Chess in film: “Casablanca”

by Johannes Fischer
3/26/2021 – For more than 70 years, the 1942 film Casablanca has made lovers — and those who want to be lovers — dream. In 2002, the American Film Institute voted it the best American love story of all time and, in 2007, it was voted the third best American Film of All Time. Numerous dialogues from Casablanca have become part of the cultural collective memory. And chess also plays a small role in the film.

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In the beginning, there is chess

The male lead is played by Humphrey Bogart, who, according to Wikipedia, “became an acting icon in the 20th century with his portrayals of tough characters, often cynical and consistently following an inner moral code”. Bogart also embodies such a character in Casablanca and, in his first appearance, he sits at the chessboard.

In Casablanca, Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the owner of Rick’s Café Americain, a popular meeting place for crooks, soldiers and fugitives. While Rick is looking for the best move, the shady crook Ugarte (played by Peter Lorre) approaches him and asks him to hold two transit visas for him — presumably the transit visas carried by two German officers found murdered shortly before. The film begins with the report of the murder of the two officers, but the actual plot begins with the mention of the transit visas.

The film is set in 1942, in the middle of the Second World War, when thousands of people fleeing the Nazis are stranded in Casablanca. They hope to organize onward travel to the US, but they need visas to do so, and that’s what makes the transit visas Ugarte holds so valuable. The Germans want to get them back and find the murderer of the two officers, black market traders want to sell them for a lot of money, while refugees are promised freedom and safety.

Rick hides the transit visas. When Ugarte is arrested shortly after and dies in police custody, Rick can decide what to do with the visas. He could sell them or leave Casablanca with his old love Ilsa Lund (played by Ingrid Bergman) and go to the United States. But things are not quite that simple.

For Ilsa is in Casablanca with her husband, the resistance fighter Victor Laszlo, who is wanted by the Germans. Rick and Ilsa had met in Paris and begun a passionate affair since Ilsa believed her husband had been murdered by the Germans. When the Germans invade Paris in June 1940, Rick and Ilsa decide to flee together and arrange to meet at the station in the evening to leave the city. But Rick waits in vain for Ilsa at the station.

As it turns out, Ilsa’s husband, who was thought to be dead, had suddenly reappeared, and Ilsa had then decided to leave Rick and stay by her husband’s side to support the resistance against the Germans. In Casablanca, Rick and Ilsa meet again by chance, and Ilsa hopes that Rick will forgive her and give her the transit visas so that she can escape with Laszlo.

This love story, which has to do with trust, betrayal, true love and the sacrifice of personal interests for a higher cause, has made Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman one of the most famous couples in film history. Those who know the film know what Rick does with the transit visas at the end; those who do not know the film will not be told the ending here.

But die-hard chess fans are of course not only interested in love, the plot and the end of the film — they also want to know what position is on the board in the scene with Ugarte and Rick, and whether Casablanca depicted chess realistically.

In the screenshot of the scene, unfortunately, not all the black pieces are clearly visible, but the following position could have been on the board.

 

As the website Stars and Letters reports, this position is said to have come from a correspondence chess game Bogart played during the filming of Casablanca with Irving Kovner, the brother of a Warner Brothers employee. At first glance, this position does indeed seem realistic, but if you look more closely, questions arise.

White lacks the light-squared bishop, while Black has no dark-squared bishop, which means that White must have exchanged his light-squared bishop for the black bishop on f8 in the few moves that have been made so far. But how is that possible in a half-decent game?

If, however, White’s bishop is moved from c1 to f1 in the diagram, then a realistic position appears, which could arise, for example, after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.h4 c5 7.Bxe7 Qxe7 8.Nb5, if Black now ignores the threat 9.Nc7 and plays 8...0-0. This move sequence doesn’t look entirely convincing — precisely because the threat 9.Nc7 is actually too strong to ignore — but if the bishop is actually on c1 and not on f1, as seen in the film, then it is very difficult to see how the position in the screenshot could have come onto the board. (If you have a suggestion, feel free to share it in the comments). However, it is quite conceivable that the bishops were swapped when the scene was shot.

Of course, one can also ask how important this detail is in a film that is based on so many other illusions. Casablanca, for example, was of course not shot in Casablanca, but in the Hollywood studios, and even during the song ‘As Time Goes By’, one of the most famous songs in film history, not everything was as it seems.



In the film, the song is sung by the pianist Sam, embodied by actor and drummer Dooley Wilson. Wilson seems to accompany himself on the piano when he sings the song, but as film historians have discovered in painstaking research, and with the help of a music forensic expert, the actor only sits at the piano. The song was actually played by someone else, namely the musician Jean Plummer. Plummer recorded his version of ‘As Time Goes By’ in the studio and this recording was later inserted into the film.

For Wilson, the official man at the piano, however, his performance in Casablanca was a stroke of luck. The film landed him numerous other roles and, if Wikipedia is to be believed, it provided him with 5,000 fan letters a week for a while. Would the fans have been so enthusiastic if they had known that Wilson himself does not play the piano?

And even if the chess scene is not completely realistic, it has a great significance in the film because it helps us to understand Rick’s character. For example, the fact that he analyses chess games in his crowded café points to the fact that he is not only clever and strategic, but also a loner who likes to solve problems by himself.

It is also revealing that the position on the board has emerged from a French Defence and Rick analyses it from Black’s perspective. Rick has sided with the French in chess, so if you like, you can see a subtle hint of what goes on in the rest of the film, in which Rick, who actually wanted to stay out of political disputes, does end up supporting the French against the Germans. The chess scene in Casablanca has a fitting dramaturgical significance and is, at the same time, a clever homage to chess built into the film.

The scene was inspired by Humphrey Bogart, who was himself a passionate chess player.


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Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".

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