10 February 2016

Bogie, Chess & Casablanca

Humphrey Bogart learned how to play chess from his father and eventually became an avid and also expert player. In the early Depression years, he played chess for money in New York City parks, Times Square and Coney Island. Playing for 50 cents a game, he won more games than he lost. More than an average chess enthusiast, Bogart became director of the United States Chess Federation and was active in the California State Chess Association in the 1940s. In 1955, he drew against Grandmaster Samuel Reshevsky in a 70-board simultaneous exhibition. Chess was one of the main interests in Bogart's life. He played almost daily, and during movie breaks he was often seen bent over a chess board playing fellow actors or crew members (his wife Lauren Bacall was a chess enthusiast as well).

It was Bogart who wanted Rick Blaine, his character in Michael Curtiz' famous classic Casablanca (1942), to be a chess player. And so, in the opening scene when Rick is introduced to the viewer, he is shown playing a solitary game of chess. Rick is later joined by Ugarte (Peter Lorre), and we see him making chess moves while he listens to Ugarte talk about the German couriers and the transit letters. The game set up on the board was a real game that Bogart was playing by mail against Irving Kovner, brother of a Warner Bros.' employee. The two men had started the chess game in January 1942, corresponding by postcards and letters to indicate their moves. Bogart eventually sent Kovner a total of 17 postcards and two letters  three of his cards are shown below. 

Filming of Casablanca started on 25 May 1942 and officially wrapped a few months later, on 3 August. The first postcard from Bogart that is shown was written during production and is postmarked 8 June 1942. The chess moves that Bogart executes in the scene with Lorre are mentioned in this card. Bogart's two other cards are from a much later date when filming had already wrapped, postmarked resp. 17 November and 7 December 1942. Apparently the game went on and on... 

(Click here to watch the chess scene from Casablanca.)
Source: bonhams 


Dear Irving Kovner 

You're too hot-headed-- calm down! 
My 6 move a bad one- think should have been BxB. 
Now I'm in a jam.
8 knt- knt 5-- Castle Kings side 9?

H. Bogart

Via: iCollector.com (here and here)


Dear Irving

14-------Kt (Kt)-B3
15 Kt - K2- P- Q5

H Bogart


Dear Irving

14- - - - - P- Q5
15 Knt- B4- - - P- Q6

If I see [??]
you bet I will

H Bogart

Bogie and Paul Henreid playing chess on the set of "Casablanca" with Claude Rains looking on. Henreid was reportedly the better player.
 Joan Bennett and Bogie taking a break during the shooting of "We're no Angels" (1955). 
Bogie visits Lauren Bacall on the set of "Confidential Agent" (1945) where he plays her co-star Charles Boyer. The man sitting next to Bacall is chessmaster Herman Steiner who also taught Bogie. Steiner formed a chess club in the 1940s, later known as the Hollywood Chess Group.
Bogie plays chess with his fourth wife Lauren Bacall who was also an excellent player. There's a famous chess game between the two from 1951 that you can follow in an online chart here


  1. What an absolutely fascinating post! It must have been a real relief for these guys to have something to occupy their minds on the set that had nothing to do with show business.