Famous People and Chess

Former NFL running back  Shaun Alexander (1977- ) plays chess.  While playing for the Seattle Seahawks, he gave $7,500 to sponsor a chess-in-the-schools program at Madrona Elementary School in Seattle.  He has given over $25,000 for chess programs.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) was a chess player.  In the book, One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong’s Stellar American Journey, by Leon Wagener, the author pointed out that Neil Armstrong played chess with his six-year-old son Mark, who was fast becoming a skilled player.  The occasion was just after Armstrong’s return from the moon and after his quarantine period. 

Novelist, playwright and poet Samuel Becket (1906-1989) was obsessed with chess.  He had a lifelong interest in chess and was a keen player.  His chess books in his library are full of comments as he played over master games.  He wrote a one-act play called ‘Endgame.’  He often played chess with artist Marcel Duchamp.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (1913-1992) played chess.  He played chess against Zbigniew Brzezinski at Camp David and won.  In 1940 he was playing a game of chess with his wife when Russian soldiers burst into his home to arrest him.  As they dragged him away, he shouted to Mrs Begin, “I resign.”


Astronaut Guion “Guy” Bluford (1942- ), the first African-American astronaut to fly in space, flew on four Shuttle missions.  He was a chess player and captain of his high school chess team.


English business magnate and investor Richard Branson (1950- ) is a keen chess player.  He has met Garry Kasparov.  Branson thinks chess is the best game in the world and says he has played thousands games over his lifetime.


Jimmy Carter (1924- ), 39th U.S. President, was a chess player. He wanted to become a chess expert after he left the White House. He bought numerous chess books and a computer chess program. He finally gave up on chess around 1997, saying: "I found that I don't have any particular talent for chess. I hate to admit it, but that's a fact."  He made handcraft chess sets and sold them for charity.


NBA basketball player Wilt Chamberlain (1936-1999) played chess. He started playing chess when he attended the University of Kansas.   Chamberlain invited Bobby Fischer to dinner at his house once, but Fischer didn't want to meet any other people, so declined.


Astronaut Dr. Gregory Chamitoff (1962- ) plays chess.  In June 2008, mission specialist astronaut Chamitoff brought a Velcro chessboard ( a magnetic chess set would have interfered with some electronics on board) with him on the space shuttle. In August 2008, he played a chess match against Houston Mission Control and won two games against ground control while playing chess on the International Space Station (ISS). At one point, a rook did not stick to the Velcro board and floated away. It was later found in one of the airflow return filters in the US Laboratory on the ISS.  In 2011, he played chess while aboard the International Space Station.  From May 16 to June 1, 2011, an Earth vs. Space Match was held between earth members and the team of Chamitoff and Pilot Greg Johnson of STS 134 (last U.S. space launch) on the Endeavour Space Shuttle to the International Space Station. It was sponsored by NASA and the USCF (match director was Hal Bogner). The mission, and the game, lasted 16 days. The public voted on the moves made via Facebook and Twitter.  A chess board flown on the Endeavour Space Shuttle is on display at the U.S. and World Chess Hall of Fame in Saint Louis.  It was signed by the 2010 U.S. Men’s and Women’s Chess Championship.


Lord Randolf Churchill (1849-1895) was one of the founders of the Oxford University Chess Club.  His son, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who became British Prime Minister, played chess.


Actress and singer Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002) played chess.


Kurt Cobain (1967-1994), was an American musician who formed the band Nirvana. He was an avid chess player. He once carved a chess set for himself. He once mentioned that he hadn’t been writing too much music because he was playing so much chess.


Astronaut Michael Collins (1930- ), who flew on Gemini 10 and orbited the moon in the command module while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on the moon, was more interested in chess than airplanes when he was growing up.  Collins once said of Buzz Aldrin, he “would make a champion chess player, always thinks several moves ahead.”


Actor Tom Cruise (1962- ) plays chess.  He played chess with Stanley Kubrick on the set of Eyes Wide Shut.


Artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989) played chess.  He met Anatoly Karpov in New York in 1979 and they had lunch.  Dali was accompanied by two gorgeous female fans, while Karpov was followed by a KGB guy.  Dali was famous for his finger chess set that he designed.


Bobby Darin (1936-1973) was an American singer and actor who loved to play chess. He was about to sponsor one of the largest chess tournaments in the United States when he died after heart surgery. The Darin Classic would have been a $25,000 prize tournament. Darin often played chess on his weekly TV show, the Bobby Darin Show.  He was playing chess just before he went into surgery.  His wife, Sandra Dee, also played chess.  Bobby Darin’s son, Dodd, runs a chess publishing house.


Olivia de Havilland (1935-2009) played chess.  She played chess with Errol Flynn on the set of ‘They Died with Their Boots On.’  Her father, Walter Augustus de Havilland, played chess and was a member of the local chess club.


Actress Catherine Deneuve (1943- ) plays chess.  She played chess with David Bowie on the set of ‘The Hunger.’


Neil Diamond (1941- ) is an American singer-songwriter. He is chess player. He said that he played chess now and then.  He went to the same high school, Erasmus Hall High School, as Bobby Fischer.


Paul Dirac (1902-1984) was a chess player, probably taught by his father, who gave him a chess set for Christmas.  In his biography, The Strangest Man – The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, by Graham Farmelo, it stated that Dirac worked all day long and took time off only for his Sunday walk and to play chess.  He beat most students in the college chess club, sometimes several at the same time.  He served for many years as president of the chess club of St. John’s College, Cambridge.  With his stepson, he would go over chess problems that they found in newspapers.  He played chess with friends such as Peter Kapitza (1894-1984), a Russian physicist, who taught Dirac how to play tennis.  When he lectured, he sometime linked subatomic particles to chess.  In 1929, Dirac discussed chess problems with Heisenberg on their tour to Japan.   After his return to Leipzig, Heisenberg wrote to Dirac: “You are wrong…in the question of mating a King and a Knight with a King and Rook; this is not possible according to the edition of 1926 of Dufresne’s handbook of chess (the best book about theory of chess at the time).”


Scientist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) played chess as a boy and occasionally when he was a student.  In 1927, Einstein met Dr. Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941) in Berlin, and they became good friends.  He wrote the forward of Johannes Hannak’s biography of Emanuel Lasker.  He always had a chess set and board set up at home on his coffee table.  When he settled in Princeton, New Jersey, he played chess with some of the neighbor boys.  Einstein’s son was also a chess player.


Larry Ellison (1944- ), founder and former CEO of Oracle, used to play tournament chess and said he put a lot of work into that.


Actress Morgan Fairchild (1950- ) plays chess.  In 1989, she hosted a charity chess event in Mexico.


Actress Mia Farrow (1945- ) plays chess and had taken chess lessons.


American writer William Faulkner (1897-1962) played chess.  He taught his stepson, Malcolm Franklin (1923-1977) to play chess.


Tennis great Roger Federer (1981- ) plays chess.  Boris Becker, who plays chess, says that Federer is the best chess player in the ATP tour.


Physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) played chess. 


Jose Ferrer (1912-1992) was an avid chess player.  He played a game with Sammy Reshevsky and met Bobby Fischer.  He acted as master of ceremonies during the 1961 Fischer-Reshevsky match potion that was held in Los Angeles.  He took chess lessons from Herman Steiner and master Bob Jacobs.


Theoretical physicist and Nobel-prize winner Richard Feynman (1918-1988) played chess.  In his lectures, he would compare physics laws with chess analogies.  He was a member of his high school chess club. 


Singer Eddie Fisher (1928-2010) played chess.  He played chess against Artie Shaw and occasionally won.


Actor Errol Flynn (1909-1959) played chess.  He played chess with Olivia de Havilland on the set of the film ‘They Died with Their Boots On.’  Errol also played correspondence chess.


Actor Jamie Foxx (1967- ) plays chess.  He started playing chess at age 7 from his biological father.  He played chess between scenes in the movie, ‘Jarhead.’


Astronaut Christer Fuglesang (1957- ), a Swedish physicist, flew on two Shuttle missions.  He is a chess player.  While in space, he played a game of chess against the Swedish public in 2009.  He is a member of the Swedish Chess Academy.  In August- September 2009 Fuglesang played chess while in space against readers of a Swedish newspaper. He lost the game, but when he returned to Earth, he received a Rybka program signed by five world chess champions (Kasparov, Karpov, Kramnik, Spassky, and Anand).


Actress Zsa Zsa Gabor (1917- ) plays chess.  In 1949, she played chess with her husband, George Sanders (1906-1972), on her honeymoon.  George wrote in his autobiography that the two played chess nearly every night on their honeymoon.


Actress Ava Gardner (1922-1990) played chess.  She was married to Artie Shaw, who played chess.  Shaw hired a Russian chess master to tutor her and, after a few months of lessons, she started beating Shaw.


Trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie (1917-1993) played chess.  He played chess with Ray Charles.   A game of chess occurred between Dizzie Gillespie and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren in 1954 on an airplane.  Gillespie also played chess with Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Billie Holiday.  He also played correspondence chess. 


Cary Grant (1904-1986) played chess.


Baseball pitcher Ron Guidry (1950- ) plays chess.  He appeared on the September 1983 cover of Chess Life magazine, making a pitch for chess.  Guidry and Bruce Pandolfini were playing a chess game at Yankee stadium one day when manager Billy Martine came by, telling the players that the Yankee locker room was “no place to play.”


Physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) was probably taught chess by his father.  He spent his free time in the evenings playing chess, which he always won.  He often held chess matches under his desk at school and could give Queen odds and still win.  He would often play blindfold chess with his father while hiking.  He was able to reconstruct entire games from memory.  After he entered the university in Munich, his obsession with chess became so obvious that Professor Arnold Sommerfeld (1868-1951) finally had to forbid him to play, claiming it was a waste of his time and talents.  Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958) also told Heisenberg to give up chess and save whatever intellectual effort he could muster for physics.  Heisenberg continued to play chess, however.  During World War II, Heisenberg was convinced Germany would lose the war.  He once said, “Hitler has a chess endgame with one rook less than the others, so he will lose – it will take a year.”  According to his wife, Heisenberg saw politics as a “game of chess, in which the feelings and passions of people are subordinated to the charted course of political events, just as the chess figures to the rules of the game.”


Actress Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) played chess.  She carried a small leather chess set and played frequently on boats and trains.  She took chess lessons from Herman Steiner.


Actor Charlton Heston (1923-2008) played chess.  He was on his high school chess team.


Former NFL running back Priest Holmes (1973- ) is an avid chess player who has founded and sponsored chess clubs.  He sponsors chess tournaments through his Priest Holmes Foundation, encouraging education and enhancing the lives of children.  When he retired from football, he said he enjoyed three things – playing chess, bass fishing, and riding motorcycles.  He started a chess club in Kansas City.

Actor Leslie Howard (1893-1943) played chess.


Actor and director Ron Howard (1954- ) plays chess.  He lists chess as his hobby. 


All the Jefferson Airplane band members, including Grace Slick, once took chess lessons from International Master Kim Commons.


Theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku (1947- ) played first board on his high school chess team at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto.

Physicist Peter Kapitza (1894-1984) won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in superfluidity.  When he was living in Paris, he used to make a living by playing chess in the small cafes for some wager.  He pretended to be a beginner and, in the end, he would usually win.


John F. Kennedy Jr (1960-1999) played chess.  In 1975, he and his cousin, Mark Shriver, visited Moscow and played chess at the Moscow University Chess Club.


Vitali Klitschko (1971- ) is a Ukrainian politician and mayor of Kiev.  He is a former WBC and WBO boxing heavyweight champion.  He is a strong chess player and is a friend of former world chess champion Vladimir Kramnik.  The two have played chess together.  His younger brother, Vladimir (1976- ), is also a former heavyweight world champion and strong chess player.  Both brothers are also friends of Garry Kasparov.


Syndicated columnist and physician (psychiatrist) Dr. Charles Krauthammer (1950- ) plays chess.  His USCF rating is 1630, but inactive for many years.  He has chess boards in his office and a chess room at home.  He says he only entered and played in one chess tournament, in 2002, and won $150.


Actor Jude Law (1972- ) plays chess.  He oftentimes will play chess when taking a break during the shooting of a film.


Australian actor Heath Ledger (1979-2008) was an avid chess player.  He learned chess at an early age and said he played at least one game of chess a day.  He used to play almost every day at the Washington Square Park in New York.  He won the Western Australia Junior Chess Championship at the age of 10. 


Ex-Beatle John Lennon (1940-1980) was a chess player, along with his wife, Yoko Ono.  Their son, Sean Lennon (1975- ) plays chess and has taken chess lessons.  He used to play a lot of chess in Washington Square Park in New York.


Actress Myrna Loy (1905-1993) played chess.  She took lessons from Herman Steiner and was a member of the Herman Steiner Chess Club.


Singer and actress Madonna (1958- ) plays chess.  She can be seen playing chess in some of her music videos.  She and her husband, film director Guy Ritchie, took chess lessons from Scottish chess champion Alan Norris.


French actor and mime Marcel Marceau (1923-2007) played chess.


Johnny Marks (1909-1985) was an American songwriter (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer). He was a member of the Marshall Chess Club in New York for many years.


Actor and comedian Steve Martin (1945- ) plays chess.  He played chess with director Stanley Kubrick when he visited his house in England.  Steve was in the audience during the 1990 Kasparov-Karpov world championship match in New York.


Tennis great John McEnroe (1959- ) plays chess.  When he wasn’t playing tennis, he played chess with other tennis players.  He described himself as a good, but no great, chess player among the other tennis players.  He would play two-hour chess matches between tennis.  He and tennis player Peter Fleming played a lot of chess together.


Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) was an American violinist and conductor. Louis Persinger gave Menuhin violin and chess lessons at an early age. After a recital at the Paris Opera, 12-year-old Menuhin gave interviews while playing chess.


Astronaut and physician Story Musgrave (1935- ) plays chess.  He flew on the Shuttle 6 times.  He listed chess as his hobby.


Singer and songwriter Willie Nelson (1933- ) is a chess player.  He played many games against Ray Charles and Woody Harrelson.


Actor Paul Newman (1925-2008) played chess, but wasn’t very good at it.


Actor David Niven (1910-1983) played chess.  He played on the set of ‘The Guns of Navarone’ after Anthony Quinn organized a chess tournament for the actors, which included Gregory Peck and James Darren.  David Niven’s son was also played chess and was a strong player.


Actor Al Pacino (1940- ) plays chess.  He played chess on the set of ‘Righteous Kill.’  He said he was always looking for chess players to play chess when he traveled.


Jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker (1920-1955) played chess and loved the game.  An Irish lady taught him how to play chess.  He played chess with Dizzie Gillespie.


Louis Persinger (1887-1966) was one of the greatest violinists who ever lived.  In 1941, he won the first USCF Open postal chess tournament.  In 1944, he played in the U.S. Chess Championship, but took last place.  When he was a judge at violin contests, he would usually pull out his pocket chess set and study chess or find some other judge, such as David Oistrakh, to play chess. He was a member of the Marshall Chess Club in New York. 


Phish is an American rock band whose members play chess. In one concert in 1995, the band challenged its audience to two games of chess. Phish won one game and the audience won the other.


Physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of energy quanta.  He played chess with Emanuel Lasker.


Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. He was an avid chess player, around master strength. He beat Capablanca in a simul and was friends with Mikhail Botvinnik. He always had a chess set on his piano, ready to play anyone at chess.


Julia Roberts (1967- ) plays chess.  In the past, she has requested a chess set be made available in her trailer when making a movie.


Rock singer David Lee Roth (1954- ) plays chess and once took chess lessons at the Chess Forum in New York.


Philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) played chess and taught his son how to play.


RZA (1969- ), or Robert Diggs, is an American rapper, and one of the founders of the Wu-Tang Clan. He is a huge chess fan.  He is a Director of Development and chess champion of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation.


Astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan (1934-1996) played chess in high school.


Bandleader Artie Shaw (1910-2004) played chess.  He played a game against grandmaster Larry Evans aboard a cruise ship where Evans was giving chess lessons.   Artie Shaw hired a master to teach his wife, Ava Gardner, how to play chess.


Radio shock jock Howard Stern (1954- ) plays chess.  He is a card-carrying member of the Marshall Chess Club.  He is probably the only celebrity I have played online several years ago.  He took chess lessons from FIDE master Dan Heisman.  Stern plays with an anonymous handle on the Internet Chess Club.  Don Imus, another radio personality, also plays chess.


Actor Kiefer Sutherland (1966- ) plays chess.  He is a big fan of the game of chess.  There is a photo of him playing chess at a pub in London, taken in 2007.  He plays chess with his daughter.


Physicist Dr. Edward Teller (1908-2003) was an avid chess player.  He learned chess from his father when he was six.  He often hiked and played chess with friends without a board.  Teller played chess with Heisenberg, but could not beat him at chess.  During lunch breaks or after work, he played chess with other physicists at Lawrence Livermore Labs.


Alan Turing (1912-1954) played chess, though not very well.  He was the first person to publish a chess program for computers.