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Friday, February 5, 2016

Stanley Kubrick and Chess

     Stanley Kubrick was born on July 28, 1928 in the Bronx, New York. His father taught him how to play chess in 1941 when Stanley was 12 and he quickly became a skilled player and even hustled in Central Park. 
     His father gave him a camera for his 13th birthday after which he became an avid photographer and three years later he snapped a photograph of a news vendor in New York the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died (April 12, 1945) and sold the photograph to Look Magazine for $25, which printed it. 
     At the time, he was a student at Taft High School, which he attended from 1941 to 1945. During this time, he played in tournaments at the Marshall and Manhattan Chess Clubs as well as in the parks such at Washington Square in Greenwich Village where he often played 12 hours a day for quarters, making around $20 a week. Back in those days a quarter was equal to about $4.00 today, so he was making around $320.00 a week in today's dollars. In those days his favorite opening was The Orangutan (1.b4). 
     The parks are where became friends with Larry Evans and it was at the Marshall Chess Club that Kubrick met Alton Cook, a film critic for the New York Telegram and Sun and that's what got Kubrick interested in making movies. 
A movie scene on the cover of Chess Review
     In 1956, he wrote the screenplay for The Killing which was his first movie with chess in it. After getting out of Alcatraz prison, Johnny Clay (played by Sterling Hayden) masterminded a race-track robbery to steal $2 million. In the movie Clay went to the Academy of Chess and Checkers looking for his friend. The Academy of Chess and Checkers was a mock up of the New York Chess and Checker Club (aka the Flea House) on 42nd Street in New York City where Kubrick had been a regular. 
     One of the actors appearing in a scene in the Flea House was Kola Kwariani (Nick the Wrestler). Kwariani was a professional wrestler and wrestling promoter who also played chess and was a friend of Kubrick. In February 1980, while entering the Flea House, Kwariani was seriously injured after being assaulted by a group of teenagers. The incident as described by Sam Sloan: "Nick came in the downstairs entrance one evening when about five black youths were leaving. They bumped into each other and words were exchanged. Nick never took any gruff from anybody and soon he was engaged in a fight with all five black kids at once. Nick probably could still have handled any one or two of them, but five were too many. Nick was beaten." He was taken to a hospital where he died. He was 77 years old. Read an article on the Flea House by Sam Sloan HERE.
The real Flea House
     Chess appeared in many of Kubrick's movies. In 1980, he directed The Shining and one day actor Tony Burton arrived on set carrying a chess set in hopes of getting a game with someone during a break. Kubrick noticed the set and despite production being behind schedule, he called off filming for the day and played chess with Burton. Kubrick won every game, but still thanked Burton for the games since it had been some time that he'd played chess against a challenging opponent. Or so one story goes. Burton told it differently. 
     Tony Burton, in an interview, told of his games with Kubrick, adding that they were good ones. Burton hadn't been playing chess for as long as Kubrick had, having learned the game when he first started acting while in his early 20s. He said he went on to study chess a bit after he got the hang of it. He said that when he played Kubrick, he beat him. He told the interviewer, “When we got going, and really got into our first game--he decided to shut the set down because I had opened up the game with what is called the King's Indian opening and he didn't anticipate that. It really shook him up. No one gave up in the game and it went right down to the checkmate each and every time we played each other during the shooting of the film. In that first game, we both ended up with only pawns on our sides of the board. I just happened to make it to the other side first--got my queen back, and then, was able to finish him off.”
     In a New York Review of Books, writer Jeremy Bernstein mentioned during an interview with Kubrick he had a date with a chess hustler in Washington Square Park to play for money. Kubrick wanted the guy's name. Bernstein said his was named Fred Duval, a Haitian who claimed to be related to Francois Duvalier. He was positive the name wouldn't mean anything to Kubrick, but Kubrick told him, “Duval is a patzer.” Bernstein added that he and Duval were just about equal in ability so he wondered what that made him. See the article, Chess Hustling, a Look Back, on the New York Times Blog.

Article in The Afro American May 13, 1939
     Kubrick went on to explain that early in his career he also played chess for money in the park and that Duval was so weak that it was hardly worth playing him. Read the article
     In 1962 Kubrick permanently moved to England after becoming disenchanted with Hollywood. He had a fatal heart attack in his sleep on March 7th, 1999. He was 70 years old.

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