Duchamp's Pipe: A Chess Romance by Celia Rabinovitch
Book Review by Bill Wall

Artist and cultural historian Celia Rabinovitch's 'Duchamp's Pipe: A Chess Romance' is one of the best and most accurate books about honorary Grandmaster and blindfold chess champion George Koltanowski (1903-2000) and French Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Both were friends and fascinated by chess. I knew Kolty for 28 years and Celia provides the best history of the Dean of American Chess in this highly accurate book. She has produced a wonderful masterpiece of the lives of two artists, their friendship, their interaction, and their obsession to chess. The book is well-researched with lots of historical chess events that Kolty and Duchamp participated in. I cannot think of a better chess biography of two best-friend chess players than this one.

It starts out with a list of the Duchamp family, and then a list of the Koltanowski family. While most of Duchamp's family became artists, most of Koltanowski's family perished in the Holocaust.

My friend, chess master Kerry Lawless, provided a nice bio of Kolty for the book. As Kerry wrote, "[Koltanowski] was the greatest showman since P. T. Barnum." This was in tribute to all of Kolty's blindfold exhibitions and lectures. In 1980, Kolty gave a blindfold exhibition for me in Dayton, Ohio, while I as president of the Ohio Chess Association, and in 1989 , he gave a chess lecture in Palo Alto while I was president of the Palo Alto Chess Club. George Koltanowski was also known as the Dean of American Chess and a chess columnist in the San Francisco 'Chronicle' for 52 years (he had written more than 59,000 columns). A later chapter by Nikki Lastreto, Kolty's editor at the San Francisco 'Chronicle,' tells of her memories of George Koltanowski.

Part I of the book is called "A Smoking Pipe." On March 10, 1944, George Koltanowski and Marcel Duchamp sat down in New York for a game of chess. Koltanowski won as Black in 29 moves, and Duchamp presented Kolty a smoking pipe as an extraordinary gift that Duchamp inscribed. It was the perfect gift. Both were devoted pipe smokers. In those days, you could still smoke and play chess. Both reflected and smoked while playing chess. And pipe-smoking was endorsed by Albert Einstein, who said, "I believe that pipe-smoking contributes somewhat calm and subjective judgment in all human affairs." The gift that Marcel gave to George represented their connection, reflection, and friendship. The book is all about the series of personal exchanges between Duchamp and Koltanowski that led up to and following the gift of Duchamp's pipe.

The book contains four parts. Part I is called "A Smoking Pipe." Part II is entitled, "A Chess Romance." It involves Duchamp's and Koltanowski's backgrounds and when they met. Part III is entitled, "A Beautiful Game." In June 1929, Duchamp defeated Koltanowski in 15 moves in round 8 at an international tournament in Paris (won by Savielly Tartakower). Koltanowski ended up in 8th-9th place. Duchamp took last place, but it was Duchamp's only win, after losing 8 games and drawing 2 games. Part IV is entitled, "Objects and the Spirits Who Made Them." It covers the later years of Duchamp and Koltanowski and the fascination with smokes, smoking, tobacco, and pipes. As Rabinovitch pointed out, up to the late 1960s, the cerebral image of chess was entwined with smoking. Emanuel Lasker and Alexander Alekhine were smokers. In 1927, Camel Cigarettes featured former U.S. chess champion Frank Marshall (1877-1944) in one of its advertisements. In 1947, U.S. chess champion Arnold Denker (1914-2005) appeared in an advertisement for Camel cigarettes. His tag line is "Experience is the best teacher in chess and in cigarettes too! I've found its Camels for my taste."

Throughout the book, the author finds similarities and contradictions between Duchamp the artist and Koltanowski the chess performer. Their exchange of chess and ideas expanded for 3 decades over 3 continents — Europe, North America, and South America. During World War II, the two escaped Europe via different routes and through different agencies. Both ended up in New York by 1942 and shared an office space.

Duchamp had moved to Brussels in February 1923. Duchamp and Koltanowski met in May-June 1923 at the 3rd Belgian Chess Championship in Ghent, Belgium. Kolty won the event, scoring 5 out of 6.

In October, 1923, George Koltanowski won the 1st National Belgium Cup ("the Cygne") in Brussels. Emanuel Sapira took 2nd and Marcel Duchamp of France took 3rd (scoring 7.5 out of 10). Koltanowski defeated Duchamp in 30 moves in their encounter. Afterwards, Duchamp moved back to Paris. They met again at the first (unofficial) Chess Olympiad (called the Team Chess Tournament) in Paris in 1924. Kolty represented Belgium as Board 2 and Duchamp represented France as Board 3.

There is a wealth of information in this book about Duchamp, Koltanowski, art, and chess. The book is 287 pages long with an index, a chronology of events, notes, and hundreds of references. It also includes 76 pictures and figures spread throughout the book.

Oh, and what happened to the pipe? Kolty never smoked it. He kept the pipe hidden in a manila envelope in the hallway closet of his 3d floor apartment of Gough Street in San Francisco for 44 years. Only his wife, Leah, knew where it was. In October 1988, Kolty's editor, Nikki Lastreto, who edited his daily syndicated column from 1980 to 1988 at the San Francisco 'Chronicle,' was retiring. Kolty gave her the pipe as a farewell gift for all her hard work. Duchamp's pipe continued with another gift exchange to another friend. Nikki, a chess player herself, knew of the importance that Duchamp had in the life of Koltanowski, kept the gift that confirmed their own friendship. Nikki remained friend with Kolty until he died on February 5, 2000. The pipe was later put in an art collection. In May 2016, Duchamp's pipe was up for auction at Christie's in New York. It sold for $87,500.

This high-quality paperback book was published in February, 2020, by North Atlantic Books in Berkeley, California (www.northatlanticbooks.com). Its list price is $19.95 and well worth it.

Return to Main Page

Please report broken or duplicate links to the Webmaster.

Official Website
Copyleft 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 by William D. Wall
This site and all contents herein may be freely used, modified, and distributed on the condition that anything derived from them is bound by this same condition. Also we kindly ask that you include attribution and link to our page on your website. Thank you.

Bill Wall