“Ruy Lopez” and the African Queen: Humphrey Bogart and the art of chess.

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By Robert Horvat and Sean Munger

Humphrey Bogart is one of the silver screen’s classic icons. Regarded by many as the best screen actor of all time, his stellar performances in movies like The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen (for which he won an Academy Award) solidified his place in cinema history. But did you also know that he was an extremely accomplished chess player? The story of how he came to be one is almost as interesting as the history of his acting career.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression that followed destroyed many fortunes and livelihoods. Unemployment was at staggering highs and it seemed that no one was immune to its grip, including the dizzy and glamorous world of Broadway theatre. Like many others who worked on Broadway, Humphrey Bogart had to look west for gainful employment, after work began to dry up in theatres across New York, and try his hand at motion pictures. However, after a failed attempt at movie stardom, he returned back to New York, where in the early 1930s Humphrey and his second wife Mary tried to find work in the theatre again. Unfortunately for the Bogarts they remained to a great extent unemployed. To bring in enough money to pay for some necessities and occasionally enough for some fun like drinks with friends, Humphrey turned to one of his greatest passions, chess, to bankroll life in the big city.

bogie chess

Bogie played chess everywhere–at home, by mail, on the set, and even in Africa while making The African Queen.

Bogart first learnt how to play chess from his father, and in time become a very skillful player. Years later in New York City parks and places like Coney Island and Times Square, he used his ability to play chess for a meager fifty cents a game to supplement his income. He won more games than he lost which was testament to his skill as a chess player. Later in life he would mix it with top international chess players. He was known to have played out a drawn game with US Champion Samuel Reshevsky. It was through his shrewd chess skills that he would obtain an excellent chess ranking just below master level. More than just an enthusiast, he also became director of the United States Chess Federation and an active member of the Californian State Chess Association in the mid 1940s.

If he wasn’t playing chess between takes on movie sets with friends and cast members, he was always found frequenting Hollywood’s Chess Club or playing high-level chess battles at his favorite restaurant Ramanoff, in Beverly Hills with chess maven ‘Prince’ Michael Obolensky Romanoff.

Humphrey Bogart is most notable on-screen playing chess in the classic film Casablanca. It is believed that during the making of Casablanca, Bogart insisted that his character Rick Blaine was to be a chess player. Apparently there is a story that circulated years after the release of Casablanca that the game that we see in progress onscreen was a real game Bogart was playing via mail correspondence. Playing chess by correspondence was nothing new in those days, however Bogart a year later was apparently stopped playing correspondence chess with US soldiers in veteran hospitals because US authorities thought Bogart was sending secret codes via mail.

This famous scene from Casablanca includes a chess board, and may have been the game Bogart was purported to be playing by mail during the making of the 1942 film.

Records of some of Bogart’s famous games have been preserved. Today websites like Chessgames.com, in addition to serving as online tutorials and meeting places for chess enthusiasts, use simple web graphics to analyze and replay famous games from the past. In 1951, while in Stanleyville, Congo filming The African Queen with Katharine Hepburn and legendary director John Huston, Bogart famously lost to a Belgian chess master (Congo was a Belgian colony at that time) in a game that has become famous. That same year Bogart also played another famous game with his fourth wife, actress Lauren Bacall. Bacall was no slouch as a chess player either. Bogart started with an opening move known as a “Ruy Lopez.” The game was a nail-biter, with Bogart and Bacall heavily attriting each other’s pieces in a tit-for-tat battle. But at the end Bogart had his king, a knight and four pawns left. Bacall had exactly the same–minus the knight. Though presumably the game could have gone on much longer, Bogart’s knight meant he would overwhelm her eventually. She resigned. The game lasted 31 moves and is considered a brilliant piece of chess play. You can see the game in an on-line chart that you can run through move-by-move, here.

In addition to being an amazing actor, Humphrey Bogart was a fascinating man and a formidable intellect. His prowess at chess is but one facet of his amazingly interesting personality.

The image of Bogart playing chess with Lauren Bacall is copyrighted by Getty Images and licensed for use. The African Queen image (doctored by me) is evidently public domain, but The African Queen itself is (C) 1951 by Horizon Pictures.
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