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Celebrities Who Are Strong Chess Players

Celebrities Who Are Strong Chess Players

NathanielGreen
| 65 | Chess Players

PogChamps 4 is coming up, starting this Sunday, August 29. If there's anything PogChamps has taught us, it's that you don't need to be a grandmaster to play entertaining chess. You can be an entertainer who plays chess, and there are a countless number of those including several former PogChamps participants: Bobby Hall a.k.a. Logic, Rainn Wilson, Daniel Negreanu, and Hafthor Julius Bjornsson to name a few.

Fair warning, it's impossible to make this list an exhaustive one, so at least one of your favorite chess-playing celebrities is bound to be left off. We didn't necessarily go for the most famous people, but those with excellent documentation of their enthusiasm and skill for chess.


Humphrey Bogart

One of the most iconic actors in history, Humphrey Bogart, was also a quite good chess player. In 1955, he played GM Samuel Reshevsky in a simultaneous exhibition. Reshevsky met Bogart's Two Knights Defense with the sharpest reply, 4.Ng5, but the queens quickly came off and Bogart held a draw.

Bogart's son, Stephen, wrote a memoir in 1996 and chess crops up in it a few times. Stephen's dad "believed that his concentration at chess was what he needed in his acting," he writes. At another point, he mentions that "Bogie said that the key to good acting was concentration. You might recall that first shot of Rick in Casablanca shows him playing chess alone."

Indeed, in Bogart's most famous role, he is seen at a chessboard. A couple images of it can be seen in this Chess.com Forum thread.

Stanley Kubrick

Perhaps no one on our list let chess permeate their line of work more than Kubrick.

In the 1956 noir film The Killing, the protagonist meets an annoying kibitzer at the local chess club who it turns out he has a job for. More famously, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, there's the game between HAL 9000 and Frank Poole, as well as a character called Dr. Andrei Smyslov, named after GM Vasily Smyslov. The game was modeled on a real one played in 1910:

Kubrick told Newsweek while promoting The Shining in 1980 that he used to play chess for 12 hours a day, from noon to midnight with breaks for food. Kubrick played in New York at its two most famous chess-playing venues: both Washington Square Park and the Marshall Chess Club.

Here's theoretical physicist Jeremy Bernstein talking about his experiences with Kubrick, including stories of them trying to outhustle the other. Kubrick (like Bogart) also used to play chess on set.

The YouTuber "CinemaTyler" put together a seven-minute video about Kubrick and chess, which mentions Bernstein's story, in 2016:

Where Bogart saw concentration as a parallel between chess and acting, one of Kubrick's most interesting lines from the video essay was a parallel between chess and moviemaking: in both "you're always pitting time and resources against quality and ideas."

George R. R. Martin

It takes a long time to break through as a writer, and us writers should know. (Comment: Did you just compare yourself to George R. R. Martin? Answer: Not really, but also he's the guy who partially named himself after J. R. R. Tolkien!)

Although A Game of Thrones did not get published until 1996, Martin was successful by writing standards for decades beforehand. And of all things, Martin credits chess for his breakthrough coming quicker. Instead of having a 9-to-5 job and weekends to write, Martin was able to work weekends and write during the week.

His weekend gig? Directing chess tournaments. He was trying to make it in writing just as GM Bobby Fischer was winning the world championship and with it helping American chess to boom. So, as Martin tells it, he was making enough money just from the weekend tournaments to keep at the writing during the week.

As a player, Martin said he briefly made expert (which would be a 2000 USCF rating). Other sources like Chess.com have him peaking at 1905, which is where his USCF member page puts him. Those probably aren't inconsistencies, just incomplete records. The main point is Martin was a very good player.

Chess Celebrities George Martin
Martin in 2014. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia, CC.

In the 1980s Martin wrote a short story with a chess theme, "Unsound Variations." I probably couldn't write anything like it, but I could certainly play in a tournament themed on such lines.

Unfortunately, Martin no longer plays chess and, as with Kubrick, there are no records of his games. However, Martin's interest in the game hasn't waned and he is a big fan of Netflix's The Queen's Gambit miniseries. 

Martin is the first of several people in this article to have a connection to GM Garry Kasparov, who named his 2015 book after a Martin line, Winter is Coming.

Woody Harrelson

The actor from the hit TV sitcom Cheers and movies like White Men Can't Jump, Zombieland, and Rampart (that last one is a little joke for any Redditors reading this) made the ceremonial first move at the 2018 World Championship. He later went on the FIDE broadcast with IM Anna Rudolf and GM Judit Polgar.

Harrelson briefly touched on his chess playing. He started playing around 11 years old and was "fascinated by all of the possibilities"

Harrelson has a draw against Kasparov to his name, although the circumstances are important here. According to ChessGames.com, it was basically a consultation (and a "light-hearted" one at that) between Harrelson and GM Yasser Seirawan. Harrelson was a little more circumspect in his description to FIDE (1:58-2:30), but still suggested that his worst move ideas were overturned by a GM, whom he only identified as the "American champion" (which Seirawan was four times) coughing as a signal to change the move. 

Harrelson is not the only celebrity to play Kasparov in chess. Sting, of the band The Police, and talk show host David Letterman are others. Letterman basically got Kasparov to commit to a months-long bit in 1989 and 1990, where the world champ would literally phone in his moves. Even after Letterman lost his queen on move 14, he kept going until mate on move 23.

Another celebrity Kasparov opponent is...

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Schwarzenegger, who appeared on the author's college radio show—okay, it was actually a friend doing an impersonation of Arnold—has done more than a lot of chess players to promote the game of chess. His Arnold Classic series of competitions played on several continents, features dozens of fields and chess is one of them.

Chess.com covered the 2019 Africa edition of his games, where Schwarzenegger recounted in 2019 that he played a lot of chess in his youth.

Twitter is full of examples of Arnold at a chess board.

Another example caught Kasparov's attention:

Although no game scores of Arnold's efforts at the board are available, he's clearly been a longtime player and fan.

Peter Thiel

That's actually National Master Peter Thiel. The billionaire entrepreneur and PayPal cofounder was strong enough to be titled in the United States and played 10 FIDE-rated games in 2003. His rating after was 2199 FIDE, one point shy of the level required for the Candidate Master (CM) title which had been introduced the year before. His USCF rating peaked at 2342 and ended up at 2287.

Thiel even finished ahead of GM Hikaru Nakamura in a tournament. To be fair, it was in the year 2000 and Nakamura was 12 years old, not even an IM yet. The event was the U.S. Open, where Thiel finished 17th on 7.0 and Naka's 6.5 put him in 20th. Exactly one spot ahead of Thiel in 16th was Chess.com's own IM Danny Rensch, who would have been 14 years old. Thiel was already 33.

Thiel hasn't played competitively for years but still makes some time for chess, showing up at the 2016 World Championship between GM Magnus Carlsen and GM Sergey Karjakin to make the ceremonial first move of the rapid tiebreaks.

He also made an hour-long documentary with Kasparov in 2010 where they mainly talked about things besides chess. The year isn't apparent unless you catch their trip to the Marshall Chess Club (smartly chosen as the thumbnail) where at one point they discuss Carlsen withdrawing from the Candidates Tournament during a cameo by GM Maurice Ashley.

Thiel's chess experience gave him encounters over the board with several American chess legends. Games vs. GM Robert Byrne and GM Bill Lombardy give Thiel a connection to Bobby Fischer, while his contests against GM Gregory Serper and GM Alex Yermolinsky give Thiel a Chess.com connection. Thiel also once held a draw in 1998 against 2021 U.S. Senior Champion GM Gregory Kaidanov.

Howard Stern

With all the shocking things the world #1 "shock jock" has shocked us with, how shocking is it that Howard Stern is shockingly good at chess? For years he played and received coaching and got pretty good, reaching about a 1700 rating on his internet chess site of choice (ICC). The New York Times talked about it in 2008.

In 2010, Stern's coach, NM Dan Heisman, shared this Stern internet miniature with the USCF.

At least in part for reasons consistent with the character of his programming as a radio host—there's at least one story where Stern was so into chess that he, um, neglected his wife—he stopped in 2011. "Cold turkey," as Heisman put it in 2019.

The other, probably more truthful reason Stern quit, was it became obsessive for him. Some of us have time for that; I guess he doesn't. And he's still married to the same person today, so it didn't kill that relationship.

But Stern's interest in the game hasn't appeared to wane in the years since. In 2019 Stern had on his show the author Sasha Chapin, whose All the Wrong Moves was about his chess development and heavily featured GM Ben Finegold. Stern has presumably watched Finegold's streams at least once given he apparently called the Chess.com partnered streamer "endlessly entertaining."

Like Kubrick, Stern often played at the Marshall Chess Club in New York, according to both Heisman and this story. Another Marshall Chess Club alumnus was the artist Marcel Duchamp.

Other Chess-Playing Celebs

Albert Einstein

A close friend of former World Champion Emanuel Lasker, two games attributed to Einstein can be found online.

Benjamin Franklin

A member of the United States Chess Hall of Fame, Franklin once said: "We learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favorable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources."

Stephen Fry

The erudite British comedian often wrote about chess in the late 1980s. Edward Winter has more here. An interesting insight from Fry: "'Strong' is the word chess players use, not 'clever' or 'cunning' or 'brilliant' or 'gifted'. Although those qualities may be necessary, it is the strongest man who wins."

Giannis Antetokounmpo

We don't know how... strong Giannis is (at chess), but he got the attention of Kasparov and Carlsen in 2020. https://twitter.com/magnuscarlsen/status/1239646517415329792

Lennox Lewis

Heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis went on Joe Rogan's podcast in 2020 and talked about chess (occasional NSFW language, although not from Lewis).

Lewis even shared his Chess.com member name, @inter2000.

Ray Charles

The musician played an offhand game vs. GM Larry Evans for Chess Life in 2002.

Conclusion

Chess is a game for everyone, even for celebrities and people who are focused on other things. Maybe that's why PogChamps exists. Be sure to tune in to PogChamps 4 on August 29!

Who is your favorite celebrity chess player? Do you know of a celebrity who plays chess and isn't mentioned in this article? Let us know in the comments below!

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