Historical banter: Grouch and Kashdan on chess

10/5/2011 – And now, as the Pythons were wont to say, for something completely different. The immortal Groucho Marx of Marx Brothers fame, did a quiz show for radio and then for TV, from 1947. It was mainly used to showcase his ad-libbing talent. In one show he had chess GM Isaac Kashdan, whom he calls "Ashcan", as a guest and joked around about chess. Take a break and watch this rare footage.

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The American quiz show "You Bet Your Life" started in 1947 on radio, but progressed to television in 1950 – actually it was simultaneously broadcast on TV and on radio. The actual quiz format was secondary to the interplay between Groucho and the contestants. These were usually made up of one male and one female, often selected from the studio audience. Occasionally, famous or otherwise interesting figures were invited to play. Some of the show tension revolved around whether a contestant would say the "secret word", which was revealed to the audience at the show's outset. If a contestant said the word, a toy duck resembling Groucho descended from the ceiling to bring a $100 bill. Groucho sometimes slyly directed conversation to encourage the secret word to come up.

Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx, October 1890 – August 19, 1977, was an American comedian and film star famed as a master of wit. His rapid-fire delivery of innuendo-laden patter earned him many admirers. He made thirteen feature films with his siblings the Marx Brothers, of whom he was the third-born. His distinctive appearance, carried over from his days in vaudeville, included quirks such as an exaggerated stooped posture, glasses, cigars, and a thick greasepaint mustache and eyebrows. Groucho was asked to apply the greasepaint mustache again when "You Bet Your Life" came to television, but he refused, opting instead to grow a real one, which he wore for the rest of his life.

Isaac Kashdan, November 1905 – 20 February 1985, was an American chess grandmaster and chess writer. Kashdan was one of the world's best players in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He was twice US Open champion (1938, 1947). He played five times for the United States in chess Olympiads, winning a total of nine medals, and his Olympiad record is the all-time best among American players. Kashdan, who was Jewish, was often called 'der kleine Capablanca' (The little Capablanca) in Europe because of his ability to extract victories from seemingly even positions. Alexander Alekhine named him one of the most likely players to succeed him as World Champion.

Here's the encounter between Groucho and Kashdan. The full video, which some of you may want to watch for historical reasons, is thirty minutes long. It should start automatically at the point where Kashdan is addressed by Groucho. The lady, incidentally, it Tony Curtis' mother Helen Schwarz.

One interesting line in the show, interesting in view of our current series, is where Kashdan, at around 5 min 05 into the video, says: "It's pretty hard to cheat in chess, because there are very standard, international rules. If you follow the rules this is one game where you really can't cheat." To which Groucho ad-libs: "If I can't cheat, forget it. The only fun I have in any game is cheating."

There are many other installments of You Bet Your Life on YouTube, in case you get hooked.


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