Celebrity chess tournaments

by Alexey Root
10/17/2020 – In 1988, eight Hollywood celebrities, including Erik Estrada and William Windom, played in a Los Angeles chess tournament. Although Michał Kanarkiewicz had never heard of that 1988 celebrity chess tournament, he created the 2019 “Chess Championship of the Stars” in Poland. WIM Alexey Root tells how both celebrity chess tournaments, 31 years and thousands of miles apart, promoted chess. | Pictured: Michał Kanarkiewicz with Anatoly Karpov at the airport in Warsaw

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Stars play chess too

Erik EstradaIn 1988, Erik Estrada [pictured] was a celebrity, having portrayed highway patrol officer Frank Poncherello in the highly-successful television series CHiPs from 1977 to 1983. Estrada and seven other celebrities played in a three-round, game-in-30, one-day chess tournament, alongside the three-day-long Memorial Day Classic. The latter drew 413 chess players, including a 155-player Open section led by four GMs and five IMs. As John Hillery reported for Chess Life (September 1988 issue, download here), “Between rounds? Something for everyone: a lecture by Walter Browne, the ever-youthful George Koltanowski with his tall tales and Knight’s tour, a magician, a celebrity tournament, a blitz tournament and a demonstration of the new ‘Chessbase’ computer program.”

The 1988 Memorial Day Classic was won by GMs Larry Christiansen and Walter Browne and IM Jack Peters. About the side-event celebrity chess tournament, Peters said, “I think this kind of thing is good for chess; it’s good to let the players know that stars play, too.”

Celebrity chess, Polish edition

As of 2019, ChessBase is no longer a new computer program but in its 15th edition. Although organizing a celebrity chess tournament is also not a new idea, having one with Polish stars is novel. Michał Kanarkiewicz was born in 1995 and had never heard of the 1988 celebrity chess tournament. Yet, like the 1988 Los Angeles organizers, Kanarkiewicz wanted to show that chess has something to offer everyone, including stars. Moreover, it’s exciting for chess players to realize that their favorite celebrities love chess, just as they do. 

The “Chess Championship of Stars” received a lot of attention in the Polish press, including this article. The tournament took place on November 27, 2019, at a prestigious venue, the PGE Narodowy in Warsaw. Participants included a television weather forecaster and a champion ballroom dancer. The tournament was won by actor Sławomir Doliniec. International Arbiter and IM Andrzej Filipowicz, better known as the chief arbiter at the 2014 Anand-Carlsen World Chess Championship match, was the tournament director.

Poland, chess

The “Chess Championship of Stars” took place in Warsaw

Interview with Michał Kanarkiewicz

AR (Alexey Root): How did you come up with the idea for the “Chess Championship of Stars”?

MK (Michał Kanarkiewicz): There are a lot of events for celebrities, for example in football, tennis, and golf. But there are not so many celebrity activities revolving around chess. Therefore, I decided to create and organize the first Chess Championship of Stars. I started with no prior experience in such events, and with no budget and with few contacts. But I knew that chess is a game that is interesting, valuable, and very ennobling for the stars in question.

AR: How did you decide on which celebrities to contact, and how did you convince them to participate?

MK: From researching on Google and on social media, I found 100 celebrities that have some connections with chess. For example, they played with friends, or they were playing chess in their childhoods, or their children are playing chess. Then I contacted them. Of course, with no budget, I was sure that it would be hard to invite them. Especially in 2019, before COVID-19, the stars usually attended events only if they received some remuneration. Moreover, some of them had conflicts on the tournament’s date. In the end, there were 12 stars ready to play.

AR: How does “Chess Championship of Stars” fit with your goals?

Michał KanarkiewiczMK: I invested my own money to create this event, because I truly believe that this kind of project will help popularize chess in Poland. However, the Chess Championship of Stars also made me more popular. In the last few months, I was able to give chess lessons to Polish sportsmen such as Karol Bielecki and Krzysztof Ignaczak.

Nine months after the Chess Championship of Stars, I had the huge pleasure of being a co-host — with FIDE Vice President Lukasz Turlej, President of Silesian Chess Federation Andrzej Matusiak, Mokate CEO Adam Mokrysz, and the CEO of BNP Paribas Bank Polska Przemek Gdanski — of former World Chess Champion Anatoly Karpov’s visit to Poland (Ustron and Warsaw). In Karpov’s simultaneous exhibition in honor of Mokate’s 30 anniversary, mentioned in ChessBase’s article on Chess and Coffee, I drew Karpov after a tough fight. That game will stay with me forever. 

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Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.

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