John Wayne's Hidden Talent Never Matched His Iconic Cowboy Image

Between the early months of 2020 and continuing through the summer of 2022, chess has been exploding in popularity, according to The New York Times. There were two main reasons for this: the Covid-19 pandemic, which left millions of people bored and with little to do, and the Netflix series "The Queen's Gambit," about an emotionally-troubled American woman who gains international chess stardom.

Of course, Americans were playing chess well before the pandemic and "The Queen's Gambit," and chess sets were probably on the first European ships that arrived here. Perhaps not surprisingly, several actors you have likely heard of are avid, though not necessarily good, chess players. Working on a movie set can mean lengthy pauses in the action where the actors have nothing to do, and more than one has been known to whip out a chess set to pass the time. Humphrey Bogart, for example, was quite the chess hustler in his day.

John Wayne was also an avid chess player, busting out a board during pauses in the action on movie sets. How good he was is difficult to nail down (the evidence seems to point to him being average at best, but more on that in a moment).

The King, The Pawns, And The Duke

It's not clear when and how John Wayne learned to play chess, but he was definitely a skilled player by the time he was in high school. A Glendale High School teacher provided fond memories of the man who would become The Duke in the book, "John Wayne," via "He headed the school's debate team, won honor pins several years in a row, played an aggressive game of chess ... was all but unbeatable at bridge and hearts because of an uncanny ability to count cards," wrote the teacher.

Within a few years, Wayne was spending his days on movie sets, and (copyrighted) photos of him playing chess, often bedecked in his cowboy costume, are all over the internet. He played at least a few games against fellow actor Rock Hudson. "We had many a game up there in Durango," he said. He also frequently played against screenwriter Jimmy Grant, who apparently never managed to beat Wayne, although it's quite possible Grant may have been throwing the games.

Other anecdotes abound: Wayne played chess against friends, collaborators, his stand-in on the set, or anyone who wanted to take a stab at beating him.

How Good Of A Chess Player Was John Wayne?

According to the anecdotal evidence compiled by, Wayne was practically unbeatable at chess. However, that may mean less than you think. For starters, Wayne appears to have mainly confined his chess playing to opponents on the movie set, be they directors, other actors, writers, etc., and at least one consistent opponent — Jimmy Grant — may have thrown games. Oh, and he also got caught cheating at least once, according to Mental Floss. Long story short: Wayne was, by all appearances, a casual player whose only opponents were other casual players. He is not known to have joined the United States Chess Federation or competed in any tournaments. Further still, it doesn't appear as if any of his games were recorded, ruling out the possibility of actual analysis.

Strictly by way of example — and take this with more than a few grains of salt — a contributor to Chessopedia, via, provided a screenshot of a list of famous people who also played chess, and their ratings. Wayne's rating is estimated to be in the range of 1200. That's ... not particularly good. The United States Chess Federation doesn't even consider a player an Expert until their rating reaches 2000, and top-tier chess players like (soon-to-be-former) World Champion Magnus Carlsen have ratings above 2800.