chessboard is once again too narrow to see exactly what is going on, but it seems a rook on the white side is moving a few squares away from a pawn on the black side that is threatening her and that is a couple squares and to the left of the black side’s king. Perhaps Jay has come back from his tennis break refreshed and on the offensive? We never should have doubted him.
About a minute later, it seems like the timeline has gone backward a bit. Is Hov playing chess in not just two or three dimensions but four? This would not be the first time he was accused of being a time traveler. In the human chessboard, we see the black side’s knight take the space to start to craft the full formation seen in 31:21. The white bishop reciprocates and fills in the space seen on that previous board, and then there is the pawn coming out to threaten the bishop! Only a few minutes have elapsed, and already those closely following the action have been rewarded with callbacks, as Hov manifests his moves onto human beings. Black Is King may have taken diversions for tennis and drinks, but it has not lost sight of its principal drama: the chess. Your move, RZA.