As many of us spend more time indoors during the colder months, perhaps it’s time to take up a new hobby, or rekindle an old one. Or maybe it’s time to indulge ourselves by taking some well needed R&R in front of the television. Either way, it’s a good opportunity to learn about chess, a game which was well loved by a pioneering member of the French Rothschild family - Jaqueline Piatigorsky (née de Rothschild), chess champion, tennis champion and talented sculptress.
The global television streaming service Netflix announced earlier this month that one of its latest projects “The Queen’s Gambit” was setting astounding viewership records. Striking a chord with viewers, the programme was watched by 62 million households in the first 28 days of release, making it Netflix’s most popular scripted limited series ever. The premise seems at first glance an unlikely star: following a troubled young American woman as she rises through the ranks of competitive chess, eventually challenging the Soviet Union’s world champion. Adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 book, the programme has started a trend with chess set sales reportedly having increase dramatically. Chess may be viewed as a worthy pursuit for those of us currently still in various stages of pandemic lockdowns. A game of strategy, centuries old, it can be enjoyed by adults and children alike. Indeed, one member of the Rothschild family who learnt to play the game as a child whilst recovering from an illness, went on to become an international tournament champion and well-loved patron.
Jacqueline Rebecca Louise de Rothschild was born in Paris on 6 November 1911, third child of Edouard de Rothschild (1868-1949) and Germaine Alice née Halphen (1884-1975). She was born in Paris and was raised at the family’s magnificent estate, Château de Ferrières, with her brother Guy (1909-2007) and sister Bethsabée (1914-1999). Her father was the Senior Partner at de Rothschild Frères, a business which had been established in Paris in 1812 by her great grandfather, James de Rothschild (1792-1868). Jacqueline would later reminisce that her childhood although seemingly lavish, was in fact a lonely one filled with nannies and governesses and limited contact with her parents. Aged 19 she married publisher Robert Calmann-Levy (1899-1982), but this ended after five years in 1935. Two years later she married the renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976). She herself was musical, accomplished at both the piano and bassoon and remained a huge supporter of her husband’s career. Their daughter Jephta was born in France in 1937. Together they fled to America in the wake of the Nazi invasion. They initially settled in Elizabethtown, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains where their son Joram was born in 1940. They lived in Philadelphia for several years before moving to Los Angeles in 1949, where her husband taught at the University of Southern California.
Jacqueline Piatigorsky and her love of chess
Starting out her chess career in America, Jacqueline played by post which both encouraged and regenerated her love of the game. She started entering tournaments and soon became a name to be reckoned with. Jacqueline’s passion for chess led to her accomplishments as a chess player including a bronze medal in the first Women's Olympiad in 1957, in which she represented the United States. She played in several U.S. Women's Championships, finishing a half-point out of first in 1965. In 1955, she became the organiser of what became known as the Steiner Club. She is perhaps best remembered for the Piatigorsky Cup tournaments held in Los Angeles in 1963 and 1966. Participants included world champions Petrosian, Spassky, and Fischer. She oversaw all the details of these events, even personally designing the Cup. These two tournaments did much to enhance the stature of chess in America and generated still-popular tournament books.
Photographs in the collection of the Archive show Jacqueline in a championship chess match with Lina Grumette. Lina Grumette (1908-1988) was a German born American chess promoter in Southern California who participated in several U.S. Women's Championships. In 1961, she was the USCF National Membership chairman. Primarily remembered as the ‘adoptive mother’ to Bobby Fischer, today, the Southern California Chess Federation (State Affiliate of US Chess) organizes the Lina Grumette Memorial Day Classic in her honour.
Jacqueline's philanthropic efforts included chess initiatives for underprivileged and disabled students in Los Angeles schools, and paying expenses to national competitions for local teams, and sponsoring the U.S. Junior Invitational for several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many players remember her fondly, as she would often attend the tournaments in support.
Retiring as a player in the late 1970s, Jacqueline increasingly focused on tennis (winning several national championships) and sculpting; along with her rewarding ruminations on aging, Growing as We Age. In 1988 she also published an autobiography, Jump in the Waves: A Memoir.
Jacqueline died on 15 July 2012, aged 100. She had hoped to make her own way in world as a young girl coming from a world-renowned family, and her legacy attests to her many achievements as highlighted by her place in the World Chess Hall of Fame.
More on Jacqueline’s chess career, Jacqueline Piatigorsky: Patron, Player, Pioneer can be read on the 'World of Chess' website here »
A very touching account of Jacqueline’s life written by her son, Joram Piatigorsky, Lived Experience: My Mother, 1911-2012 can be found here »
RAL 000/733 black and white photographs of Jacqueline Piatigorsky, playing chess