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.
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.
Photo credit: The header movie still image from the film Casablanca (1942) is courtesy of Warner Bros. I make use of the images under the rational of fair use. It enables me to makes an important contribution to the reader’s understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone.
I originally co-wrote this article for Sean Munger’s website under the title Ruz Lopez and the African Queen: Humprey Bogart and the art of chess. You can view it here.