Chess Masters on Film

Edward Winter



alekhine

Alexander Alekhine



Which was the first occasion when chess masters were filmed? The earliest case that comes to mind is the New York, 1915 tournament. From page 91 of the May-June 1915 American Chess Bulletin:

‘…a genuine chess scene, and nothing less than the opening round of this tournament, was reproduced in motion pictures atpa various theaters throughout the country. On 17 April, on the invitation of the Messrs Pathé-Frères, the players, committee men and other prominent followers of the game repaired to the studio at the plant of that well-known concern and, under the direction of Mr Raymond J. Brown, the editor of Pathé News, posed before the camera which produced the films that were to make the public at large better acquainted with chess, and some of its chief exponents. In the principal sitting, the players were shown seated as paired in the opening round, making their moves, regulating clocks and recording scores, with officials and spectators grouped in the background. In addition, there were separate sittings for Capablanca and Marshall in individual poses.’

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new york 1915

John Blackstone (Las Vegas, NV, USA) draws attention to page 3 of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 22 April 1915, which has a caption for the above photograph. The newspaper also reports on the film coverage featuring Capablanca, Marshall and other masters. See the addition to New York, 1915: A Chess Photograph.

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A related question: who was the first chess master to act in a film? We suggest A.B. Hodges (1861-1944), who was the subject of a brief item entitled ‘Hodges in the Movies’ on page 47 of the February 1918 American Chess Bulletin:

‘Albert B. Hodges, ex-United States chess champion, has made a number of appearances on the screen, notably as a member of the Russian Duma in War Brides, the Police Inspector in The Auction Block, the Coroner in Empty Pockets and the Butler in the new Brenon picture False Faces.’

hodges

Albert Beauregard Hodges

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David Picken (Greasby, England) writes:

‘I have searched in the Internet Movie Database and the All Movie Guide database but have found nothing on Hodges, although the four films you mentioned are covered and cast-lists are given. It may be that Hodges was an “extra” or a very small bit part player who would not normally be credited. The films are:

War Brides. Released in 1916 as a short (eight minutes) by Selznick Pictures Corporation and directed by Herbert Brenon. The cast included Alla Nazimova and Richard Barthelmess.

The Auction Block. Released in 1917 and directed by Laurence Trimble.

Empty Pockets. Released in 1918 and directed by Herbert Brenon.

The False Faces. Released in 1919 and directed by Irvin Willat. Brenon appears not to have had a connection with this film.’

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All available information on this aspect of the master’s life is presented on pages 314-315 of an admirable new book, Albert Beauregard Hodges (subtitle: The Man Chess Made) by John S. Hilbert and Peter P. Lahde (Jefferson, 2008).

hodges1

A.B. Hodges, front cover of the Chess Review, June-July 1941

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‘According to H.A. Horwood of Los Angeles, Cal., in the October “Folder” of the Good Companion Chess Problem Club, Carlos Torre, R., the boy expert of New Orleans, like Rzeschewski, has appeared in the “movies”.’

Source: American Chess Bulletin, November 1920, page 176.

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No further information has yet been found, and for now we can but add the exact text in the earlier publication:

‘H.A. Horwood, Los Angeles, Calif. “These are wonderful days for chess, as I saw last evening, in a moving picture theatre, an exhibition of our boy wonder, C. Reperto [sic], of New Orleans.”’

Source: “Our Folder”, 1 October 1920, page 11.

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Footage of old events (such as living chess displays featuring Capablanca and Alekhine, against Sir George Thomas and Bogoljubow respectively) can be viewed at the following site: http://www.britishpathe.com/.

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From Luc Winants (Boirs, Belgium):

‘British Pathé footage (www.britishpathe.com) is now managed by ITN Source (www.itnsource.com). There also seem to be clips from other companies, such as Gaumont.

One brief item is of a simultaneous display given by Alekhine in Paris (most probably the one on 28 February 1932 – see pages 416-417 of the book by Skinner and Verhoeven): www.itnsource.com/shotlist//BHC_RTV/1932/01/01/BGT407170046/?s=Paris+chess&st=0&pn=1

Another one, even more spectacular, shows the tournament in San Remo, 1930. We see them all: Alekhine, Nimzowitsch, Spielmann, Maróczy, Yates …: www.itnsource.com/shotlist//BHC_RTV/1930/01/01/BGT407150379/?s=Alekhin&st=0&pn=1

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botvinnik

Mikhail Botvinnik

Page 249 of the August 1948 CHESS stated:

‘We hear that Mikhail Botvinnik is the subject of a new Russian documentary film, World Champion.’

What more is known about it?

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There used to be considerable ignorance about the 1925 Soviet film Chess Fever. ‘Did any reader ever see it?’ was the question posed on page 76 of CHESS, 5 December 1959. The same page contained the remark ‘Capablanca’s voice and figure were, we understand, “dubbed in”’, which Stewart Reuben corrected on page 283 of the 18 June 1960 issue by pointing out that the film was made before the advent of sound.

But in what circumstances was the footage of Capablanca included? In the Chess Fever entry on pages 72-74 of Chess in the Movies Bob Basalla writes:

‘“Capa” was actually given “star” billing to goose audience attendance, even though most of his “acting” is just edited in to make him look like a participant. (The technique of Pudovkin’s mentor, Lev Kuleshov, by which unsuspecting people, in this instance the tournament participants and especially World Champ Capablanca, are filmed documentary or news reel style only to have their “parts” spliced into a different movie, a comedy in this case, defines the Kuleshov method.)’

Does contemporary Soviet literature (chess, cinema or general) offer any clarification of what occurred?

Nowadays, Chess Fever is widely available for home viewing.

chess fever1

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Hassan Roger Sadeghi (Lausanne, Switzerland) writes:

‘I very much doubt that what was said about inserting Capablanca in Chess Fever could be true. He interacts with the leading actress in the plot of the film, unlike the other masters, who are indeed merely sitting at their boards.’

This interaction is also mentioned in Bob Basalla’s book Chess in the Movies. As regards the other masters, it may be noted that the set of pairings filmed (e.g. Marshall v Torre and Réti v Yates) corresponds to no round of play at Moscow, 1925, and there is much artificial smiling for the camera. Another point is that the cinema entry in The Encyclopedia of Chess by H. Golombek (London, 1977 and Harmondsworth, 1981) stated that the director, Pudovkin, utilized ‘such real personages as Capablanca and Lasker as figures in his short film’, whereas Basalla writes (justifiably, from our own viewing), ‘I can’t see where Emanuel Lasker appears at all’.

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John Blackstone sends this report from page 26 of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 14 January 1935:

marshall ajeeb1

Can any reader discover whether the footage has survived?

Page 219 of Chess: Man vs Machine by Bradley Ewart (London, 1980) stated:

‘Under Frain’s guidance Ajeeb was reintroduced to the world in early January 1935. At that time the automaton, “rigged out anew in resplendent oriental regalia”, posed for a newsreel troupe at the Marshall Chess Club with US Champion Marshall himself. Frain later claimed that Marshall “encountered Ajeeb at chess, and went away shaking his head after a draw”.’

marshall

Frank James Marshall (American Chess Bulletin, December 1935, page 171)

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Robert Sherwood (E. Dummerston, VT, USA) asks for information about the film referred to by W. Hatton-Ward on page ix of his Introduction to Alekhine’s book on the London, 1932 tournament:

‘For a whole fortnight a Chess Congress held its ground as a popular London spectacle, and the enormous publicity secured was as advantageous to the game - possibly more so - as to the newspaper. Admission was free upon production of a ticket, and in addition to the usual army of photographers a sound film of the opening ceremony was taken by the Gaumont Coy., Ltd., and was exhibited at a large number of London and provincial cinema theatres.’

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Ryan Paulis (Amsterdam) informs us that much Euwe-related footage is now available on-line, including an unmissable item which features Capablanca speaking.

[Addition on 11 March 2012: Since the above link no longer works, we provide the general link to the website. For a direct link to the Capablanca interview, see C.N. 7550.]

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Since the link to the Geschiedenis 24 website given in C.N. 6862 required updating, we take the opportunity to provide here a direct link to the only video-and-sound interview with Capablanca known to us.

capablanca euwe

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pomar bernstein

Olimpiu G. Urcan (Singapore) notes a Pathé news item on the London, 1946 tournament, featuring Arturo Pomar in play (with the black pieces, as in the photograph above) against Ossip Bernstein, as well as footage of some other players, including Savielly Tartakower (briefly) and William Winter. The technical quality is good, with a commentary which is quintessentially English.

Another Pathé report pointed out by Mr Urcan concerns Jutta Hempel.

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In C.N. 6180 Gene Gnandt (Houston, TX, USA) gave a YouTube link to Isaac Kashdan’s appearance on the television show You Bet Your Life, presented by Groucho Marx. That link no longer works, but our correspondent provides a replacement one, to the Internet Archive.

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Robert Sherwood draws attention to a snippet of film showing Alekhine and Euwe at the chessboard (the first part of the item).


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steinitz

C.N. 7345 mentioned that Liz Garbus’ 2011 documentary film Bobby Fischer Against the World has some exceptionally rich archive material.

A Canadian documentary of the early 1980s which contained much film of the old-timers was Jouer sa vie by Gilles Carle and Camille Coudari. See Chess Jottings.




capablanca v lasker

Further to this well-known photograph of Capablanca and Lasker in Moscow in 1925 (see, for instance, page 310 of Chess Facts and Fables), Christian Sánchez (Rosario, Argentina) notes a brief sequence of moving pictures of the two champions (at about 15:40:40).

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Addition on 16 November 2012: the material is no longer available at the link indicated.



C.N. 6312 showed these three photographs:

alekhine bogoljubow

alekhine lasker

alekhine lasker

Now, Albert Silver (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) points out some film footage of the occasion, entitled ‘Campionato di scacchi a Berlino’.

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From Thomas Höpfl (Halle, Germany) comes a link to a Russian film which contains (starting at about 4’37”) some moving pictures of Emanuel Lasker.



Thomas Höpfl and Dan Scoones (Port Coquitlam, BC, Canada) point out a video item featuring Euwe and Alekhine (1935) which is similar, but not identical, to one available mentioned earlier in the present article.

From Thomas Höpfli there also comes a link to a video report on Arturo Pomar which includes Fischer speaking a few words of Spanish.

fischer

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Wijnand Engelkes (Zeist, the Netherlands) points out that at the Open Images website a number of Dutch-language film items concerning chess can be viewed by typing ‘schaken’ in the search-box.

Our correspondent mentions too that a search for ‘Euwe’ leads to an item on the 1956 Dutch elections which includes brief footage of the former world champion and provides an opportunity to hear the correct pronunciation of his name.

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YouTube now offers a large quantity of chess-related footage from Pathé.

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From page 132 of the February 1926 Chess Amateur:

‘The great interest taken in chess in Czechoslovakia is evidenced by the filming of the opening of the Prague Championship Tournament on 16 January.’



Alan McGowan (Waterloo, Canada) has found film reports on the tournaments at Prague, 1942 (start: 0’30”) and Prague, 1944 (start: 4’05”). The former newsreel, for instance, includes footage of Alekhine and Junge, and we have made these screen-shots:

alekhine

junge

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From the same site which provided the footage of Prague, 1942 and Prague, 1944 in the previous item, we point out Dutch film reports on the first part of the world championship match-tournament (The Hague, round nine, 23 March 1948) and the first Women’s World Team Tournament (Emmen, 1957).

larsen

Ingrid Larsen

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From Olimpiu G. Urcan:

‘The Associated Press and British Movietone have just made available a large volume of archival footage, including much chess-related material. It can be consulted via the Associated Press official archive website and/or YouTube. Some highlights:

saunders

Elaine Saunders

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Two further stills produced by Mr Urcan from the site mentioned in C.N. 9390:

flohr

Salo Flohr

capablanca

José Raúl Capablanca

Olimpiu G. Urcan also points out a series of links to film coverage of the 1972 world championship match.

spassky fischer

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More and more archive film on chess is coming to light, including particularly interesting footage from the Candidates’ tournament, Bled in 1959.

Two screen-shots:

fischer

Bobby Fischer

tal

Mikhail Tal

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A British Pathé report (beginning at 0’57”) on the 1938 US championship, New York, April 1938, including footage of Reshevsky and Fine.



Olimpiu G. Urcan (Singapore) writes:

‘In addition to audio files with Keres interviews and speeches, the Estonian Film Archives contain a significant number of film files featuring him, and some of the material has been digitized and made available on-line. Among the highlights: a 1938 clip of Keres in a tournament (and playing blitz). A 1941 feature on his mathematics examination at the University of Tartu:

keres

1945 film showing Keres in tournament play (with other Soviet masters):

keres

There is a seven-minute montage on the 1947 USSR Championship, and a brief 1956 clip showing Keres in a simultaneous exhibition at a house of pioneers in Tallinn. Also, coverage of his golden jubilee celebration (1966) and remarkable 1975 footage of his funeral:’

keres

keres

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Mr Urcan has also drawn attention to Das Bundesarchiv, which has a film report dated 25 May 1951 showing Bogoljubow at Bad Pyrmont.

bogoljubow



Latest update: 25 May 2016.

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Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.