After becoming an established artist, Marcel Duchamp turned his focus to playing chess and spent a large part of his life as a serious player. He once remarked that “while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” By most estimates, Duchamp was a player of about master strength. He competed in the 1925 French championship, reportedly scoring 50 percent, and represented France in the 1933 Olympiad (on the same team as Alekhine, the world champion). Though he was usually outclassed against the best players, occasionally he managed to hold his own, drawing a game against Vera Menchik, the women’s world champion, in 1929 and drawing with Frank Marshall in 1930.
After moving to Greenwich Village from France in the 1940’s, he played for the Marshall Chess Club in the Metropolitan Chess League and his photograph still hangs on the club’s wall.
By 1923, Duchamp (1887-1968) had established himself as a force in the avant-garde art communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Then, suddenly, after two decades of innovation and considerable controversy, he was reported to have quit making art in order to focus on chess. Of course, Duchamp never totally quit being an artist.
Following a brief excursion to Buenos Aires during 1918 and 1919, where he became a self-described "chess maniac," his interest in the game grew far beyond an idle pastime. He soon made it his objective to win the French Championship. Between 1923 and 1933, chess dominated Duchamp's life as he competed in tournaments across Europe. Following several respectable performances, including a first-place finish at the Championship of Haute Normandie in 1924, he was awarded the Master title by the French Chess Federation.
Though his objective of winning the French championship never came to pass, Duchamp succeeded in representing France in numerous tournaments and Olympiads. He published a book on endgame tactics, extensively revised a classic analysis of opening strategies by Eugene Znosko-Borovsky, authored a chess column in the Paris daily newspaper Ce Soir, and became one of the most respected players of correspondence chess in the world.
His participation in tournament play slowed dramatically after 1933, though he remained engaged with the professional chess community for the rest his life. He became a valued ambassador for the game through the various honorary positions as well as his charitable effort, the Marcel Duchamp Fund of the American Chess Foundation. His legacy also includes playing a pivotal role in introducing the theme of chess in art to a wider public through his involvement in the organization of two historic exhibitions, "The Imagery of Chess" in 1944 and "Hommage a Caissa" in 1966.
The first exhibition dedicated entirely to his association with chess, "Marcel Duchamp: Chess Master" was conceived as an opportunity to experience Duchamp's influential career through his involvement with the game. In addition to a selection of works by Duchamp, this exhibition also featured chess-related items by other artists, many of whom shared Duchamp's enthusiasm for the game. It presented people the opportunity to see examples of the unique chess-set designs by Man Ray, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali.