Sherlock Holmes and Chess by Bill Wall


Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (1859-1930) wrote Sherlock Holmes, beginning in 1887.  Doyle was a Scottish physician.  Sherlock Holmes was featured in 4 novels and 56 short stories.


During his youth, Arthur Conan Doyle won a chess tournament organized by the Daily Telegraph newspaper.


Doyle wrote other works besides Sherlock Holmes.  He also wrote, Sir Nigel, The Captain of the Polestrat and Other Tales, Uncle Bertnac, and The White Company.  All of these books mentioned chess.


In the story “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman,” published in the December 18, 1926 issue of Liberty magazine and the January 1927 issue of Strand Magazine by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the character Amberley excelled at chess (Sherlock Holmes saying “Amberley excelled at chess – one mark, Watson, of a scheming mind”).   Another line was, “It would appear that Amberley has one hobby in life, and it is chess.  Not far from him at Lewisham there lives a young doctor who is also a chess-player.”


The original manuscript of “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman,” was part of the 2013 exhibit at the British Library.  It was bequeathed to the British Library by Dame Jean Conan Doyle, the last surviving child of Sir Arthur Doyle.


 In all of Doyle’s 4 novels and 56 short stories, neither Sherlock Holmes nor Dr. Watson ever played a game of chess (or checkers), or even speak about being a chess player.  But that doesn’t stop the movies or TV shows.


In the book The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1926, chess is mentioned in three stories: “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman,”“The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier,” and “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone.” 


In “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier,” the line is “His great eyebrows came down over his eyes, and he tapped his fingers impatiently on the table. He looked up at last with the expression of one who has seen his adversary make a dangerous move at chess, and has decided how to meet it.”


In “The Adventure f the Mazarin Stone,” the line is, “Holmes looked at him thoughtfully like a master chess-player who mediates his crowning move.”


On September 17, 1943, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death was released, starring Basil Rathbone (1892-1967) was Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce (1895-1953) as Doctor Watson.  It is loosely based on the 1893 story The Musgrave Ritual, by Sir Arthur Doyle, but updated to take place during World War II.  This was the 6th of14 films on Sherlock Holmes with Rathbone and Bruce.  Words in the Musgrave ritual happen to be a description of movements of chess pieces, which are clues to the location of something.  When Holmes reads the ritual to Watson, Watson responds, “sounds like a game of chess to me.”  The main hall floor of black and white tiles looks like a chess board.   Holmes looks at the floor and say, “It looks like a giant chess board.”  Holmes has the rest of the household move as human chess pieces.


In 1945, Pursuit to Algiers was made.  Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) plays chess in one of the scenes.


In 1959, The Hound of the Baskervilles was made.  Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) puzzles over a chess move.

In 1977, anotherThe Hound of the Baskervilles was made.  A chess set was in one of the scenes.


In 1985, Young Sherlock Holmes was made.  Dr. Watson (Alan Cox) played chess with Elizabeth Hardy (Sophie Ward).


In 1990, Hands of a Murderer (Sherlock Holmes and the Prince of Crime) was released as a British television film. Holmes (Edward Woodward) and Professor Moriarty (Anthony Andrews) banter about a chess game at Sherlock’s apartment at 221B Baker Street.  Moriarty looks at the Black side of a chess position and says it looks like a winning position, then moves a bishop.  The board is set up wrong (dark square on the right).  Moriarty says he only takes pawns if they get in is way.  Holmes replies that would be stalemate.  Some of the pieces disappear in the last scene with the chess board.


In 1991, a British made-for-TV movie called Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady was produced, starring Christopher Lee as Sherlock Holmes.  The episode was 3 hours long.  In the film, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson (Patrick Macnee, who played John Steed in the Avengers) are chess rivals in 1910.  They play a game of chess at their flat on Baker Street.  They use a Staunton chess set where Watson takes a knight and Holmes captures back with his queen.  Watson later finds himself alone in a restaurant in Vienna studying a chess position.  The position is impossible and there are two White Bishops on the dark squares.


On May 24, 1992, the British made-for-TV movie, Sherlock Holmes: Incident at Victoria Falls, was made.  starring Christopher Lee as Sherlock Holmes and Patrick Macnee as Dr. Watson.  Holmes and Watson discuss their last case over an inlaid chess table  with a few Staunton  clustered to one side.


On September 12, 1993, a TV movie, 1994 Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes Returns, was made and appeared on CBS.  Sherlock Holmes (Anthony Higgins) travels through time  to modern Northern California.  After entering the living room, Holmes sees a Staunton chess set on a round table.


In 2000, a TV movie called Murder Rooms: Mysteries of the Real Sherlock Holmes was made.  One of the episodes was called ‘The White Knight Stratagem.’


On December 24, 2004, a British TV movie, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking was made by Masterpiece Theatre for BBC.  Rupert Everett played Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson was played by Ian Hart.  A chess set on a pedestal table appear in Holmes’s apartment on Baker Street.  It was in the background of several scenes.


In the movie “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” (2011) Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) plays a 5-minute game with a double-headed chess clock (first manufactured by Fattorini & Sons in 1883) against Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) at a castle in Switzerland.  The game in the movie was based on a real game played by Bent Larsen against Tigran Petrosian, Santa Monica 1966.  The game is based on a variation of Black’s 25th move, except it was White and not Black that would have won.  The move, in descriptive notation would have been 25…PxQ, 26. BxNch K-R2 27. R-R3 ch (or R-KR3, but only one possibility) 27…B-R3 28.BxB R-B4 29.RxR PxR 30.B-B7 Q-N3 ch 31.K-R1 QxP 32.B-B8 discovered check and mate.  The first move for White seems to be1.c4, but in the real game, it was 1.e4.  After the first move for White was made, the next scene shows two moves for Black, pawns on d5 and e5.  But the pawn in the real game was 1…c5, the Sicilian Defense.  The game continues in which you see the position of the pieces where White has played g3, which never occurred in the real game.  The scene at the end has Holmes and Moriarty playing a rapid blindfold game.  There were a few chess mistakes.  The chess pieces were set up incorrectly in Moriarty’s office.  The chess clock was not set correctly for a 5-minute game.  The minute hand was not set at 5 minutes to the hour, but rather set at 12:00 with no flag.  The minute had of the clocks do not seem to move.  The players ended up playing without looking at the board and could no longer be pressing the clock after their moves.  One of the players remarks that in blitz chess, a single miscalculation would cost you the game.  But that is true in every game of chess.  Black (Sherlock Holmes) had the choice of what side the chess clock should be, but Moriarty, as White, was the one to put the clock in the position he wanted, to the right of White.   In a 5-minute game, they both take their time in the opening and talk a lot, wasting time.  In a 5-minute game, your opponent would not say “Would you like me to recommend your next move?” like Moriarty said to Holmes.  You also would not remind your opponent that your clock was ticking, as Moriarty said to Holmes.  It was supposed to by a blitz game of chess.  You don’t say check in chess, especially blitz chess.  Moriarty walks away from the game after winning the Queen, but the game of blitz chess is not over.  The two players are now calling the wrong moves and have switched colors.  They are no longer playing blitz chess after Moriarty gets up and declares the game over, Moriarty continues like a blindfold game since he has his back turned on the game while Holmes is still looking at the game and is able to say check twice.  With the game played in Europe, it would have been more likely to call the moves in algebraic notation, not English descriptive.  The chess clock went from being on Moriarty’s (White) side to right in front of Sherlock Holmes board, with the face of the clocks not visible to Moriarty.  Moriarty’s RxR is impossible as both his rooks are on the first rank and behind his pawns.  Moriarty says, “Queen takes Knight pawn,” which is impossible since Queen to Knight three and King to Rook One was never called out as in the real game.  In the Moriarty-Holmes game, Holmes was as Black and it is checkmate.  In the real game, White wins after Black resigns on move 30.


Larsen-Petrosian, Santa Monica 1966

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 g6 5. Be3 Bg7 6. c4 Nf6 7. Nc3 Ng4 8. Qxg4 Nxd4 9. Qd1 Ne6 10. Qd2 d6 11. Be2 Bd7 12. O-O O-O 13. Rad1 Bc6 14. Nd5 Re8 15. f4 Nc7 16. f5 Na6 17. Bg4 Nc5 18. fxg6 hxg6 19. Qf2 Rf8 20. e5 Bxe5 21. Qh4 Bxd5 22. Rxd5 Ne6 23. Rf3 Bf6? (23…f5 or 23…Ng7) 24. Qh6 Bg7 25. Qxg6 Nf4 (25…fxg6? 26.Bxe6+ Kh7 27.Rh3+ Bh6 28.Bxh6 Rf5 29.Rxf5 gxf5 30.Bf7 Qb6+ 31.Kh1 Qxb2 32.Bf8 mate) 26. Rxf4 fxg6 27. Be6+ Rf7 28. Rxf7 Kh8 29. Rg5 b5 30. Rg3 1-0



In 2013, the TV movie Sherlock had an episode in which Sherlock Holmes had a chessboard in front of him with a position he was studying.


For more information on the movies, see the excellent book , Chess In the Movies, by Bob Basalla.


In 1943, a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories appeared in France, called Un echec de Sherlock Holmes.  The cover showed a chess board and some chess pieces.


The February 1962 issue of  Chess Review magazine published a fiction story called ‘The Moriarty Gambit’ by Fritz Lieber.  It had a fictional game played between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.  Holmes mated Moriarty in 24 moves in this fictional game.


In 1980, Raymond Smullyan wrote The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes: 50 Tantalizing Problems of Chess Detection.  All the problems involve retrograde analysis.


In 1998, a book called The Star of India: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes was written by Carole Bugger.  The dust-jacket of the novel had a chess board with a chess piece in the shape of Sherlock Holmes on one of the squares.


There is a Studio Anne Carlton (SAC) Sherlock Holmes Chess Set.  The figures are based on the original drawings that appeared in “Strand” magazine in 1890.  It includes Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Mrs. Hudson, Inspector Lestrade, Irene Adler, Colonel Moran, and the hound of the Baskervilles as the knight.


There is also a Sherlock Holmes hand painted theme chess set.


The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is an interactive game (Xbox360)  that has a chessboard in it.  There is a puzzle in the game that involves a knight moving across a chess board.  The goal is to find the last space it would end up after having moved to every other space on the chess board, with no overlap.


In 2013, a play called Sherlock Holmes – Knight’s Gambit, appeared at several playhouses in New Jersey and New York.