This time, our topic is only tangentially related to chess in popular culture: we will be talking about famous chess enthusiasts. A few lists like this already exist, but they are all rather unsatisfactory. It seems like every celebrity who was ever seen looking at a chess board is included in these lists. I am not interested in people that know the rules and basta. I am also not interested in people that are mainly known as chess players. Magnus Carlsen, for example, did some modelling work but is clearly better known as a chess player. Lasker, too, is mainly known as a chess player.1 Taimanov is a bit of a special case, where it is unclear whether he’s a chess-playing pianist or a piano-playing chess player.
Here, then, are the criteria for inclusion in my highly prestigious list:
- There should be published results for a tournament the candidate played in. Rapid and blitz tournament are not admissible. Obviously, simultaneous exhibitions are right out.
- The candidate must have a wikipedia page, not necessarily in English, mainly concerned with a topic unrelated to chess.
This should make for a distinguished club of people. Probably, the members will be less famous than Einstein, but that’s half the reason I started the list: in the hopes of stumbling upon some interesting people I hadn’t heard about. Unfortunately, by the above criteria, I would have to include William Herbert Wallace, which I don’t like. Therefore, I will add a third criterion:
- The candidate must not offend the whimsy of yours truly, who retains the right to exclude anyone for any reason.
which gives me all the leeway I could want. With a quick search, I found six people who satisfy these three criteria,2 so without further ado, onto the list:
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), “artist”
Duchamp is a regular on lists like this. He was a French-American dadaist sculptor and painter. He’s responsible for a.o. Fountain, but despite this heavy burden on his soul he reached the age of 81. As a chess player, he was good enough to play in the Olympiad and some other rather important international tournaments.3 ChessMetrics gives him a top rating of 2413 and a top ranking of world number 95. In his days, there were of course far fewer players, but that’s still one of the highest ranks of anyone on this list.
Tim Krabbé (1943-), author
Krabbé is a well-known author in the Netherlands and Flanders. He has written a large number of novels and stories, the most famous being De renner, Het gouden ei (on which The vanishing is based), De grot, and Een tafel vol vlinders. He is an expert level player, with a top Élő-rating of 2290, but in chess circles he is better known as the author of an excellent site filled with problems, records, studies, and much more. At the time of writing, he figures in one crosstable on my site.
Maurice Kraitchik (1882-1957), mathematician
He was a born in Minsk, but lived and played chess for years in Belgium. He maintained a puzzle column in the famous chess magazine L’Échiquier and was one of the founders of recreational mathematics with his own magazine Sphinx. Nowadays, he’s most famous for inventing the two envelopes problem; one of the cutest logical paradoxes around. He was one of Belgium’s top chess players for a while, but played few tournament – probably due to time constraints. His name does figure, however, in quite a few matches the Brussels chess club played in the twenties.
Mazītis was a Lithuanian-English painter who, as a google image search learns, seems to have stayed away from all the newfangled -isms the 20th century was rife with. The name Mazītis features relatively often in crosstables from English tournaments of the fifties and sixties (albeit invariably without the macron), including some on this site. I must admit that I am not completely sure that this A. Mazītis is indeed Arnolds, but how many Mazītises6 could there be in England at that time? Besides, his wikipedia page mentions he played chess.
Dana Reizniece-Ozola (1981-), politician
At the time of writing, she is the Latvian minister of finance. She is also a WGM – a combination which I’m pretty sure is unique in the world. She is a politician, which in terms of respectability puts her on the very bottom of the list right underneath Duchamp. In fact, I toyed with the idea of invoking criterion 3 for her but decided against it. After all, she might still better her live – and besides, if I did not include her, I would probably get e-mails left and right clamouring for her inclusion. Her English wikipedia page is really more about chess than about politics, but the reverse is true for the French version (at least for now).
Kenneth Saul Rogoff (1953-), economist
Rogoff is a world renowned economist, former IMF chief economist, professor at Harvard, and author of a few books on economics and a large number of papers. In chess, he holds the title of grandmaster since the seventies and achieved a top rating of 2520. He hasn’t played any official game since 1980, but an exhibition game he played (and drew!) against Carlsen in 2012 circulates online. I think it is safe to say that Rogoff is the strongest player on this list.
No doubt there are many worthies not yet on the list. I suspect Humphrey Bogart, Fidel Castro, Noam Elkies, Carmen Kass, and Vladimir Nabokov might earn a place on the list, but I couldn’t find a crosstable for them. The following people are mostly famous as chess players, and are therefore kept out of the list: Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, Philip Stuart Milner-Barry, François-André Danican Philidor, Utut Adianto.
1. [Although he left his name to an important theorem in abstract algebra.]↩
2. [If you know of any more candidates, please let me know – but don’t forget their letters of recommendation!]↩
3. [He even has his own page on this site.]↩
4. [He, too, has his own page on this site.]↩
5. [Mazitis also happens to sound exactly like the Flemish dialect for “but look now”.]↩
6. [Or would the correct plural be Mazites?]↩