List of chess-related deaths

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As with most games that have a long history, chess has been associated with a number of anecdotes, and some relate to games that have resulted in the death of one of the players involved.[1] The reliability of many of these anecdotes is suspect, but some appear to be based on fact.

Chess and death are often linked in works of fiction.

Pre 20th Century[edit]

Rice and chessboard problem[edit]

This is one variation of a famous, and likely apocryphal, story of the origin of chess:

The King of Hind commissioned a peasant or minister to create a strategy game of surpassing quality. Pleased with the result, the king asked the inventor to name his price. The inventor gave the king a choice, his own weight in gold, or, the king could put one grain of rice on the first square of the board, two on the second, 4 on the third, and keep on doubling the number of grains for every one of the 64 squares. The king hastily chose the second option. Somewhere around square 32, he came to a realization that there was not enough rice in the kingdom. Upon realizing that he could not possibly pay the debt, the king chose to kill the inventor.

The first half of the chessboard would have represented some 100 tonnes of rice, while the second half would have required 1.2 trillion tons (short scale),[2] a value roughly comparable to the combined mass of all life on Earth.[3]

Earl Ulf[edit]

King Canute (c. 994–1035) of Denmark, England and Norway, is said to have ordered an earl killed after a disagreement about a chess game. By one account, the king made an illegal move that angered Earl Ulf, who knocked over the board and stormed off, after which the king sent someone to kill him.[4][5]

Bavarian prince[edit]

Possibly the anecdote with the most supporting evidence is given in the book Chess or the King's game (1616) by Augustus, Duke of Lüneburg, who claimed to have obtained it from an old Bavarian Chronicle, then in the library of Marcus Welsor but now lost. The anecdote states that Okarius (also spelled Okar or Otkar), the prince of Bavaria, had a son of great promise residing at the Court of King Pippin. One day Pippin's son was playing chess with the young Prince of Bavaria, and became so enraged at repeatedly losing that he hit the prince on the temple with one of his rooks and killed him on the spot. This anecdote is repeated in another Bavarian Chronicle, and in a work by Metellus of Tegernsee about Saint Quirin and other documents refer to his death while at Pippin's court.

20th Century[edit]

1959 Antarctica killing[edit]

After losing a chess game, a Russian at a Soviet Antarctic base murdered a colleague with an axe. Following this, the Soviet authorities prohibited those based in Antarctica from playing chess.[6][7]

Patrick McKenna 1980[edit]

According to the appeal court in the case of Nevada prisoner Patrick McKenna, "In March 1980, appellant Patrick Charles McKenna was convicted of one count of first degree murder for the killing of Jack Nobles on January 6, 1979, while both were incarcerated in the Clark County Detention Center. After lockdown that day, Nobles and two other inmates were confined in a cell with appellant. Appellant and Nobles argued, after which appellant choked Nobles to death. One inmate testified that appellant and Nobles argued about a chess game and that appellant choked Nobles when Nobles was in bed. Another inmate testified that appellant and Nobles argued about sex and that appellant shoved Nobles against the bunk and choked him so that Nobles' knees buckled and he dropped to the ground. After a penalty hearing, the jury returned a verdict of death."[8]

21st Century[edit]

Michael Steward[edit]

In October 2009, Iowa City resident David Christian killed neighbor Michael Steward after the two got into a fight over a chess game. Christian was sentenced to ten years in prison as part of a plea bargain.[9][10]

"Chessboard killer"[edit]

Alexander Pichushkin, a Russian serial killer, once said he wanted to murder 64 people, the same number as squares on a chessboard – leading to the nickname "chessboard killer."

Tom O'Gorman[edit]

Tom O'Gorman of Castleknock, Dublin, Ireland was murdered by a Sicilian lodger in his home during a game of chess on January 12, 2014. Due to a dispute over a move, the Italian killed O'Gorman with a kitchen knife and dumbbell, allegedly cutting open his chest cavity and ingesting his lung. After the murder, the Sicilian confessed to the crime and was taken into custody.[11]

In fiction[edit]

  • In Ambrose Bierce's 1909 short story "Moxon's Master", a chess-playing robot murders its creator after losing a game.
  • In Agatha Christie's 1927 novel The Big Four, a chess master is murdered by a strong electrical shock dealt him in the third move of his Ruy Lopez opening. In anticipation of his opening, the electrical connection was rigged to the square on the board through the floor from the apartment below.
  • Vladimir Nabokov's novel The Defense (1930) is built around the protagonist's relationship to chess, and ends with his ambiguous death.
  • In Kurt Vonnegut's 1953 short story "All the King's Horses", a communist Chinese officer holds a U.S. ambassador, his family, and a number of enlisted men hostage, using them as chess pieces, ordering removed "pieces" to be executed.
  • In the 1957 film The Seventh Seal the protagonist plays chess with the personification of Death.
  • In John Brunner's 1965 science fiction novel The Squares of the City, the murderous events which take place are eventually shown to have the structure of a famous 1892 chess game between Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin.
  • In the 1967 spy film Deadlier Than the Male, the chief hero and villain square off on a giant electronically controlled chess board manned by lethal pieces.
  • In Dorothy Dunnett's 1969 novel Pawn in Frankincense, a character is coerced into a life-size chess match with his son's life at stake.
  • In Columbo's 1972 TV EpisodeThe Most Dangerous Match, A chess player murders his opponent before a big match. Lt. Columbo must out-maneuver this crafty, but craven, killer
  • Katherine Neville's 1988 novel The Eight centers around an ancient chess set over which two opposing factions have battled for centuries, taking the roles of actual chess pieces.
  • In The Flanders Panel, a 1990 novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a mysterious serial killer seems to be continuing the game of over 500 years back in time, where the pieces of chess are related to real-life characters from the past and present.
  • In the 1992 thriller film Knight Moves, a serial killer commits a series of murders across the city and a chess grandmaster helps catch him.
  • In the 1997 novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, characters become human chess pieces in a life-sized game of Wizard's Chess, risking their lives.
  • In a 2011 episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor plays a game of chess where the pieces are electrified, presumably killing a losing player.


In 1994, the supermarket tabloid newspaper Weekly World News featured a story about a chess player named "Nikolai Titov" whose head exploded during the Moscow Candidate Masters' Chess Championships due to the condition 'Hyper-Cerebral Electrosis'.[12] The same newspaper also had run the story of Nikolai Gudkov being electrocuted by his opponent after winning against a chess computer in 1989.[13]

See also[edit]