Marcel Duchamp playing chess in his studio (detail), 1952  Kay Bell Reynal, photographer. [Photographs of artists taken by Kay Bell Reynal], 1952. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

‘Finding the right move’: Marcel Duchamp and his passion for chess

As we prepare to auction a pipe Duchamp presented to the legendary chess player George Koltanowski, a look at the artist's love affair with a game he equated with art

On 10 March 1944 two men — both refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe —sat down for a game of chess. One was Marcel Duchamp, painter of Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912) and the pioneer of Dada. The other was George Koltanowski, a Belgian-born chess master and seasoned tournament player.

As the writer, artist and professor Celia Rabinovitch relates in her exhaustive study Duchamp a Smoking Pipe, From Marcel Duchamp to George Koltanowski (March 2015), Koltanowski had been playing in South America when Belgium was invaded, and had come to the United States with nothing. Of Jewish descent, the majority of his family did not survive the war. Duchamp had managed to salvage a few of his possessions, and had escaped in 1942 via Marseilles and Casablanca.

The men, as Rabinovitch recounts, had known each other since 1919, and met at a number of of tournaments — the first match between them was won by Koltanowski at the 1923 Belgian Chess Championship; the second, miraculously, was won by Duchamp at the 1929 chess Olympiad in Paris.

Now in New York, a city alien to both men, they sat down to play once more. Duchamp played white and the game lasted just 29 moves before he was forced to concede. In recognition of Koltanowski’s victory, Duchamp signed and dated his pipe and presented it to Koltanowski.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Pipe, 1944. Signed and dated ‘M DUCHAMP 44’ (on the side) Carved briar wood pipe bowl. Height 1⅞ in (4.7 cm), length 3 in (7.5 cm). This work was offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on at Christie’s New York and sold for $87,500

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Pipe, 1944. Signed and dated ‘M DUCHAMP 44’ (on the side) Carved briar wood pipe bowl. Height: 1⅞ in (4.7 cm), length: 3 in (7.5 cm). This work was offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on at Christie’s New York and sold for $87,500

Duchamp had learnt to play chess as a child, taught by his elder brothers Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon in 1902, the year he painted his first picture. His two brothers became involved in the Cubist circle in Puteaux on the outskirts of Paris, where they played regular games in their studio.

The atmosphere clearly inspired Duchamp, and he incorporated chess as a theme into several important early works. The Fauvism-inspired The Chess Game (1910) was submitted to the 1910 Salon d’Automne. A further two paintings, Portrait of Chess Players (1911) and King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912), blur the line between Cubism and Futurism, with the latter exhibited alongside Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) at the Armory Show. All are now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Pictures of Duchamp’s studio at the time, circa 1917, show a large chessboard on the wall for studying chess positions

In 1915, Duchamp moved to New York for the first time, where unbeknownst to him he was already something of a celebrity. He landed in high-society art circles, meeting the collector Walter Arensberg, the poet Alfred Kreymbord, Dr Ernest Southard, and Man Ray. By chance they were all keen chess players.

Duchamp became a key figure in late-night chess sessions at the Arensbergs’ apartment. Pictures of Duchamp’s studio at the time, circa 1917, show a large chessboard on the wall for studying chess positions.

Feeling he was too close to the art world, Duchamp moved to Buenos Aires in 1918, playing in local chess clubs and taking lessons from a top professional. In May 1919, and while still in Argentina, he wrote to the Stettheimers — three sisters he had given French lessons to in New York: ‘Nothing in the world interests me more than finding the right move,’ he said. ‘I like painting less and less.’

Duchamp made his own chess set, asking a local craftsman to carve the more difficult knights. He returned to Paris briefly, but by 1920 was back in New York, writing to Picabia in 1921: ‘My ambition is to be a professional chess player.’ When Breton’s magazine Littérature published the news that ‘all Duchamp does now is play chess, and he would be quite happy just to become unrivalled at it one day’, he became the artist whose final artwork was to quit art to play chess.

Marcel Duchamp playing chess in his studio, 1952  Kay Bell Reynal, photographer. [Photographs of artists taken by Kay Bell Reynal], 1952. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Marcel Duchamp playing chess in his studio, 1952 / Kay Bell Reynal, photographer. [Photographs of artists taken by Kay Bell Reynal], 1952. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Although Duchamp would later deny this was his intention, at various points he emphasised the art-like values of chess while seeking chess-like values in art. He loved the conceptual nature of the game, its pointlessness, and the nearly infinite possible combinations of moves and tactics. 

Duchamp moved back to Europe in 1923. He chose Brussels, joining a local chess club and playing regularly in tournaments. In another letter to the Stettheimers, he wrote: ‘I am starting with the small nations –— maybe one day I will decide to become French champion.’

In October he placed third in the Tournoi National Belge, winning seven out of nine games and only losing to the two strongest players in Belgium, including once to George Koltanowski, the tournament’s eventual winner. Duchamp and Koltanowski were soon crossing paths on the tournament circuit, and in July 1924 after the 1st Chess Olympiad they were both present at the creation of the Fédération Internationale des Echecs (FIDE), chess’s governing body. It was the beginning of a lasting friendship.

Duchamp played every day from 6pm and often well into the night, sleeping in late the following morning. This was his daily routine for the next 20 years. He married his first wife Lydie Sarazin-Levassor in 1927 and, according to Man Ray, one night Duchamp stayed up to study a game and left the pieces in position to continue the next day. On waking, he discovered that the disapproving Lydie had glued the pieces to the board.

‘[Duchamp] was a ‘master among amateurs’ who ‘would always take risks in order to play a beautiful game’

He next faced Koltanowski in Paris in 1929, but this time fared much better. His victory over a master of the game was of huge importance to him, and the highlight of his tournament career. Duchamp was considered a capable player, but lacking in the aggression to intimidate opponents. International master Edward Lasker, who played him on a number of occasions, judged that ‘if there were official rankings of the United States chess players in the 1920s and 1930s Duchamp would certainly have ranked among the top 25’. He was a ‘master among amateurs’ who ‘would always take risks in order to play a beautiful game, rather than be cautious and brutal to win.’

The original scorecard from a 1929 chess match between Duchamp and George Koltanowski — a game which saw Duchamp beat his opponent in 15 moves

The original scorecard from a 1929 chess match between Duchamp and George Koltanowski — a game which saw Duchamp beat his opponent in 15 moves

The cover of Duchamps scoring book

The cover of Duchamp's scoring book

But chess was changing. As Christopher Beam writes in Slate magazine, soon after the Russian Revolution of 1917, ‘Vladimir Lenin’s supreme commander of the Soviet army, Nikolay Krylenko, laid the foundations for state-sponsored chess. He opened chess schools, hosted tournaments, and promoted the game as a vehicle for international dominance.’ The era of the amateur was over, and by 1933 Duchamp and his teammates were continually coming up against much stronger teams, in particular young German and Russian players. Chess was becoming professionalised in a way that Duchamp could not keep pace with.

He switched to correspondence chess, which allowed him to slowly contemplate each move in a detailed and precise way. He won the International Correspondence Chess Tournament in 1934-35 and contributed a regular chess column to the Parisian Weekly Ce Soir

Duchamp also wrote a book, Opposition and Sister Squares Are Reconciled (1932), about an extremely rare end-game position — so rare, indeed, that most players will never encounter it. As chess player and writer Ernst Strouhal said: ‘Opposition can be understood as both an artist’s book for chess players, and a chess book for artists.’

On 7 June 1942 Duchamp boarded a ship from Casablanca to New York. He had spent two years criss-crossing France on behalf of Peggy Guggenheim, enabled by a cheese merchant’s permit. In New York he reconnected with Koltanowski, who was working as a diamond cutter. They formed the Greenwich Village Chess Club in 1942, and went into business together.

As Celia Rabinovitch recounts, Duchamp had spoken of making, by hand, 50 chess sets that could be be folded up and put in a jacket pocket, some of which Koltanowski marketed and sold on his tours. Duchamp greatly admired Koltanowski and the two were close friends, a bond sealed by Duchamp’s gift of his pipe. Koltanowski kept the pipe for four decades before presenting it in turn to Nikki Lastreto, editor of his chess column on the San Francisco Chronicle

Duchamp also invited Koltanowski to collaborate on his exhibition The Imagery of Chess (1944) at the Julien Levy Gallery, where Koltanowski played chess blindfolded against seven players at once: Julien Levy; Frederick Kiesler, an architect; Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art; Xanti Schawinsky; Vittorio Rieti; Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. The event was refereed by Duchamp, and the exhibition featured works from 32 artists — the number of pieces in a chess set — including Breton, John Cage, Alexander Calder, Ernst, Arshile Gorky, Roberto Matta, Robert Motherwell, May Ray, Kay Sage, Yves Tanguy and Ossip Zadkine.

By now a venerable old man of the art world, Duchamp was able to make his peace with it — helped no doubt by his being ‘discovered’ in the late 1950s by young American artists connected with the Neo-Dada movement, such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. He played chess almost daily, returning to his studio to study games for pure pleasure, while being constantly sought out by journalists who wanted to quiz him about his contributions to modern art. 

He once explained to Truman Capote: ‘A chess game is very plastic. You construct it. One creates beautiful problems and that beauty is made with the head and hands.’ In his address to the New York Chess Association, he crystallised his thinking still further: ‘From my close contacts with artists and chess players, I have come to the conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.’