Is Bob Dylan a Chess Player?

by Andy Pitcher

In so much as anyone who knows the rules and has played a few games of chess it would seem that Bob Dylan can be called a chess player. For example, there is photographic evidence of Dylan playing chess, and in Bob Spitz 'Dylan: A Biography', there are several paragraphs describing how Dylan used to try to psyche his opponent out by talking during the game. He also was known to do the same wild, nervous leg shaking motion while playing that he does when he is singing. There is also a report that Dylan's manager paid Bobby Fischer so Dylan could play chess with him. So what other clues do we have of Bobs interest in Chess? There are a few.

In the early-to-mid 1960s chess cropped up as a minor motif in Dylan's work. On the Minnesota Hotel Tapes (recorded 22 December 1961, before the release of his debut album), for example, he tells the following story about his travels and travails in East Orange County:

22 December 1961, Minnesota Hotel Tape, Minneapolis, Minnesota

"First time I ever worked in East Orange, New Jersey.

Folks never go to East Orange, New Jersey, it's a horrible town. I went there to play in a coffee house in East Orange, New Jersey. It was a chess playing coffee house out there. It was so bad...uh...so bad, people playing chess out there, Uh...that's all they thought about out there was chess and chess and chess. People come up to me, you play your song, you play you a real quiet song. In the middle of the song you hear "Check", [female laughter in background] And "Hey, that was a good move" and all kinds of stuff like that.

Hey folks it was so bad I had a little dream out there the first night I worked about this chess playing stuff. I dreamed I went to work out in East Orange, New Jersey, and..uh..about time I quit in two days I went there to ask the guy for my money. I says "Can I have some money, I worked two days for ya?". He says..uh.."Well OK, we don't pay you money around here though" I says "Uh..Yeah?", he says "Well" he says..uh.."Yeah, we pay ya chess men", I said "Uh, well give me my chess men then, I worked two days". I sort of...didn't really figure, I thought he was lying at first, but I took it anyway. He gave me a king and a queen for working two days.I said "Fine, that's OK".

So I took my king and queen and went down to a bar, nearest bar I could find. I walked in the bar and I ordered a pint. I..I got on the bar, "Bartender", I says "Can I have a pint?" I'll be damned if he didn't give me a pint. He asked me for the money. I gave him my king and queen. I'll be damned, you know he took that king and queen, threw it under the counter, and brought me out four pawns, two bishops, and a rook for change.

That's a little story about East Orange, New Jersey."

Dylan released the album The 'Times They Are a-Changin' in 1964 in which some chess imagery on the track 'Only a Pawn in their Game' was used. From the 1965 album 'Bringing it all back home' and the track 'Love minus Zero' (verse 3) we have;

The cloak and dagger dangles, Madams light the candles. In ceremonies of the horsemen, Even the pawn must hold a grudge. Statues made of match sticks, Crumble into one another, My love winks, she does not bother, She knows too much to argue or to judge.

Dylan in later albums returned to such imagery on 'Caribbean Wind', an outtake from 1981?s Shot of Love: 'Could I have been used and played as a pawn? / It certainly was possible as the gay night wore on.' Also interesting is Another Side of Bob Dylan, released later in 1964 and specifically its liner notes, which contain the following elevated prose:

"i could make you crawl if i was payin' attention" he said munchin' a sandwich in between chess moves "what d' you wanna make me crawl for?" "i mean i just could" "could make me crawl" "yeah, make you crawl!" "humm, funny guy you are" "no, i just play t' win, that's all" "well if you can't win me, then you're the worst player i ever played" "what d' you mean?" "i mean i lose all the time" his jaw tightened an' he took a deep breath "hummm, now i gotta beat you"

When Dylan came to play at Dublin Castle in 1984 Bono (U2) interviewed him. Here is an interesting extract.

Bono: Chess, do you play chess? Dylan: Yeah, I play chess. Are you a chess player? Bono: I am a chess player. Dylan: I'm not that good actually. Bono: I'll challenge you to a game of chess. Dylan: I don't have it right now actually, I just don't have one on me, but the next time you see me! Bono: Oh, you can get these little ones you know, that you can carry around. Dylan: Yeah, I take them on tour all the time, but nobody in the band will play me. Bono: Really? Dylan: Yeah, they say it's an ego trip. They say I want to win, I don't want to win, I just like to play. Bono: When you put out a record that causes trouble - is it part of an overall plan, or do you just do it? Dylan: No, I don't ever put out a record to cause trouble - if it causes trouble, it causes trouble, that's apart from me. If it causes trouble, that's other people's problem. It's not my problem. I'm just not going to put out a record that I just feel - you know, if I feel like I'm inspired to make a statement, I'll make that statement. But what happens after I do it, I don't care about that. Bono: What's your opening game? Dylan: My opening game, you mean king's pawn up two - and all that? I don't know. Bono: You just takes it as it comes. Dylan: Yeah. I don't really play that seriously. Bono: Well, I thought I did until I played Adam's brother Sebastian - he was only about 13 years old and he beat me! Dylan: Somebody may have a chess game here. Bono: I'd love to play.

And then, just as they were on the search for a chess board, Van Morrison entered the room and spoilt everything!

It's fair to say that Dylan uses imagery from many things he sees, hears and experiences and therefore a few mentions of chess isn't necessarily that significant. In fact it's quite surprising that chess imagery isn't used more frequently particularly in his early work. Read through the lyrics of Dylans 458 released songs and you'll find only a handful of references to chess.

All we really know about Dylan and chess, then, is that he played a bit, admired Bobby Fischer, didn't know any opening theory and would often bash out Dylan fashioned verse about the game.