Musicians and Chess
by Bill Wall

Many musicians and singers play chess as a form of entertainment, challenge, and relaxation. Here is a partial list of musicians who play(ed) chess.

The great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein played chess while relaxing at Carnegie Hall.

Jon Anderson (1944- ), former lead vocalist of Yes, is a chess player. In 1971, he wrote the lyrics to Your Move, which was included in The Yes Album. The song uses various allusions to the game of chess.

Paul Badura-Skoda (1927- ), an Austrian pianist, is a chess player who wrote that chess was his main passion. He mentions chess in his book, Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard. He and his wife both play chess.

Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) was an English conductor associated with the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic. He was highly proficient at chess and carried a small chess board with him on many occasions. He learned chess from George Morley, a harp-maker.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the German composer and pianist, may have been a chess player. He was a good friend of Johann Maelzel, the builder of one of the first chess automatons.

Tony Blackburn (1943- ) began his career as a singer (Tony Blackburn and the Rovers), then became a British disc jockey. He is also a chess player, who passed the time on his pirate station ship Mi Amigo, playing chess.

Art Blakey (1919-1990) was a jazz drummer and bandleader. One of his songs was called "The Chess Players."

Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) was an English composer and conductor. He wrote a ballet for chess, called Checkmate.

Bono (1960- ), or Paul David Hewson, of U2, is a chess player. He said that chess was his greatest childhood pleasure. When he grew up, he wanted to be a professional chess player and studied many of the grandmaster games. He learned the game of chess from his father around age 12, during the Fischer-Spassky world championship match. Bono was the chess champion of his school. When he became interested in music, chess took a back seat.

Sonny Bono (1935-1998) played chess with a few guests on the Sonny & Cher show. Cher may also have been a chess player.

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) was a Russian composer, doctor, and chemistry professor. He was also a chess player.

Chris Botti (1962- ) is an American trumpeter and composer. He was once offered an Honorary Board membership to FIDE, the World Chess Federation. He has played against Garry Kasparov. Botti has also played chess with Sting.

David Bowie (1947-2016) played chess. There are several photographs of him playing chess.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was a German composer and pianist. He played chess with Robert Schumann.

Anthony Braxton (1945- ) is an American musician who has released over 100 albums since the 1960s. For a time in the 1960s, he gave up music and became a professional chess hustler, playing in Washington Square Park in New York. He has lectured on the connections between chess, math, and music. He discovered that literature, chess, and music were antidotes to his feelings of alienation.

Russian violinist and conductor Adolph Brodsky (1851-1929) was a strong chess player.

Clifford Brown (1930-1956), an American jazz trumpeter, was a chess player and had an interest in mathematics. He called chess his only vice.

John Cage (1912-1992) was an American composer. He took lessons and played chess with the artist, Marcel Duchamp, and with Duchamp's wife, Teeny. In 1944, he recorded a piano sonata called Chess Pieces. He always carried around a magnetic chess set and could be found playing chess with anyone who would give him a game. In 1972, at the age of 60, he took chess lessons from John Collins. He also contributed money to various chess organizations.

Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) was an Italian tenor opera singer. He took chess lessons from the Yugoslav master Boris Kostic (1887-1963).

Pablo Casals (1876-1973) was a Catalan cellist. He often played chess.

Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) was a Russian opera singer. Chess was one of his diversions.

Ray Charles (1930-2004), despite being blind, taught himself chess to get over heroin addiction. He played many chess games against Willie Nelson. Charles used a special chess board with raised squares and holes for pieces. His chess set is displayed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Composer and pianist Frederic Chopin found enjoyment in chess in his spare time. He made his own chess pieces.

Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) was an avid chess player. He once carved his own chess set. He once mentioned that he hadn't been writing too much music because he was playing so much chess.

Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was an occultist who made black magic recordings and appeared on the cover of the Beatles album, Sergeant Pepper. He was a member of the Cambridge University chess club and tried to become a chess master. However, he became preoccupied with occultism, and game up on the idea of becoming a chess champion. In 1897, his visit to an international chess tournament in Berlin convinced him not to play serious chess after seeing the shabby and poor chess masters.

DJ Green Lantern (1975- ), or James D'Agostino is a Hip Hop DJ and music producer. He is a chess player and has sponsored chess tournaments.

Bobby Darin (1936-1974) enjoyed chess and tried to sponsor a large chess tournament in his name before his untimely death. Darin often played chess on his weekly TV show, the Bobby Darin Show.

Singer-songwriter Neil Diamond (1941- ) plays chess.

Dilated Peoples is an American hip hop group. One of its members, Rakaa Iriscience (Rakaa Taylor), is an avid chess player.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was a Czech composer. He was a chess player.

Bob Dylan (1941- ) plays chess. He is an avid chess player who used to play chess for hours at the Cafe Figaro in Greenwich Village in New York.

Hanns Eisler (1898-1962) was a prolific Austrian composer and chess player.

Russian-born Jewish violinist Mischa Elman (1891-1967) was an avid chess player. He often played chess with Sergei Prokofiev and other notables. He was elected an honorary member of the Brooklyn Chess Club in the early 20th century.

Ferenc Erkel (1810-1893) was a Hungarian composer, conductor, and pianist. He was president of the first Hungarian chess organization in 1864. He was an internationally acknowledged chess player.

Adam Faith (1940-2003) was a British rock and roll singer. He was an avid chess player.

Eddie Fisher (1928-2010) mentioned that he played chess in his autobiography and that he was able to beat Artie Shaw when they played chess.

Richard "Kinky" Friedman (1944- ) is a Texas singer and songwriter. In 1952, at the age of 7, he played Samuel Reshevsky in a chess simul. He has played and beaten Willie Nelson.

Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993) was a chess player who also played correspondence chess. He played chess with Ray Charles and had a winning record with Charlie Parker. He defeated U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren in 1954 during an airplane ride together.

Gerry Goffin (1939- ) is an American lyricist. He is a chess player and has played in a few chess tournaments.

Alexander Goldenweiser (1875-1961) was a Russian pianist and composer. He once defeated Mikail Chigorin in a game, played in Moscow in 1900. He also played chess with Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).

Rapper and hip-hop artist GZA (1966- ), Gary Grice, from the Wu-Tang clan is a chess buff.

Sir Charles Halle (1819-1895) was an Anglo-German pianist and composer. He enjoyed a game of chess.

Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) was a songwriter, producer, and director. He was an avid chess player.

Jerry Harrison (1049- ) is an American songwriter jazz pianist living in Beverly Hills. He is a chess player.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was an American jazz singer. She played chess with Dizzy Gillespie.

Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) was an American classical pianist and composer. He played chess with Isaac Stern. Horowitz played for fun and was not a particularly skilled chess player.

Bruce Robert Howard (Dr. Robert) is the lead singer and guitarist of The Blow Monkeys, a British New Wave rock group.

Immortal Technique (1978- ), or Felipe Coronel, is a Peruvian born American rapper. He is a chess player and supports the Hip Hop Chess Federation.

Jay Z (1969- ), or Shawn Carter, is an American rapper. He learned chess from his father and has promoted the game by sponsoring tournaments.

Most of the members in the Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship play chess. International Master Kim Commons gave chess lessons to the entire Jefferson Airplane members.

Nic Jones (1947- ) is an English folk singer. He developed a passion for playing chess.

Leo Kahn (1909-1996) was Polish-born American violinist. He was chess aficionado and was on the board of directors of the Manhattan Chess Club.

Fritz Kreisler (1865-1962) was an Austrian-born violinist and composer. He was a chess player and played chess with other musicians.

Gene Krupa (1909-1973) was an American jazz and big band drummer. He was a chess player.

Lady Gaga (1986- ) says she enjoys chess and that it is a lot of fun.

John Lennon (1940-1980), Sean Lennon (1975), and Yoko Ono (1933- ) were all chess players.

John Lill (1944- ) is am English classical pianist. He is a chess player.

LL Cool J (1968- ), or James Todd Smith, is an American rapper. He is an avid chess fan.

Ludacris (1977- ) or Christopher Bridges, is an American rapper. He is a chess player.

Phil Lynott (1949-1986), was a founding member of Thin Lizzy. He was a chess player.

Lorin Maazel (1930- ) is an American conductor, violinist, and composer. His father taught him chess.

Madonna (1958- ) plays chess. She can be seen playing chess in some of her music videos. She was tutored in chess by Alan Norris, a Scottish chess champion.

Johnny Marks (1909-1985) was an American songwriter (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer). He was a member of the Marshall Chess Club in New York for many years.

Wynton Marsalis (1961- ) is an American trumpeter. He has played chess with Grandmaster Maurice Ashley. He has supported chess events in Harlem.

Dean Martin (1917-1995) was an American singer. Claude Akins (1926-1993) taught chess to Dean Martin.

German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was an accomplished chess player.

Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) was an American violinist and conductor. Louis Persinger gave Menuhin violin and chess lessons at an early age. After a recital at the Paris Opera, 12-year-old Menuhin gave interviews while playing chess.

Dominic Miller (1960- ) is an Argentine-English guitarist who has worked with dozens of musicians. He has played chess against Garry Kasparov.

Joni Mitchell (1943- ) plays chess.

Moby (1965- ), or Richard Melville Hall, is an American singer and songwriter. He is a chess player.

Italian composer Ennio Morricone (1928- ) is a chess player and has participated in chess tournaments.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a Russian composer. He was a chess player.

Graham Nash (1942- ) of Crosby, Stills, and Nash plays chess. He participated in a celebrity chess tournament in Mazatlan, Mexico in 1988 and played Helen Reddy.

Nelly (1974- ), or Cornell Haynes, Jr. is an American rapper. In an interview, he mentioned that he played chess.

Willie Nelson (1933- ) plays chess.

The violinist David Oistrakh (1908-1974) was a chess player. He would spend several hours a day playing chess. He played many chess games with Sergei Prokofiev.

Elaine Paige (1948- ) is an English singer. She is a chess player.

Charlie Parker (1920-1955) was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. He was an avid chess player. He played chess with Dizzy Gillespie.

The violinist Louis Persinger (1887-1966) was a chess player, member of the United States Chess Federation and won a few chess tournaments during his lifetime. In 1941, he won the first USCF Open postal chess tournament.

Phish is an American rock band whose members play chess. In one concert, the band challenged its audience to two games of chess. Phish won one game and the audience won the other.

The great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976) played chess. He sponsored the Piatigorsky cups and his wife, Jacqueline (1911-2012), was among the best women chess players in the USA. She played in several US women's chess championships.

The composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a strong chess player who played and beat Capablanca in a simul. He always had a chess set on his piano, ready to play anyone at chess.

Jason Rebello (1969- ) is a British jazz pianist and a band member of Sting. He has played Garry Kasparov in a game of chess.

Helen Reddy (1941- ) plays chess. She played Graham Nash in a celebrity chess tournament in 1988.

Ruggiero Ricci (1918-2012) was an American violinist. He was a chess player.

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) was a Soviet pianist and a chess fanatic.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer (Flight of the Bumblebee). He was a chess player.

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an African-American singer. He was a chess player.

Moriz Rosentthal (1862-1946) was a Polish pianist. He was a chess player. He played chess often and for long periods of time. Chess was his favorite game.

Leon Rosselson (1934- ) is an English songwriter. Some of his children's books that he has written mentioned chess.

Giochino Rossini (1792-1868) was an Italian composer (The Barber of Seville). He was a chess player.

David Lee Roth (1954) plays chess. He took a few chess lessons at the Chess Forum in New York.

Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) was a Polish-American classical pianist. He had a love for chess.

RZA (1969- ), or Robert Diggs, is an American rapper, and one of the founders of the Wu-Tang Clan. He is a huge chess fan.

Ernest Schelling (1876-1939) was an American pianist, composer, and conductor. He often played chess with Fritz Kreisler.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was a German composer. He was an avid chess player. He added a few chess puzzles in his diary. He taught Johannes Brahms how to play chess.

Ronnie Scott (1927-1996) was an English jazz tenor and saxophonist. He was a chess player and played guests at his jazz club, Ronnie Scott's.

RZA (1969- ), Robert Diggs, is an American rapper who plays chess.

The band leader and clarinetist Artie Shaw (1910-2004) was an avid chess player. He played chess with Grandmaster Larry Evans. He was married to Ava Gardner and hired a chess master to teach her chess in 1946.

The Russian composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) enjoyed chess and collected chess problems.

Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) was an American singer. He played and enjoyed chess. He had his own chess pieces made for him. Humphrey Bogart got Sinatra interested in chess. He played chess with Grandmaster Walter Browne in Las Vegas.

Will Smith (1968- ) is an American rapper and actor. He received chess lessons from Chicago's National Master Marvin Dandridge. Smith learned chess from his father at age 7.

Ringo Starr (1940- ) plays chess. He claimed to have learned to play chess during the tedious recording of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band. During breaks in the music studio, he played chess with one of the engineers. He had a chess set modeled on his hands and fingers. The set sold for $36,000.

Isaac Stern (1920-2001) was a Polish-born violinist and conductor. He played chess with Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall.

Sticky Fingaz (1973- ), or Kirk Jones, is an American rapper. He likes to play chess.

Sting (1951- ), Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, plays chess. His original ambition in life was to be a chess grandmaster. He has played chess with Gary Kasparov, lasting 45 moves. Sting's estate in France has a giant chess board in the grounds.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was a leading German composer. He once played Edward Lasker.

Bjorn Ulvaeus (1945- ), a former member of ABBA, plays chess.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was an Italian composer known for his operas. He was a chess player.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was a Brazilian composer. His usual custom was to invite a friend over every night for a game of chess, followed by dinner.

Composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a chess player.

West Indian Girl is a rock band from Los Angeles. Its members play chess and became involved in the India Rock Chess Federation. Their coach is International Master Jeremy Silman.

The jazz musician Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) was an avid chess player.

Rudolf Heinrich Willmers (1821-1878) was a Viennese pianist and composer. He also composed chess problems. He won several problem chess tournaments.

Wu-Tang Clan is an American hip hop group. They are active in chess activities and promote the game. Its founder, RZA, won the first Hip-Hop Chess Federation championship.

Chess players who are also musicians include GM Vishy Anand (he wrote that his hobby was music),Armand Blackmar (songwriter), IM Calvin Blocker (concert pianist), GM Svetozar Gligoric, Igor Ivanov (concert pianist), Francois-Andre Danican Philidor, Anthony Santasiere (pianist), Nigel Short (he had his own rock band), Vasily Smyslov, Mark Taimanov.

Also see my article on Chess and Music.

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