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Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Celebrities, Movies, and Chess 1

Here is a look at celebrities who play chess and chess in the movies and TV. There are hundreds of actors and actresses who play chess in real life, hundreds more who have played chess in the movies, and thousands of movies and TV shows that have portrayed chess. Let’s look at some of these celebrities and movies.


Did the comedy team Bud Abbott (1895-1974) and Lou Costello (1906-1959) play chess in real life? They played chess in their 1941 movie, Keep ‘em Flying, and they used an inlaid chessboard as a prop in their 1953 movie, Abbott and Costello meet Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.

F. Murray Abraham (born in 1939) is a chess player. In the 1989 movie, An Innocent Man, Virgil Cane (Abraham) plays chess with Jimmy Rainwood (Tom Selleck) while in prison. The movie shows an unrealistic chess position with kings and queens reversed. In the 1992 movie, Surviving the Game, Mr. Wolfe (Abraham) plays a game of chess with Burns (Rutger Hauer). In 1994, Abraham played a chess hustler in Fresh and was uncredited.

The TV comedy, Get Smart, had several episodes featuring chess. In Season 1, Episode 13 (Aboard the Oreint Express), which aired on December 11, 1965, Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) played checkers with his chess pieces, while the Chief (Edward Platt) watch. In Season 1, Episode 14 (Weekend Vampire, which aired on December 18, 1965, Maxwell Smart plays chess with Agent 52 (Don Ross). As Max gets up to pour coffee, a shadow rises over Agent 52, attacks his throat and kills him. The marks on his throat look like vampire bites. In Season 1, Episode 22 (Smart the Assassin), which aired on February 19, 1966, Smart plays the Chief at the Regency Club. Smart gets checkmated every game, so he brings a book called “Chess in 6 Easy Lessons” written by an 8-year old. The book is supposed to be so simple that a child could understand it. Smart was hypnotized and brainwashed to kill the Chief any time he said “Checkmate.” Smart makes his move and says, “After this move, the game will be over.” The Chief then makes his move and says, “checkmate.” Smart then says, “Just as I predicted.”

In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, which had a chess scene with HAL and one of the astronauts. But another space film was made at the same time, called Mission Mars, which also had a chess scene. Nick Grant (Nick Adams) plays chess with Duncan (George De Vries) while Col Mike Blaiswick (Darren McGavin) looks on as they travel to Mars. Shortly after the film was made, Nick Adams (who played Johnny Yuma the ‘Rebel’) died of a drug overdose.

In real life, Ben Affleck (born in 1972) plays chess. In the 2002 movie, The Sum of All Fears, he plays Dr. Jack Ryan. He compared an opponent operative, “it’s like a chess game, he’s just thinking three moves ahead.” The Russian nuclear scientist is named Spassky.

Claude Akins (1926-1994) was an enthusiastic chess player. He learned how to play chess in college and played chess with friends and actors throughout his life. During the making of the 1959 movie Rio Bravo (he played Joe Burdette), he played chess constantly with John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Ricky Nelson. Akins said that he taught Dean Martin how to play chess. In 1973, Claude starred in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (he was Aldo). Between takes, Claude was always playing chess in a gorilla costume. Claude played in one of Walter Browne’s blitz tournaments and was a spectator (along with Morgan Fairchild and Gene Scherer) with a front row seat at the 1988 World Action Chess Championship in Mazatlan, Mexico. One of his regular chess partners was actor William Windom (1923-Aug 16, 2012). There is a photo of Claude Akins and William Windom playing chess in the March 1988 issue of Chess Life.

Alan Alda (born in 1936) is a chess player in real life. In the 1977 CBS TV movie, Kill Me if You Can, Alda played Caryl Chessman (1921-1960), who spent 12 years on death row before being executed in 1960. Chessman played chess while on death row. In the 2011 movie, Tower Heist, he plays chess online. Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), as a crooked businessman, talks to Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) about the Marshall chess swindle involving Frank Marshall and Lewitsky in a World Championship game in 1912 in Helsinki. Alda called the swindle as the greatest move in the history of chess. Alda should have known better. It was a real game, but not a world championship game, and not in Helsinki (it was played in Breslau, now called Wroclaw). Alan’s father, Robert Alda (1914-1986), may also have been a chess player. Robert Alda played a chess hustler (Bruce Conrad) in the 1946 movie, Beast with Five Fingers. His opponent was Francis Ingram (Victor Francen).

Dan Aykroyd (born in 1952) probably doesn’t play chess, but as Col John Hall in the 1996 movie, Sgt. Bilko, he kept a chess clock on the table by his office door. In the 2001 movie Pearl Harbor, he played analyst Captain Thurman, head of the cryptography team trying to crack the Japanese naval code. He remarked that keeping track of the Japanese fleet was like “playing chess in the dark.”

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