Duchamp’s Pipe: A Review

Duchamp’s Pipe

A Chess Romance

Marcel Duchamp & George Koltanowski

by Celia Rabinovitch

Published by North Atlantic Books, which can be found by clicking here:

Duchamp’s Pipe

The quoted text is pulled directly from the book.

This is a wonderful, enjoyable, entertaining, and easy to read, book. It is well written and deeply researched, much of  which emanates from the wonderful California Chess reference resource, ChessDryad (ChessDryad.com), where one finds on the home page of Chess History Archives:

What’s New

A brand new must-have book!

Intrigued by the title I decided to get in touch with the publisher to write a review. Prior to reading this volume these are the only books previously read concerning Marcel Duchamp:

When first learning of the book I was curious as to how a writer would be able to write a book concerning the gift of a smoking pipe. After all, so much has been written about Marcel Duchamp one would think it impossible to find anything new about which to write. I was wrong. In addition, I wondered about the title, “A Chess Romance.” Since it concerns two men, why not “A Chess Bromance?” After all, the definition of bromance is, “A platonic or nonsexual friendship between two men, usually two heterosexual men, likened to a romantic relationship.” (https://www.thefreedictionary.com/bromance) Replace the “B” with “R” and we have: “A love affair.” (https://www.thefreedictionary.com/romance)


“Duchamp’s last summer was spent in Cadaques, Spain. At five o’clock every afternoon he could be found at Cafe Melion. One time Laurent Sauerwein boldly decided to “intercept” Duchamp and speak with him. Before long a man appeared and a chessboard was produced, at which point, Sauerwein recounts: “I knew I had to shut up. the serious business was about to begin [and] Marcel kept focused, samurai-like, periodically puffing on his cigar…I didn’t stay until the very end actually, because…what was at stake on the chessboard seemed too intimate to watch.” Lewis Jacobs captured Duchamp in Cadaques, footage he later used in his 1982 documentary Marcel Duchamp: In His Own Words, in which Duchamp shares how chess “is a peaceful way of understanding life [and as with all games] you play with life. You are more alive than people who believe in religion and art.” In other words, the game is in the player’s hands, whereas art and religion require devotion.”

“Duchamp once stated that “chess is a school of silence.” (http://ubu.com/film/duchamp_drot.html) In 1964 the German artist Joseph Beuys, known for his dissenting action-performances, staged “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp Is Overrated.” With this work, Beuys criticized Duchamp’s apparent withdrawal from the art world and social responsibilities in order to “merely” play chess.”

“Duchamp’s chess-playing came to the fore in the last dozen years of his life, during which time he also re-emerged after decades of apparent self-imposed isolation from the “industry” of art: making, promoting, selling. In an address to a symposium at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, in March 1961 Duchamp said, “The great artist of tomorrow will go underground.”

I have read about Duchamp in an attempt to understand why he decided to devote time to Chess in lieu of devoting time to art. In 1928 Duchamp commented in a letter to Katherine Drier: “Chess is my drug; don’t you know it!”


“In 1951, Koltanowski expanded his readership by publishing his chess columns in popular magazines and in-house company newsletters. The San Francisco Fireman’s Fund Record published an article titled “The Walking brain,” about Koltanowski and his renowned Knight’s Tour Exhibition. In chess, the knight’s tour demonstrates a sequence of moves on the sixty-four squares of a chessboard whereby the knight visits every square once. To fill each square, Koltanowski asked the audience to suggest names or numbers in combination. He looked at the board, took a few minutes to memorize it, and proceeded to perform the tour while naming the contents of each square. He set another record at the San Francisco Chess Festival at the Marines’ Memorial Club on December 2, 1951, where he played a Blindfold Speed Chess Exhibition by playing fifty blindfold games, one after another, at ten seconds a move in eight hours and forty-five minutes.”

“Humphrey Bogart came to San Francisco for the premier of The African Queen in March 1952. The San Francisco Chronicle staged an exhibition in which Koltanowski played Bogie while blindfolded. Playing to the crowd, Kolty muttered, “This guy is dangerous and I’m not kidding.” Bogie, of course, had played tough-talking detective Sam Spade in the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, which was set in San Francisco. Dark Passage, release in 1947, just five years before the chess match, was set on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, not too far from Kolty and Leah’s apartment on Gough Street in the Cathedral Hill area. The event sparked Kolty’s flair for drama-combined with San Francisco’s foggy atmosphere in his blood. He played up the intensity of their contest both on the radio and in the newspaper. Photographs of the match show a Koltanowski intensely concentrating to defeat Bogie-which he did, in forty-one moves.”

“In late 1952, Kolty was the prime mover behind a new organization, Chess Friends of Northern California. It had its own magazine-Chess in Action-and he was the action. This was just one part of his lasting legacy. In the decades to come, Koltanowski published chess columns all over the world, wrote books, and broke ever more chess records. Upon his death on February 5, 2000, his Chronicle (itl) column had run for fifty-two years, at that time the longest-running chess column in journalism. He was inducted into the US Chess Hall of Fame in 1986, and awarded an honorary Grandmaster title in 1988. He was the greatest showman since P.T. Barnum, besting the great blindfold chess exhibitioners before him with his self-appointed title of World Blindfold champion. He was a true Dean of American Chess-so named by the United States Chess Federation-and there will never again be anyone like him.”

The Pipe

“WAS DUCHAMP’S PIPE A UTILITARIAN object? Was it an altered readymade with transformed meaning? Or was it intended to embody Marcel and George’s chess relationship? Duchamp was known to make gifts of his work to those he was close to or admired. An admirer of the artistry of industrial objects, Duchamp gathered ideas from plumber’s shop windows, department stores, iron works, and industrial sites. He admired their lack of embellishment combined with stalwart purpose in their machined manufacture. In choosing his pipe ebauchon, he chose its blocky original form. [The majority of pipes sold today, whether handmade or machine-made, are fashioned from briar. Briar burls are cut into two types of blocks; ebauchon and plateaux. Ebauchon is taken from the heart of the burl while plateaux is taken from the outer part of the burl. While both types of blocks can produce pipes of the highest quality, most artisan pipemakers prefer to use plateaux because of its superior graining. https://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Smoking+pipe+(tobacco)%5D  Commercially designed tobacco pipes take refined shapes with curved contours, while those hewn by artisan often employ eccentric forms. By contrast, Duchamp’s extraordinary pipe allows the rough geometric shape of the raw ebauchon to linger, evoking the memory of its crude industrial manufacture.”

“THUS UNFOLDS THE EXCHANGE BETWEEN Duchamp and Koltanowski and the game they loved-a love triangle with the art of chess. The characters are incongruous: Marcel Duchamp, the audacious, ironic French artist; George Koltanowski, a memory-gifted Belgian Jewish chess champion who escaped the Holocaust in Europe; and the game of chess itself, embodied by the goddess Caissa. First referred to in Europe in the sixteenth century, Caissa became the patron goddess of chess devotees who, like George, would invoke her to inspire their game. The poem “Caissa, or: The Game of Chess” (1763), by the linguist Sir William Jones, (http://www.chessdryad.com/caissa/caissa.htm) expresses in heroic couplets Dubhamp and Koltanowski’s mutual chess obsession: “No prize we need, our ardour to inflame;/we fight with pleasure, if we fight for fame.”

“As part of the wandering intelligentsia of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century-buffeted by political upheavals and wars and circulation through countries-Duchamp and Koltanowski survived by wit, artistry, and alliances, their worlds meeting in the game of chess. And just as in romances, the two character’ motives are colored by friendship, rivalry, and a shared admiration for the elusive chess mistress. Their exchange of chess and ideas for over a quarter century was embodied by Duchamp’s pipe. Their encounters cut across three continents-Europe, South America, and North America-and span three decades, through various chess tournaments, informal chess clubs, and cities including Brussels, Paris, The Hague, Buenos Aires, Havana, and New York City. Surviving the chaos of World War II, and as part of the European flight to America, these two men lived through the major upheavals of the twentieth century. And while they played-in cities and tournaments, or in smoky private clubs-they reflected on chess strategy and opened their senses to its marvelous duration, all the while smoking their pipes.”

End Part One