RUMBLE IN FOLKESTONE
In June 1933 Marcel Duchamp was a member of the French delegation participating in the fifth Chess Olympiad at Folkestone, England. That event was held at the elegant Leas Cliff Hall which provided a stunning setting on a white chalk cliff overlooking the English Channel. In the third round Duchamp faced the American Arthur Dake, who trounced him in a game from which Duchamp would never recover.
It was not just a dark time for the French painter sitting across the chess board from the young ambitious American, by some measures it was a dark time for Western Civilization with more misery visible on the horizon. By 1933 the Great Depression had sent the world economy into a tailspin. The failure of the banking system following the stock market crash created breadlines, soup kitchens and homeless camps in the United States where Franklin Roosevelt had just been elected president with his promise of a New Deal. Driven by the same forces, in Germany Adolph Hitler had been appointed chancellor and would soon transform himself into the Fuhrer and the Weimar Republic into the Third Reich. Democracy and capitalism were struggling to stay alive in Great Britain and France while other European countries had already taken a different path and were ruled by strongman autocrats with centrally controlled economies, including Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin and Italy’s Benito Mussolini.
Competitive chess continued despite the dark times. The Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE) had been founded in Paris in 1924 and at Folkestone fifteen countries were represented with the conspicuous absences of a delegation from the banned Nazi Germany and from the Soviet Union. Although promoting chess as a gymnasium of the mind, the Soviets were still suffering from the defection of the reigning world champion Alexander Alekhine. His rise to prominence had been blessed by Tsar Nicholas II in 1914 when he was proclaimed to be a “Grandmaster of Chess” along with four other players: Emanuel Lasker, Jose Capablanca, Siegbert Tarrasch, and Frank Marshall. Since the revolution the Soviets had hosted strong tournaments but had become very restrictive as to who they would allow to leave the country worried that they would not return. There were a number of Russian players at Folkestone who didn’t represent the country of their birth, but they were part of the Russian diaspora including Alekhine who headed the French delegation. Folkestone was the fourth Olympiad appearance of Duchamp on the French roster but it would turn out to be his last.
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A CHESS PLAYER
Born in Normandy in 1887, Marcel was brought up in a middle-class home that was filled with paintings and engravings of his maternal grandfather, Emile Frederic Nicolle. Although his father was a notary, Marcel received a cultured upbringing. At the age of eight, Marcel followed the course of his older brothers, Jacques and Raymond, attending the Lycee Pierre-Corneille, in Rouen where all three received early training in the arts.
Duchamp learned to play chess at the age of eleven, and regularly competed with his siblings. In 1904 Jacques composed an etching of Marcel playing chess with their younger sister, Suzanne, who also became an accomplished artist. She has her back is to the viewer with a relaxed but alert posture while Marcel faces Suzanne with his head held in his hands as though immersed in deep thought. That portrait is the first testament to Marcel’s growing interest in chess.
After graduating from the Lycee, Marcel joined his brothers in Paris to pursue a career as an artist. During that time he painted three oil paintings with chess themes that demonstrate the rapid progression of his artistic interests. The Game of Chess (1910), is in the Impressionistic style with recognizable subject matter. It depicts Marcel’s brothers, Raymond Villon-Duchamp and Jacques Villon both deep in thought, ignoring their wives. Yvonne Duchamp-Villon is comfortably reclining on the lawn while Gaby Villon sits at a table before a tea set, bored, distracted and excluded from the game. Marcel quickly abandoned Impressionism for Cubism as can be seen in Chess Players (1911) and Portrait of Chess Players (1912), both of which explore the discontinuity of the visual sense. It was also during that period that he created his most famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912). It was submitted to the Cubist Salon des Independents and although there was no jury to reject the painting, the organizers asked that it be removed or at least retitled. Duchamp refused. “I said nothing to my brothers. But I went immediately to the show and took my painting home in a taxi. It was really a turning point in my life, I can assure you. I saw that I would not be very much interested in groups after that.” The next year the painting was included in the Armory Show in New York City where it was met with wide ridicule and scandal in a culture that was accustomed to realistic art. Today, that painting, along with others that Duchamp created at that time, appear to mirror the fragmented field of the chessboard with its sixty-four squares and thirty-two pieces, geometric and kinetic.
In 1915 Duchamp moved to the United States to avoid military service. In 1918 he briefly moved to Argentina where he caught the chess bug. While in Buenos Aires, Marcel wrote to a young artist he had met in New York, Florine Stettheimer: “My attention is so completely absorbed by chess. I play day and night, and nothing interests me more than finding the right move…I like painting less and less.” He may have given up painting, but he never gave up art. From that time on his creations became as much conceptual as physical. Over the next decade he became obsessed with chess as he searched for a means of expression that was free from societal expectations. Even as he was drafted into the artistic movements of Dadaism and Surrealism he would distance himself from their chief proponents as he searched for his own path. The game of chess provided him with his personal aesthetic needs.
In Buenos Aires he played chess constantly and took lessons from a local master. At that time, he also began playing games by cable with the poet and art collector Walter Arensberg who he had met in New York. Duchamp invented a code to transmit those moves so that the costs would be minimal. He also designed a set of rubber stamps to record the positions. Arensberg became a lifelong patron of Duchamp and later was responsible for the majority Duchamp’s work to be given a permanent home at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1919 Marcel designed a chess set with a traveling foldaway table and board that included two stop watches for timed games.
In 1920 Duchamp returned to New York City where he joined the Marshall Chess Club. In 1922 he participated in a 22-board simultaneous exhibition against the world champion, Jose Capablanca, the third person to hold that title after Wilhelm Steinitz and Emanuel Lasker. Capablanca had been a child prodigy, winning the Cuban championship at the age of thirteen and became world champion in 1921 by defeating Emanuel Lasker in a match at Havana. Duchamp lost his simul game with Capablanca but that only motivated him to study harder.
In 1923 Duchamp moved back to Europe and started to play in formal tournaments. Chess was by then a consuming passion to the point that it was responsible for the dissolution of his first marriage in 1927 to Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor. During their honeymoon in Nice, Marcel spent every day at the chess club. When he returned to their suite he would then devote several more hours studying chess positions. His bride was so frustrated with him that she glued all the chess pieces to the board while he was asleep and divorce followed six months later. He played in the French championship and in 1928 was awarded the title of master by the French federation. In 1932 he won the Paris championship. He harbored ambitions to be a great chess player but was finding that the mountain path to the top had a steep slope.
PAINTER VS. PUGULIST: THE OPENING
Marcel Duchamp knew what he was getting involved in when he stepped into the ring. He later stated it in no uncertain terms: “Chess is a sport. A violent sport. This detracts from its most artistic connections.”
Duchamp started his game against Dake with a queen’s pawn opening, placing his pawn in the middle of the board. Dake did not directly contest Duchamp’s central thrust but instead used his bishop to pin his opponent’s knight to the king, the hallmark of the Nimzo-Indian opening:
1.d4, Nf6 2. c4, e6 3. Nc3 Bb4
The Indian opening systems were age old, but Aron Nimzowitsch, of the new generation of Hypermodern theoreticians, revolutionized chess strategy by refusing to directly occupy the middle of the board with pawns but instead used his minor pieces to control the central squares from a distance. Nimzowitsch was one of the great chess personalities of his time, known for his dogmatic classic My System (1925) as well as exhibiting bizarre behavior in tournaments. He once complained to an arbiter that his opponent, who simply placed an unlit cigar on the table, was annoying him and exclaimed: “He is threatening to smoke, and as an old player you must know that the threat is stronger than the execution.” A famous opponent noted of Nimzowitsch: “He pretends to be crazy in order to drive us all crazy.”
Duchamp recognized the Nimzo-Indian, Dake knew how to play it. Already on the 4th move, as white, Duchamp assayed an inferior variation, breaking the pin on the king but instead he should have moved his queen to c2 and found a better square for the bishop. Dake continued to challenge the center squares from the side, fianchettoing his queen’s bishop, taking aim at white’s kingside:
4. Bd2, 0-0 5. Nf3, b6 6. e3, Bb7
By the tenth move, Dake was already in the driver’s seat, turning up the heat as he morphed the opening into a Dutch-like formation with an aggressive move of his f-pawn:
7. Bd3, d6 8. 0-0, Bxc3 9. Bxc3, Ne4 10. Qc2, f5
From that point on, the American was leading with his left and looking to land a knockout with his right. Duchamp didn’t realize that Dake viewed the French painter as simply another obstacle in his path to the top. Arthur Dake was not just interested in representing America in the Olympiad, he actually had bigger game in his sights: the world champion, Alexander Alekhine.
Born in 1910, in Portland, Oregon, Arthur Dake was the son of immigrant parents, his mother from Norway and his father from Poland. Arthur’s father worked as a cook and later hauled metal in the local shipyard. The pressures of poverty and the difficulty of the immigrant life made the marriage tumultuous and Arthur looked for reasons to get out of a house where his parents were constantly arguing. As a child Arthur sold newspapers down on the docks and at the train station and at the age of twelve he bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles lured by the glitter of Hollywood. He was soon picked up by a policeman and returned to Oregon but his wanderlust was not satiated. At the age sixteen, while his parents struggled through a trial separation, Arthur lied about his age and signed on to a ship headed for the Orient. Over the summer he became an adult, introduced to alcohol, women and gambling in every port of call. He had a hard time returning to school the next fall but then learned how to play chess and found a second home at the Portland Chess Club where his talent was cultivated and nurtured. Few members of the PCC could have imagined that their new member would soon attempt to march to the top of the chess world.
In the fall of 1927 Alexander Alekhine had defeated Capablanca in chess mad Buenos Aires and became the fourth world champion. Over the following spring the Russian ex-patriate celebrated by touring the United States, conducting simultaneous exhibitions against all comers. His stops on the West Coast included Los Angeles and San Francisco, with no plans to visit the Pacific Northwest. It was with pride and high hopes that the PCC sent Arthur to Los Angeles to challenge the world champion where Dake first faced Alekhine holding the world champion to a fifty-four-move draw. Two days later Arthur followed Alekhine to the Mechanics Institute Chess Club in San Francisco where he hoped to catch the champion in an opening trap. Alekhine not only had an ironclad memory for chess positions but also for faces and recognized his opponent. As soon as he came to Dake’s board he stared into his eyes and announced “I have a score to settle.” Rather than proceed to the next opponent, Alekhine insisted that Dake play another move and then another. As the audience looked on in amazement, they soon entered a complicated middle game where Dake dropped a piece and had to resign. Despite that resounding defeat, Arthur returned to the PCC with his story of the big one that had gotten away.
Arthur never finished high school and took several more trips overseas as a deckhand on freighters. He lived the rough and tumble life of a merchant marine and learned to box in contests held on board those ships. His ocean going adventures eventually took him to New York City where he arrived shortly after the Stock Market Crash. There he soon found that he could support himself playing chess for a quarter a game at Coney Island and up to a dollar in Times Square. But, it wasn’t long before Dake discovered the historic Manhattan and Marshall Chess Clubs where he was introduced to the best players of his day and found a higher-class clientele to challenge. He soon won both the US Junior Masters and the championship of the Marshall club without losing a game. For that reason, he was recruited by Frank Marshall to play the 3rd board for the USA at the 1931 Chess Olympiad in Prague.
Arthur prepared for Prague by participating in the New York International Tournament where in the fourth round he faced Capablanca. Confident that he could beat the best players in the world he had the Chess Machine on the ropes and Capablanca later admitted that he would have resigned if Dake had moved his king rather than a pawn on move thirty-six. Dake explained “This being my first international tournament I didn’t play wisely and conducted myself in the rapid transit style, trying to show the great Capablanca I could play the game as fast as he could.” After that painful defeat Dake took up smoking just to have something to do with his hands while not moving the chess pieces during games that could last for over five hours.
Before leaving for the Olympiad in Prague, Dake was entrusted with a letter that invited Alekhine to a tournament planned to be held the next summer in Pasadena. The organizers assured Dake that he too would be welcomed to participate providing him an opportunity to challenge the world champion in a high level tournament. Dake delivered that letter to Alekhine in Prague and then contributed to the stunning American victory where they finished ahead of chess powerhouse teams from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Germany. Alekhine received a gold medal for his play on board one for France, but because of the poor play by his teammates, including Duchamp, France came in fourteenth out of nineteen. Afterwards, at a small party at a Prague nightclub Alekine proposed a toast to Arthur Dake: “From one world champion to another.” The two would meet again the next year in California.
But winning in Prague did not make life easier for Dake. Upon returning to America, Arthur discovered that the Depression had really sunk in, devastating the nation and especially the Big Apple where shanty towns had sprung up on vacant lots and along railroad tracks, while bread lines leading to soup kitchens ran down the street and around the block. The grim times even affected his ability to earn money playing chess at Coney Island as he found his stand had been claimed by younger rival, Reuben Fine. Arnold Denker, another rival, remembers Dake from that time. “Arthur, loose-limbed and gangly to begin with, grew as thin as the shiny seat of his pants. He was suffering for what he would later call ‘fame and glory, art for art’s sake.’ His diet narrowed down to water, coffee and green grapes.” With such competition on the streets, Dake had to find his income playing rapid transit at the elite chess clubs and conducting his own simultaneous exhibitions. Denker also recounts how the young Oregonian welcomed Alekhine to the Marshall Chess Club in that following summer of 1932:
“As Arthur’s streak mounted, Alekhine’s face went from red to purple. The humiliation of reaching into a little black coin purse to fetch more quarters…enraged the champion. He challenged Arthur to a match, who begged off. ‘Everyone here knows you would slaughter me in a match, so why play one? I know you are the better player and simply off form tonight.’ Gesturing at the spectators surrounding the board, Alekhine replied, ‘You know that, I know that but these silly people don’t know that.’ Here was the great Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine, who stood astride the chess world with arms akimbo like the Colossus of Rhodes, challenging a then virtually unknown American master from Portland, Oregon. The scene would have been sad if it had not been so funny.”
The two would next meet across the continent in California. The organizers in Pasadena had originally planned to have both Alekhine and Capablanca participate. Negotiations with Capablanca to play in Pasadena broke down early in 1932 so the tournament was organized with Alekhine as the main draw against a bevy of American talent, including veteran Isaac Kashdan, and new generation of Dake, Fine, and Reshevsky.
In California, just prior to the Pasadena tournament, Dake socialized with Alekhine where they took a ride in a hot air balloon. High above the San Gabriel Mountains Alekhine brought out a pocket chess set and began to demonstrate some interesting positions. Dake interrupted Alekhine and challenged him to a game for a “championship of the air.” Alekhine turned to his young friend in mock suspicion, “I see you are after my title.” He refused to play explaining “It is my understanding that I am the chess champion of the world which includes the land sea and air.” Dake knew that he had overstepped the bounds of their friendship.
At the Pasadena tournament Alekhine was in fine form and undefeated through the first nine games. Dake was not far behind but had lost games to Sammy Reshevsky and also to the champion of Mexico while drawing with Fine. In the tenth round Dake finally faced Alekhine and as the tournament book reported: “Loud rumbles of approaching disturbance were heard at the Dake-Alekhine game.” Dake had prepared a variation in a line that had been previously popularized by Alekhine and through intricate maneuvering forced the World Champion’s resignation on move thirty-eight. That victory was celebrated across the country, as in those days such results on the chess board were reported on the sports pages of the major newspapers. In his mind, Arthur was on the top of the world and he maintained the swagger of self-confidence as he played in his second Olympiad at Folkestone.
PAINTER VS. PUGILIST: MIDDLEGAME
After squaring off in the opening, the two opponents started to look for cracks in their formations and that’s when Dake demonstrated his internalization of the hypermodern tenants, controlling the center from the periphery. He then drew his opponent into a maze of difficult decisions. Duchamp attempted to initiate an attack with a queenside pawn thrust which backfired. With the elegance and simplicity of a judo throw or a karate chop, Dake exchanged knights for bishops and drew a pawn away from the white king’s sanctuary, exposing the monarch to an attack by the black queen:
11. Rad1, Nd7 12. b4, Nxc3 13. Qxc3, Bxf3 14. gxf3, Qh4
Perhaps Duchamp should have bravely tucked his king into the corner and doubled his rooks on the g-file but that didn’t happen. Instead he attempted to sneak away from his shattered castled position, underestimating the ferocity of the attack that was to follow:
15. Kg2, Rf6 16. Rh1, a5 17. b5, e5 18. Bc2, e4 19. Rdg1, Rg6+ 20. Kf1, Qh3+ 21. Ke1, Qxf3 22. Bd1, Qh3 23. Rxg6, hxg6 24. Rg1, Qxh2 25. Rxg6, Qh1+ 26. Kd2, Qf1 27. Be2, Qxf2
The early years of the 20th Century witnessed great changes in the arts and sciences while similarly the game of chess also experienced an acceleration of evolution during that time with the development of the Hypermodern School. Duchamp tried to adapt to the new way of playing chess in the same manner that he transitioned so easily from classical to modern art. More than twenty years younger than his opponent, Dake only understood the royal game through his experiences as a hustler on the mean streets of New York City. It was all about subsistence and survival. Duchamp was a refined gentleman who had never bloodied a nose with his fist. Dake was a high school dropout who had spent a few years as a merchant marine and learned to box on board ship. Those natural street fighting instincts served him well in the rough and tumble world of chess. Dake had developed the instincts of a knockout artist while Duchamp played the game with kid gloves and was not prepared to face a parlor game brutalist.
REVOLUTION OR EVOLUTION?
For centuries chess had been a central part of European culture. German polymath Gottfried Leibniz had observed: ‘The astonishing logic and the mathematical precision place the game of chess on the same level as any exact science, whereas the beauty and vividness of expression linked with artistic fantasy allow it to be classified on the same footing as the other arts.” Through much of the 19th Century chess was played in a swashbuckling style, where pawns and pieces were sacrificed in pursuit of a rapid checkmate. By the start of the 20th Century the Romantic School had been replaced by the staid and plodding Scientific School where the game was won by slowly improving positions in the hope of promoting a pawn to a queen. Emerging in the 1920s, the Hypermodern school questioned the precepts of the previous generations and found new resources within the complicated geometry of the game.
Similar changes can be found in the arts and sciences. Maxwell and Einstein built upon the precepts of Newton and came to understand the world in new ways. Novelists, such as Gustave Flaubert and George Eliot, rebelled against the Romantic school of literature and established the realistic method of storytelling. Modern art also went through a progression of perspectives and techniques that moved from Classical Realism through Impressionism and Expressionism on to Cubism. Somehow, the chaos of World War One seemed to accelerate these processes.
Relativity was soon complicated by the Copenhagen interpretation of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Likewise, Cubism was quickly overtaken by the anarchy of Dadism and the psychedelic concerns of Surrealism. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had to learn to live in the same world as Francis Picabia, Hannah Hoch, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo. Literature was also undergoing a series of revolutions. The Symbolist poetry of Stephane Mallarme and William Butler Yeats evolved into the Imagism of Ezra Pound and H.D. Comparably the fictional techniques of the Naturalists were transcended by James Joyce and Virginia Wolfe’s use of the stream of consciousness, Gertrude Stein’s hermetic narrative constructions and the non-linear novels of John Dos Passos. At the same time the Hypermodern school of chess didn’t just emerge from the forehead of Nimzowitsch but was an international movement with theorists and practitioners including Richard Reti, Savielly Tarktakower, and Gyula Breyer.
Of course, chess is not just an art or a science, but also a sport, ruthlessly pitting one individual against another. As Marcel Duchamp sat across the board from Arthur Dake in Folkestone, he did not realize what he was getting involved in. Duchamp had at one point had the ambition to be the best player in France until Alekhine moved to Paris. Dake, on the other hand, felt that he could be one of best players in the world, confident that with enough effort he could defeat the likes of Alekhine and Capablanca, if only he could get another chance. For the head strong young man from Oregon, crushing the French painter at the Olympiad was simply another step on his way to the top.
PAINTER VS. PUGILIST: ENDGAME
Dake had no knowledge of Marcel Duchamp’s artistic accomplishments, unaware of the integral part he had played in the creation of Dadaism or Surrealism. He had never heard of The Nude Descending a Staircase and had no idea that Duchamp had entered a toilet in an art show as an act of aesthetic defiance. Dake certainly would not have understood why Duchamp drew a mustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa or hung a snow shovel in a gallery and titled it “In Advance of a Broken Arm”.
The opening of a chess game is defined by the initial positions of the pieces. Each major opening system has a name based on its country of origin or the individual who developed it. The middle game is where the chess player’s creativity has its greatest expression demonstrating their mastery of tactics and strategy. The endgame, just like the end of life, is where the consequences of previous steps and missteps take a dramatic turn. Chess players who provide notes for their games often finish their annotations with the phrase, “the rest is just a matter of technique”. Such comments are often particularly irksome to beginners who cannot see the paths to checkmate that are within the vision and geometric vocabulary of the master. Similarly, at Folkestone Duchamp probably did not appreciate how close to the end of the game he was while he saw his opponent slowly chomp away at his kingside pawns. Believing he could certainly shore up his defenses. Marcel again mounted another charge as he sent a pawn towards Dake’s queenside, capturing black’s remaining rook, which had never even moved from its original square. But, he was seemingly unaware of the dangers that awaited him as two black pawns mercilessly bore down on the white king cowering next to a useless bishop:
28. c5, Kh7 29. Rg5, Nf6 30. cxd6, cxd6 31. Qc6, f5 32. Qxa1, Qxe3+ 33. Kd1, f3 34. Rxg7+, Kxg7 35. Qb7+, Kg6 36. Be1, Qd4+ 37. Ke1, e3 38. Resigns.
Chess is played with a specialized clock that allots a certain amount of time in which each player must conduct their moves. Games are generally not played out until check mate and so once a player can anticipate their eminent demise they are allowed and encouraged to give up, resign, put out their hand to congratulate the winner and turn in their score sheets to tournament officials. That is how most people enjoy the beauty and drama of chess, in the written form. The game between Dake and Duchamp was then published in the tournament book, with notes by Arthur’s teammate, Isaac Kashdan, who described Duchamp’s spite check on move thirty-four with one word: “Desperation.” In their game at Folkestone, Duchamp conducted his play like an accountant, making certain that white had the same number of pieces as black, even as he saw his position slide off the side of the board, falling into his lap. Dake, in turn, played like a fencer, slicing up his opponent with a few deft touches of the foil.
Duchamp played six more games at Folkestone, winning only a single contest. Alekhine, once again, playing first board for France, took the gold medal for his individual performance, but he was not supported by the rest of his team. Duchamp’s individual score was the 4th worst among the 420 participants. That’s when Marcel threw in the towel, gave up high level tournament play, realizing that his ambition to become a great chess player was hopeless, but he never gave up on the game itself.
LIVING WELL IS THE BEST REVENGE
Both Marcel Duchamp and Arthur Dake lived long and happy lives which allowed them to look back upon their chess careers with pride. After Folkestone Dake found himself overtaken by several young American chess players, including including future world championship candidates Reuben Fine and Sammy Reshevsky. Dake returned to the world stage at the 1935 Olympiad in Warsaw where he played 4th board and received a gold medal for his performance, winning thirteen games, drawing five and losing none. On the trans-Atlantic cruise back from Poland he met his wife and soon found himself unable to support a family playing chess. In 1936 and 1938 he finished 6th in the US Championships and moved back to his home town, eventually finding permanent employment with the Oregon DMV giving driver’s exams. Despite their Olympiad successes in the 1930s, the Americans failed to maintain pace with the state sponsored Soviet players. In the United States top level chess players were unable to devote themselves full-time to their game and had to support themselves with day jobs: Denker got into the meat packing business, Reshevsky became an accountant and Fine a psychologist. Over the next two decades Dake was called up for duty. Soviets playing chess on several occasions, once in Moscow and another time by radio, but otherwise kept his chess activities to the West Coast. After twenty-five years at the DMV, and 70,000 driver’s exams Arthur retired and found time during the 1970s and 1980s to play chess once again at international competitions, against players half his age. Frustrated opponents had to ask who that old guy was and he would always introduce himself as the player who beat Alekhine. Eventually awarded the grandmaster title for his accomplishments in the 1930s, Dake was inducted into the US Chess Hall of Fame in 1991.
In 1941 Duchamp escaped France by obtaining a permanent pass for the “free zone” by posing as a cheese dealer. He then moved to New York successfully escaping the Second World War. There at his studio on 14th Street, he organized the Greenwich Village Chess Club, a place where chess masters and street hustlers could meet. In 1954 he married Alexina “Teeny” Sadler Matisse, former wife of Henri Matisse’s son. Teeny was a chess player herself and helped to host the weekly gatherings. It was there that he got to play Arthur Dake one more time. Dake was in the Big Apple to help represent America in yet another uphill battle against the Soviet players and made a point of stopping by and seeing all of his old chess haunts, including the Marshall and Manhattan clubs, as well as Marcel’s chess salon.
By that time Duchamp was mostly a chess enthusiast, playing casually but with little taste for big time tournaments. He did participate in several New York state championships but finished in the bottom half of those competitions. In addition, he served on the board of the American Chess Foundation and founded the Marcel Duchamp Chess Endowment Fund, both of which were involved in raising money to help support America’s rising superstar Bobby Fischer. In 1961 he organized the fundraiser Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York where he sold thirty “ReadyMade” chess sets and raised over $30,000. In 1966 he participated another successful event at Cordier & Elkstrom Gallery called Hommage a Caissa where he played chess with Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol and had the Velvet Underground provide musical entertainment. His attitude about chess was best expressed in a speech that he gave at a banquet during the New York State Chess Association’s annual meeting where he famously declared his love for the game, “Beauty in chess is closer to beauty in poetry; the chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem… From my close contacts with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”
Although Duchamp gave up his chess ambitions after losing to Dake he did not give up on chess. Like many players, he had caught a bug that he could not shake. His interest in the aesthetic side of the game included chess problems, sometimes referred to as puzzles, and his contemplative nature that led to victories in correspondence chess, a form of competition conducted through the mail that could require several years to play a single game.
Dake’s defeat of Duchamp at Folkestone was a painful lesson, but one that made it clear how much further he had to go on his quest for chess excellence. After taking an internal inventory Duchamp most likely decided that he perhaps didn’t have the skill or the compulsive dedication to become a grandmaster. In addition, losing to a high school dropout from an obscure American city reinforced the fact that chess not only has qualities of the arts and the sciences but at its core is an unmerciful sport, a one-on-one contest that pits two humans against one another and ends, most often, when one of the competitors must admit defeat and cry uncle. Arthur Dake hustled quarters playing all comers at Coney Island during the Depression because he wanted to eat dinner. Marcel Duchamp played chess, as he said, because “It has all the beauty of art – and much more.”