Peter Falk – death of a chess player

7/4/2011 – He will remain immortal as the scruffy, bumbling Lieutenant Columbo in the detective series, but also as a Hollywood movie actor with two Academy Award nominations, five Emmys and a Golden Globe. Peter Michael Falk, it turns out, was a chess aficionado who took lessons and visited chess tournaments. In a Columbo episode chess was the theme. Yasser Seirawan remembers.

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Peter Falk, the immortal "Columbo" (Sept. 16, 1927 – June 23, 2011)

Peter Michael Falk was an American actor, best known for his role as Lieutenant Columbo in the television series "Columbo". He appeared in numerous films such as The Princess Bride, The Great Race and Next, and television guest roles and was nominated for an Academy Award twice (for 1960's Murder, Inc. and 1961's Pocketful of Miracles), and won the Emmy Award on five occasions (four for Columbo) and the Golden Globe award once. In 1968, he starred with Gene Barry in a ninety-minute television pilot about a highly-skilled, laid-back detective. Columbo eventually became part of an anthology series titled The NBC Mystery Movie, which stayed on NBC from 1971 to 1978, took a respite, and returned occasionally on ABC from 1989 to 2003.

Falk was "everyone's favorite rumpled television detective", wrote the historian David Fantle. Describing his role, the Variety columnist Howard Prouty wrote, "The joy of all this is watching Columbo dissemble the fiendishly clever cover stories of the loathsome rats who consider themselves his better."

Peter Falk died at his Beverly Hills home on June 23, 2011, at the age of 83. He was survived by his wife and two daughters, who said they would remember his "wisdom and humor".

Falk was also a chess aficionado who took chess lessons and was spotted as a spectator at the American Open in Santa Monica, California, in November 1972, and at the U.S. Open in Pasadena, California, in August 1983. One of the people who met him is Yasser Seirawan, who kindly sent us his recollections.

Falk and chess

By Yasser Seirawan

Although it was a long time ago my memory was of meeting Peter Falk at the 1983 US Open in Pasadena, California. Alongside the event there was to be the Candidates’ Match between Victor Kortchnoi and Garry Kasparov. In 1980, the US boycotted the IOC Olympic games in Moscow to protest the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A favor the Soviet’s would return for the 1984 IOC Olympic games in Los Angeles. In the Soviet case a pretext for boycotting the Los Angeles Olympiad would be more tricky. Through its announcements the Soviets claimed that the US couldn’t guarantee the “security” of their athletes, a strange claim to be sure but the Cold War was a time of much strangeness. As Pasadena is a neighboring city to Los Angeles it would have been inconsistent, to say the least, that Kasparov, a Soviet citizen, would go and safely compete in Pasadena on the one hand while their athletes had to skip competing in Los Angeles. In the end Kasparov was denied his travel visa and would forfeit his Candidates’ Match. A replay took place in London the following year. Victor Kortchnoi stayed to compete in the US Open. I have a bad memory of trailing Victor and being paired against him as black in the last round where I needed to win. Victor won our game smoothly, as well as the tournament.

Peter Falk and Yasser Seirawan analyse Yasser's game. The above
picture appeared on the front cover of the December 1983 Chess Life.


The cover also had a smaller photograph of Falk in conversation with Viktor Korchnoi


Chess Life December 1983 had a further photograph, whose
caption stated that the actor was ‘a frequent spectator in Pasadena’

While analyzing my last round loss, Peter Falk of the detective series “Columbo” joined the players and kibitzers. It was quite a treat, as I was a fan of two popular detective shows at the time, “Baretta” as well as “Columbo.” Peter Falk, of course, played the lead role of a disheveled, discombobulated, self-deprecating detective who solves murders with insightful probing questions. When the suspect was sure that he had answered all of Columbo’s questions successfully, there would always be a “gotcha” question. Columbo would just about be out of the door, stop and turn and begin with, “Oh, just one more thing… I really can’t get my mind around this one…” And zap out would pop a question that would neatly undo the suspect’s explanations. These gotcha questions were always a great crowd pleaser as the suspect would be caught in a web of his own deceit. Invariably, the suspect would offer some lame explanation which would be barely plausible, after which Columbo would be his solicitous charming best by explaining, “Thank you that is a great load off my mind.”

One other thing about the Columbo series I enjoyed was the near cult like status accorded to “Mrs. Columbo.” Peter Falk would always invoke the “missus” with a “Mrs. Columbo always says…” and then the zap gotcha question hits once more based on Mrs. Columbo’s folksy wisdom. The point though is that the viewers never saw Mrs. Columbo in any episode. We would therefore muse over whether she existed or not. In American parlance someone who was never seen would be likened to Mrs. Columbo.

Peter was really perfect for the role, in voice, style, body language, it was as if the part of detective Columbo was tailor made for him. I was certainly charmed by him and I think my colleagues and kibitzers felt the same. As for his chess strength, that was hard to tell. He certainly knew all the pieces and how they moved, and his questions were always pertinent to the position. Usually a very good sign.

By the way, in a near Twilight Zone irony, the show Baretta had as its theme song the lyrics, “…If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Don’t do it!...” The star of the show, Robert Blake was tried but acquitted for the 2001 murder of his wife. However, in 2005 he was found liable in civil court for her wrongful death. Whether he did the crime or not he didn’t have to do the time.

Page 71 of the February 1973 Chess Life & Review had a shot of Falk with an unidentified player at the Eighth American Open, Santa Monica, 1972. John Donaldson (Berkeley, CA, USA) and Charles Sullivan (Davis, CA, USA) informed Chess Historian Edward Winter in Chess Notes that the player with Peter Falk who was left unidentified by Chess Life & Review is Dennis Waterman, now a well-known poker player. Mr Donaldson added: "Waterman gave Peter Falk lessons in the early 1970s. He played in the first Lone Pine tournaments but gave up chess in the early 1980s."


Columbo – The Most Dangerous Match (1973)

American grandmaster Emmett Clayton's world championship title (and his ego) are threatened when his ex-girlfriend convinces retired Soviet GM Tomlin Dudek to challenge him. Dudek meets Clayton by chance in a restaurant, and the two use salt and pepper shakers to start an impromptu chess game – which later continues in Clayton's apartment. Dudek wins and it becomes clear to the American that the portly, mild-mannered Russian is clearly his superior in chess. Clayton decides he must murder Dudek and concocts a scheme in which Dudek seems to have met with a fatal accident in the hotel's trash compactor. Lt. Columbo Lt. Columbo must outwit the super-intelligent, ruthless killer, which he does in his trademark style.

In the above clip Clayton (played by Laurence Harvey) analyses with Dudek (Jack Kruschen) in his apartment. We were unfortunately only able to locate a version that has been dubbed into Italian. If any of our readers knows of an English version please send us the link and we will replace the above video. In the 1980s Edward Winter's Chess Notes discussed the original game which was used in the Columbo episode and a C.N. reader, the late Jack O'Keefe, tracked it down to a game played just after the Second World War.

For further information, see two articles by Edward Winter

All photos copyright Winter/ChessBase


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