How Humphrey Bogart homaged chess in Casablanca, and named a gambit

Many readers may like chess and may even be good at it. What is not so likely anymore is that they have ever heard of the Humphrey Bogart gambit. The gambit is a move in which a piece – usually a single pawn – is sacrificed at the beginning of the game for strategic purposes. But the reason that a type of gambit has been named after the famous actor (although it also has other names such as Bronstein, Tim Krabbé or Gibbins-Weidenhagen) is not because of the nature of the move but because of something that will amaze more than one of you: its creator was Bogart himself, who was an accomplished chess player.

You can see the Humphrey Bogart gambit played in this video

Humphrey Bogart has gone down in history for his roles as a tough guy, whether as a detective, a gangster, an adventurer or a soldier, almost always with a certain cynical and unbelieving tone. Apart from his undisputed stardom, his cliché image also came through; felt hat, cigarette on his lips and glass of whisky in his hand. The latter transcended fiction and we know that he was a more than remarkable drinker, to the point that there is a whole series of phrases and anecdotes about it, the most famous of which is perhaps that he and John Huston were the only members of the team of The African Queen who did not get sick during the filming in Uganda because they did not test the water.

But, next to this attitude that at first glance would seem to characterize someone rather simple, there is an aspect of him that is not so well known and denies such simplicity: his love of chess, for which he had an extraordinary skill bordering on mastery. And if alcohol served him for the day to day of his life, the game was even more important because for a long time he survived thanks to it, before achieving success.

Humphrey DeForest Bogart was born in New York in 1899. He was not exactly in financial trouble, as his father was a surgeon and his mother an illustrator, but even in his youth he showed a certain rebellious attitude that led to him being expelled from school first and from Phillips School (where he was preparing to enter Yale University and study medicine). When the First World War broke out, he joined the Navy and it was a battle at sea against a German submarine that shaped some of his characteristic features, such as a split lip and a peculiar diction, the result of a splinter that wounded his mouth after a torpedo explosion.

Paradoxically, those traits that would make him famous later on were an obstacle at the beginning of his Broadway career, where, after leaving behind an ephemeral stage as an accountant in a production company, he was far from the prototype of a gallant man and had to be content with small inconsequential roles. This difficult period lasted throughout the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s. Approximately fifteen years in which Bogart found an unusual way to complete his meager earnings: betting on chess games.

Not in the others’ but in the ones he himself played challenging the opponents. He did this in bars and in squares and parks, where fans sat on benches with their boards to share games. Not that the actor played a lot of money, since it was not his thing, about ten cents each time, but if he played several games a day for a whole month he could get a good complement to shore up his limited economy. At least in theory, since he used to spend his winnings that very night. On alcohol, of course.

Because Bogart not only played but also used to win, as his was not an improvised hobby. It is believed that it was his father who introduced him to chess during the summers he spent at Canandaigua Lake, near Rochester, New York, later making contact with New York chess clubs. Thus, he would have been acquiring practice and by the mid-twenties he had already reached a good level, something that, as we can see, came in handy and much more from 1929, when the stock market crash plunged the country into the Great Depression.

By then, Bogart had already married twice, in 1926 to Helen Menken – they were divorced in less than a year – and in 1928 to Mary Philips. In 1930 he rolled up his sleeves and went to Hollywood but he was unlucky and spent more time in front of chess boards than on the sets, so he returned to his hometown and since he couldn’t find a job he kept getting a few quarters from the game. The bad luck started to change in 1936, when Leslie Howard demanded Warner to give him a role in The Petrified Forest and the film was a success.

Humphrey Bogart, Leslie Howard and Bette Davies in The Petrified Forest

Since then, Bogart began to work on important films, many with John Huston, and finally became a star: The Last Refuge, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, To Have and Not to Have, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo… He divorced Mary in 1937 to marry Mayo Melthot the following year and no longer needed to spend his dime on parks, although he did not give up chess. Good proof of this is Casablanca.

Directed by Michael Curtiz in 1942, it won the Oscar and was an unexpected success because it was done with a lot of improvisation, to the point that Curtiz and the scriptwriters wrote the script and the dialogues the next day at the end of each day’s shooting, making the actors desperate, as they didn’t know how to face their characters. What interests us here is that there is a curious chess scene in the film in which Rick, the main character, plays alone. It seems that it was introduced at his idea, as a way of paying tribute to the game that had helped him so much, since it shows a French opening that was his favorite. In fact, Rick had much in common with Bogart because he also drank alcohol well and when Major Strasser asked him his nationality he replied: I’m a drunkard.

Humphrey Bogart with Peter Lorre in another Casablanca chess scene

Chess appears several times in Casablanca and Bogart himself played correspondence games during breaks, some with war wounded who were hospitalized, others with foreign players; the latter had to be interrupted because the FBI forbade them, since after all they were in the middle of the Second World War and the agents were suspicious of those cipher codes that initially they did not know how to interpret and then they preferred to ban them to prevent them from being used to mask encrypted messages.

In 1945, at the same time as the fight was ending, the actor divorced again to get married for the third time to his female partner in To Have and Not to Have, Lauren Bacall, who was also an amateur chess player and that must have been another factor in bridging the age gap (he was forty-five and she was twenty). In case there were any doubts, both were on the cover of Chess Review magazine that same year, in which he would repeat some times, while he was openly involved in the promotion of the sport by organizing tournaments for the Californian and national federations, as well as sponsoring the Pan American Chess Congress in Los Angeles 1945.

In an interview, when asked what he cared most about, he replied that chess was among the things that were most important to him, along with family, movies and sailing, confirming that he always played during the breaks in the shooting. He was a good friend of the international master Herman Steiner, with whom he used to meet to play games at his reserved table in Michael Romanoff’s famous restaurant in Beverly Hills. Once he lost a hundred dollars in a game with Romanoff – who was an expert – and then took revenge with another telephone game he won in twenty moves – but helped by Steiner. There have been many such stories, such as the one where he lost a game to the Belgian champion George Koltanowski in forty-one moves, even though he played blindfolded; playing blind had already been tried unsuccessfully by himself and his friend, the actor Theodre Bikel, at a home meeting and they ended up giving up.

We were talking before about The African Queen, shot in Uganda and Congo in 1951. While Bogart was sharing his hobbies (chess with Katharine Hepburn and drunkenness with John Huston), he met a Belgian doctor called Paul Limbos whom he visited every day because he was an excellent chess player. So much so that a few years later he would become Belgian champion three times and participate in two Olympiads, reaching the semi-professional level. It is not strange that the actor, who bet one dollar per game, lost money; although the satisfaction he got in return compensated him, of course.

In 1956, Bogart signed his highest chess level by achieving a draw against Polish master Samuel Reshevsky (Bobby Fischer’s legendary rival) in a simultaneous exhibition in Los Angeles. His film career ended prematurely and tragically in 1957, when a throat cancer killed him in his sleep, weighing only thirty-six kilos at the time of death (the aforementioned Romanoff was one of those who carried the coffin on his shoulders). As a legacy he left seventy-five films, many unforgettable, but also the record of the playing of several of his chess games and the gambit that bears his name.


Sources: Humphrey Bogart and chess (Billwall en Chess) / Humphrey Bogart y el ajedrez (Javier Cordero Fernández en Ajedrez de Ataque) / Le gambit Humphrey Bogart (Dany Sénéchaud en MJAE) /Faulkner’s gambit. Chess and literature (Michael Wainwright)