Chess in film: Kola Kwariani - wrestler, chess player, actor

by Johannes Fischer
1/14/2021 – Stanley Kubrick is widely considered as one of the greatest directors of all time. But he was also a passionate chess player, and when he lived in New York, he often visited the "Flea House", a well-known and rather notorious meeting place for chess players and gamblers. In his film "The Killing" from 1956 Kubrick paid homage to this institution and one of its regular guests: the wrestler, chess lover, and actor Kola Kwariani. | Picture: Kola Kwariani (left), Stanley Kubrick (center) and Sterling Hayden (right), Cover of "Chess Review", March 1956

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With films such as Dr. Strangelove, 2001 – A Space Odyssey, Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut Kubrick wrote film history. But his first, as he said himself, "serious" film was The Killing of 1956.

Kubrick, born in New York on 26 July 1928, was also a passionate chess player, and as a young man he was a frequent guest at the "Academy of Chess and Checkers", the so-called "Flea House". Here, visitors from all walks of life, including celebrities such as Marcel Duchamp or Harold Schonberg, New York times music critic and author of the book Grandmasters of Chess, met to play Scrabble, Bridge, Backgammon, but above all Chess, until the early hours of the morning. Sometimes for little, often for a lot of money. In a back room, the owner occasionally organised a poker game - a violation of the gambling laws of the time.

In The Killing, Kubrick recalled his visits to the Flea House and gave a small role to a regular of the "Academy": the professional wrestler Kola Kwariani. Kwariani was born in Georgia on 16 January 1903 and won numerous titles as a wrestler in Europe. Later he went to New York, where he earned his money with exhibition fights and as a trainer. He weighed 130 kilograms and other guests of the Flea House claimed that he could play blitz for five to six days without sleep.

For many years, William Hook, a New Yorker who later became a record participant in chess Olympiads as board one of the British Virgin Islands, was a regular at the Flea House. In his autobiography, he wrote of Kwariani:

"[He] was a professional wrestler with cauliflower ears [...] known as 'Kak-Kak'. He would arrive around 11 p.m. from nearby Madison Square Garden, freshly showered, but usually sporting small cuts and bruises from his matches. Of course this huge man had a daunting effect on people, but he was apparently gentle by nature. During the course of a game, however, [...] his deep voice would suddenly boom out at his opponent in some unintelligible language, and everyone's head would turn around apprehensively." (Bill Hook, Hooked on Chess, New in Chess 2008, p. 24).

In Kubrick's film, Kwariani plays a wrestler named Maurice Obhoukoff. In a philosophical conversation, career criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) promises Obhoukoff $2,500 if the wrestler stages a barroom brawl.

The purpose of the brawl is to distract cops and security guards to give Clay time and an opportunity to steal betting proceeds from a racetrack. Obhoukoff agrees and so Kwariani gets a gig where he can show off his wrestling skills during the extended brawl.

Kwariani died in 1980 at the age of 77. He was stabbed by a gang of youths who had attacked him after a quarrel outside of the Flea House. Kwariani was severely wounded and died from his injuries in a hospital.

Links

About Kubrick as a chess player see also Adam Feinstein, "Moves and Movies: Stanley Kubrick The Chess Fanatic", New in Chess Magazine (4/2014), p.58-66.

A German version of this article first appeared in Karl 03/2015.


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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