Hugh Hefner, Playboy, and Chess

by Albert Silver
9/29/2017 – It might seem odd to write a tribute to Hugh Hefner, founder of the legendary Playboy magazine, who died now at the ripe age of 91. However, in its own way, Playboy magazine has had a significant impact on chess and some of its big names. Famed chess figures to mark their presence are Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, Veselin Topalov, and even Judit Polgar. | Photo: Jeff Rayner /

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Breaking taboos

Playboy is not the sort of magazine one would think chess had any connection to, except perhaps as a copy of which was forgotten at the local club one day. Nevertheless, the pioneering publication has had a deep impact on society in general that is easily forgotten by the facade of naked women on its cover and pages.

Hugh Hefner himself was the embodiment of the American Dream in more ways than most, and as a personality and legacy, there is no question the topic can lead to heated debates on many fronts. There is certainly no intent here to claim any revelations or judgments on him.

Born in 1926, he grew up with two siblings in a family of stark moral values. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he explained that his parents were ‘raised pure Prohibitionist’. This is in reference to the famous Prohibition, a law that pervaded the US from 1920 to 1933, in which alcohol manufacturing and consumption were illegal. "They were very good people, with high moral standards — but very repressed. There was no hugging and kissing in my home."

It was this excessive rigidity that led him to rebel, and eventually seek to rethink his own values and how they fit in with American society. He graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in psychology, and went to work as a copywriter for Esquire. Esquire was a magazine aimed at older men, promoting male bonding and outdoor adventure, and Hefner sought something that spoke about relationships and an open dialogue on sexuality.

The very first issue of Playboy magazine did not even have a date on it, in case it flopped

From its first issue in 1953, with the sensational (at the time) nude photo of Marylin Monroe, its success was such that it had a powerful impact on the sexual revolution that was to take place in the US.

"If you don't encourage healthy sexual expression in public, you get unhealthy sexual expression in private," his magazine quoted him as saying in 1974.


An interview with Hugh Hefner in 2010 by Larry King. The famous talk show host reveals that even he was interviewed by the magazine in the past.

"I read it for the articles"

If that had been all there was too it, there would be little so say, but Hugh Hefner went beyond the boundaries the magazine seemed confined to. He commissioned contributions from literary giants over the years such as Isaac Asimov, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, and David Mamet, and the magazine became known for world class content. This led to the popular joke, "I read it for the articles".

The magazine also earned respect for tackling social issues and carrying lengthy interviews with high-profile figures like Martin Luther King Jr. (interviewed by Alex Haley!), John Lennon and Muhammad Ali. This legacy had deep and far-reaching effects, and also meant that over the years and decades, being interviewed by Playboy magazine was a point of prestige.

"You Don't Know the Half of Him"

Playboy July 1973

With no clear constraint on the topic, or personality, even chess players have been caught in this wide-thrown net.

The first chess personality to receive Playboy's attention is, with no surprise, Bobby Fischer, who appeared in the July 1973 issue, shortly after he had won the world title. It was not an interview per se, but the World Champion was certainly in good company, as the issue also included a lengthy interview with the great Kurt Vonnegut Jr, who was at the peak of his fame as well.

"Bobby Fischer — You Don't Know the Half of Him", reads the cover (right — click or tab to expand)

In a sense, this was also a sign of just how transcendental Bobby Fischer was in the 70s, becoming a must as a topic even in a men's magazine such as Playboy. It would be another 16 years before a chess figure was to capture the public imagination enough that even Playboy could not overlook, and in 1989, five years after winning the title, Garry Kasparov became the centerpiece interview of the world-renowned magazine.

"A normal lifestyle does not exist here in the Soviet Union...It's like living in a house of mirrors. Well, the only way out is to smash those mirrors."

If Bobby Fischer had been cast in the role of East vs West, this time it was Garry Kasparov who championed a new metaphor: he was the standard bearer of Glasnost and Perestroika, while his rival Anatoly Karpov was the product of the old Soviet establishment. He also sought to portray himself as a young and virile champion, to break the stodgy bifocal-wearing image that chess players unjustly carried in the public eye.

The interview also brought some priceless moments, such as:

Playboy - How about women chess players?

Garry Kasparov (in 1989)- Well, in the past, I have said that there is real chess and women’s chess. Some people don’t like to hear this, but chess does not fit women properly. It’s a fight, you know? A big fight. It’s not for women. Sorry. She’s helpless if she has men’s opposition. I think this is very simple logic.

To be fair, two daughters and two decades later, Kasparov was a little more tempered in his views when questioned by the same magazine:

Playboy - Why are there relatively few women chess players?

Garry Kasparov (in 2008) - Tradition. How many women composers are there? Architects? Things are changing in this. We have Judit Polgar, who proved a woman can make the top 10…

Note the far more sober appearance. This time chess has moved on, in no small part thanks to him, and there is no need to sell chess as a normal activity. He has other things on his plate.

In December 2005, shortly after Kasparov's retirement, the Bulgarian edition interviewed Veselin Topalov, the newly crowned FIDE World Champion.

Topalov had recently won in San Luis, and broken 2800 for the first time

It was a 20-question interview, and while Kasparov's had covered everything from sports to politics, here the questions were unusually technical on chess, asking about his openings choices among others. Clearly the Bulgarian readership was expected to have no issues.

Finally, in 2015, remarkably, it was Judit Polgar's turn, having just retired from competition, who was the star of the Hungarian version of Playboy. It might seem hard to believe that a woman who had broken every gender preconception and prejudice in the sport, Garry Kasparov's no less, would appear in a magazine that had been accused of objectifying women.

However, it was really a sign of empowerment, that a personality such as hers, and all that she represents, could not only do this with her legacy unscathed, but shine through it.

Polgar in the Hungarian edition in 2015

The title of the interview reads: "Judit Polgar — above average intelligence", which may qualify for the "Understatement of the Year" award. In it she discusses her decision to retire, notably the process that led to it, and shares anecdotes on growing up in a field dominated by men.

Playboy magazine published a video (in Hungarian, it should be noted) with Judit Polgar at their website, a 'Making Of' preceding the interview and photoshoot, as well as comments and answers on camera.

More than just interviews, each of these appearances in Playboy has helped promote chess as a mainstream activity, with greater acceptance.

"Love him or loathe him, no one doubts Mr. Hefner's influence in American cultural history," wrote The New York Times in 2009.

The New York Times did its own elegant video eulogy well worth watching

Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications, and the content creator of the YouTube channel, Chess & Tech.


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