A Charlie Chaplin Game

In September 2020, Vladimir Kramnik joined Twitter by opening an official account. On October 17, he sent out two tweets concerning Charlie Chaplin, one of them linking to a Chessgames.com page that gives the score of a 1923 "simultaneous exhibition game" against Samuel Reshevsky. Kramnik also stated that Chaplin showed “a very decent chess level.”

With unreliable websites an obvious question should always be considered: did this encounter really take place in the manner claimed? 

The topic of personal contact between Chaplin and Reshevsky in the early 1920s has been discussed by Edward Winter in several of his Chess Notes items, beginning in C.N. 198 (38 years ago). To sum up the information given in C.N. 2875, the game referenced above was on page 414 of Constantin Ştefaniu’s Şah Cartea de Aur (1982), and was said to have been played in New York in 1923, with no source specified. Winter further referenced research conducted by Frank Skoff, an excellent chess historian who concluded that “the game is a myth, to phrase it delicately, though some would bluntly call it a hoax” (see Chess Life, December 1992, page 37 and June 1994, page 10). Subsequently, though, the game was included in the database Kramnik referenced in his tweet.

I’ve been trying for years to find an actual source for this game score but, despite the increased pace of digitization, searches in historical newspapers have proved unfruitful. It’s extremely unlikely that Chaplin, arguably the most famous man in the world at the time, would have agreed to take a board shoulder to shoulder with many others against a young boy in a simultaneous setting. If he did, a simultaneous display encounter between two high-caliber personalities would be unlikely to pass completely unmentioned in the leading American newspaper columns of the early 1920s. 

Then, the highly dubious game score aside, there’s the matter of Chaplin’s knowledge of chess. Was he any good or was he a neophyte? The hard evidence points to the latter. In C.N. 7531, I contributed a report from page 18 of the December 28, 1921 edition of the New York Evening Telegram, in which Reshevsky said the following:

I saw Charlie Chaplin too, and I thought he was great. But, say, he doesn’t look really a bit like he does in the pictures. He’s lots better looking really than he is in the movies. He gave me a signed picture of himself. They took some pictures of him and me too, and they made it look as though we were playing chess. Only really I don’t think he can play chess a single bit. It just looked as though he could.

In an article on page A11 of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of October 15, 1922, Reshevsky stated that “Charlie Chaplin plays poor chess but we are good friends.” In My Autobiography (1964), Chaplin himself admitted that when he met Reshevsky in Hollywood in mid-1921 he did not know how to play chess.

Most of what is currently known about Chaplin and Reshevsky was covered more than two decades ago, yet the alleged game is offered as a certainty on Twitter and even discussed at length on various YouTube chess channels. Databases should not be taken on trust, and particularly with regard to offhand games.

Acknowledgment: The photograph above, given here courtesy of PA Images archive, shows Chaplin being interviewed upon his arrival in England in September 1921. A few quality photographs of Reshevsky's 1921 meeting with Chaplin in Hollywood are available via CharlieChaplin.com's photo bank. 

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