John Wayne and Chess

by Bill Wall


John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa.

His family moved to Glendale, California in 1916.  It was Glendale firefighters who gave Wayne his nickname, Duke, which was also the name of his family’s dog that he took with him when visiting a firehouse in the neighborhood.

One of Wayne’s favorite pastimes was playing chess and he engaged in a few correspondence chess games.

In the 1925, John Wayne (Marion Morrison) graduated from Glendale High School.  One of his high school teachers at Glendale Union High School wrote, “He [John Wayne] headed the school’s debate team, won honors pins several years in a row, played an aggressive game of chess,and graduated salutatorian in a class of 200 students.”  (source: John Wayne: American, by Randy Roberts, 195, p. 46)

John Wayne found work at local film studios when he lost his football scholarship to the University of Southern California (USC) as a result of a bodysurfing accident and a broken collarbone.

In 1930, he changed his name to John Wayne.

From 1933 to 1945, he was married to Josephine Alica Saenz (1908-2003).  There is no indication she played chess.  They had four children, including film producer Michael Wayne (1934-2003), actor Patrick Wayne (1939- ), Mary “Toni” Morrison (1936-2000), and Melinda Morrison (1940- ).  All of his children played chess.

In 1942, John Wayne played chess with Marlene Dietrich (1904-1992) between takes in Pittsburgh.  They had met earlier in 1940 and had an affair that last for several years.  John Wayne later described Dietrich as “the most intriguing woman I’ve ever known.”

From 1946 to 1954, he was married to Esperanza Baur (1924-1961).  It is unknown if she played chess.

In 1947, John Wayne starred in Tycoon.  Between scenes, he carried a miniature chess board and played chess with the cast members.

In 1948, in the film 3 Godfathers, his character, Robert Mamaduke Hightower, played chess.  When asked what Marshall Sweet (Ward Bond)  was going to do with bank robber Hightower when he gets him behind bars, the Marshall says “I’m gonna play him a game of chess.  He’ll be right good at it too, I’ll bet.”  Later, the two do play chess while Hightowere sits in jail awaiting his trial verdict.

In 1948, during the filming of Red River, Wayne played lots of chess matches with Pierce Lyden (1908-1998), who had a small part in the movie as a scout.  During the filming, Pierce and Wayne played dozens of chess games, with Wayne winning every game.   (source: Duke, We’re Glad We Knew You, by Herb Fagen, p. 70)

In 1949, John Wayne starred in The Fighting Kentuckian.  Between takes, John Wayne would play chess with his stand-in.

In 1949, John Wayne starred in Sands of Iwo Jima.  He spent time with the younger actors, running lines with them and playing chess with them. 

In 1953, John Wayne starred in Hondo.  He played chess often during breaks on the set.

In 1954, John Wayne married Pilar Pallete.  They were married from 1954 to 1979.  She was a chess player and they played chess together at home or on location.

In 1957, John Wayne starred in Jet Pilot.  The director was Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969).  Von Sternberg noticed that John Wayne brought a chess board to the set and made a remark about the excellence of his own game.  John Wayne said, “I played him without looking at the board.  And I beat him.  Pure luck.  He was livid.”  (source: John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman, 2014, p. 200)  Von Sternberg was a member of the Herman Steiner Chess Club in Hollywood.

In 1959, John Wayne starred in Rio Bravo.  Between takes, he played chess with his son, Patrick (1939- ), Claude Akins (1926-1994), Dean Martin (1917-1995), and Ricky Nelson (1940-1985).  Akins said that he always beat John Wayne when they played chess.

In 1961, during the filming of The Comancheros, Wayne spent his time between takes playing chess.

In 1962, Wayne bought a former naval vessel (the USS YMS-328) and installed a chess table on it.  He spent hours playing chess on his boar, the Wild Goose.  Wayne spent as much time as he could on the Wild Goose, cruising between Newport Beach, Catalina Island, and Mexico in the winter, and Alaska and Vancouver in the summer.  Wayne spent the time playing chess or reading a good book on his yacht.

In 1963, in the film Mclintock!, (a modern day Taming of the Shrew) his character, George Washington (GW) McLintock, played chess.  In the introduction credits, the chess set is set up wrong (white square to the left).  The movie takes place in a US territory (Arizona or New Mexico) in the late 19th century.  Jake Birnbaum (Jack Kruschen) keeps a chess set on a wooden table in the back room of his general store.  Cattle baron and landowner G.W. McLintock walks in the back room with Jake and points to the position set up on the board, approaching on the black side.  “Problem?’ he asks Jake.  Jakes says yes and McLintock then says, “Well, if I were Blacks, I would move queen’s bishop to king four.”  This is an impossible move, regardless of where the pieces are since the Black queen’s bishop is always on the light squares and king four for Black is a dark colored square.  Birnbaum accepts the advice, moves the bishop (looks like it went to Black’s queen four square) and says, “Yeah, you might be right.  You know, I was just starting to work this out when the letter came.”  Later, we see McLintock in the study of his ranch house where he has a chess set on display.  GW then goes into town and meets Birnbaum again.  As GW enters the saloon, Birnbaum is leaving the saloon and says to McLintock, “Wrong move.  Chess problem. Queen’s in danger.”  So instead of going into the saloon, GW follows Birnbaum back to his store.  The next scene is a game of chess where Birnbaum has White against McLintock while Sheriff Lord (Chuck Roberson) and bar girl Camille Reedbottom (Mari Blanchard) are spectators.  Soon, estranged wife Catherine (Maureen O’Hara) comes into the back room where GW and Birnbaum are playing chess.  Catherine sits and watches the game while Camille says to Catherine, “I’m Camille Reedbottom.  I’m learnin’ the game of chess.  Thought it would give me sumpthin’ to pass the time.  I have nothing to do all day long.  I just remember sumthin,”  then she leaves.  GW and Birnbaum argue on whose move it is, and Birnbaum points out that it is GW’s move as Birnbaum just castled.  Later, Catherine says, “Now look here, you’re not going to sit here all night long and play chess when the matter of our daughter remains unsettled (Catherine wants to take her daughter back to the State Capitol and to New York and G.W. wants her to stay in town).  McLintock replies, “I am going to remain here and play chess, and the matter of our daughter (Becky – Stefanie Powers) is settled.  She stays.”  Catherine resolves to wait him out, bus she falls asleep as Jake and McLintock play chess all night long and into dawn.  Later, Birnbaum resigns one of his games when a new spectator, new-hire Devlin Warren (Patrick Wayne), says, “Oh no, Mr. Birnbaum.  You still got a good game.”  So Birnbaum suggests that Devlin take over his side.  McLintock then says, “Pretty good?” and Devlin replies, “Fair.”  McLintock then says, “Remember, I’m a bad loser.  It’s your move.”  Maureen’s husband, USAF Brigadier General Charles Blair (1909-1978), was a keen chess player, and Wayne and Blair played a lot of chess together.  During the breaks of the movie, John Wayne and his son, Patrick, played chess.

In 1965, during the making of In Harm’s Way, John Wayne and Kirk Douglas (196- ) would play chess between takes.

In 1966, long-time friend to John Wayne, Jimmy Grant (1905-1966), died.  Grant, who was a screenwriter, played chess with Wayne for over 20 years and never won a game. .”  (source: John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman, 2014, p. 260)

In 1966, during the making of El Dorado, John Wayne played chess between takes with James Caan (1940- ).

In the 1960s, actor Ed Faulkner (1932- ) was in many movies with John Wayne was one of Wayne’s main chess partners.

In 1968, during the making of Hellfighters, John Wayne spent a great deal of his time on the set off in a corner playing chess.

In December 1968, Roger Ebert interviewed John Wayne on a sound stage of True Grit (released in 1969),  Ebert found him leaning against a packing crate and studying the chess board.

In 1969, John Wayne played a lot of chess with photo-journalist David Sutton (1910-1998) during movie breaks.  Sutton said that he played over 500 chess games with Wayne over their lifetime.  In an interview, Sutton said, “During the past few years I guess we’ve played as many as 500 games of chess – on his yacht, ‘The Wild Goose,’ at his home, on his ranch, on location – he beats me sometimes and I win a few, but that’s not important.  The important thing is that we have a ball.”  (source: The San Bernardino County Sun, Dec 19, 1972, p. 16).

In 1969, John Wayne and Rock Hudson (1925-1985) starred in The Undefeated.  Between takes, they played chess.  John Wayne, his wife Pilar, and Rock Hudson played chess every night in Durango, Mexico while filming The Undefeated. (source: John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, by Michael Mann, 2003)  He also played chess with other cast members.

In 1970, in the film Chisum, his character, John Chisum, plays chess.  While shooting the movie, Wayne invited Christopher Mitchum (1943- ), the son of Robert Michum (1917-1997), to play chess.  Christopher said that Wayne would cheat, sometimes moving two pieces simultaneously while using his big hands to block Chris’s view.  At first, Christopher didn’t know what to do, and he complained to veteran actor Ed Faulkner (1932- ), who’d worked with Wayne over the years.  Ed advised Christopher to call him out on it.  The next game, Christopher caught Wayne cheating agains, saying, “Excuse me, duke, but you’re cheating.”  Wayne replied, “Well, I was wondering when you were going to say something.  Set ‘em up.  We’ll play again.” (source: John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman, 2014, p. 454)

In the 1970s, John Wayne was a member of the Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach and often spent his afternoons there playing chess. (source: Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne, by Ronald Davis, 1998, p. 268)

In 1973, John Wayne’s wife insisted that he accompany her to tennis tournaments in which she played.  John Wayne would show up and the officials gave him a trailer to stay in.  Rather than watch tennis, John Wayne hung up a sign, “Do you want to play chess with John Wayne?”  Fans lined up as they got a chance to play a quick game of chess with John Wayne.  (source: John Wayne: The Westerns, by David Morrell, 2000)

In 1976, John Wayne starred in his last film, The Shootist.  Between takes, he was off somewhere resting, napping or playing chess.  One of the few persons that could beat Wayne was Dave Grayson, the makeup man for the film.  “Dave could beat him, and Duke would stomp around and curse about it, but he wasn’t really mad; he loved a good game.” (source: John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman, 2014, p. 525)

Patrick Wayne wrote, “I used to play chess with my dad a lot, but I never fared very well.  But there was this one particular time when I won three games in a row.  He started to set the pieces up again and I said, ‘I’m tired.  I don’t want to play again.’  And he followed me around with the board for hours, trying to get me to play with him again.  And finally I agreed and we sat down and he slaughtered me.”  (source: John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman, 2014, p. 415)

Another of John Wayne’s chess partner through the years was William Windom (1923-2012).

John Wayne made 142 pictures (83 westerns) during his career and probably played chess between takes in all of those pictures.

Wayne died of stomach cancer on June 11, 1979 at the age of 72 in Los Angeles, California.