Violence and Chess
by Bill Wall, 2021

Books by Bill Wall
Perhaps the oldest anecdote of chess and violence is the case of al-Walid I (668-715) who was an Umayyad caliph who ruled from 705-715. He was playing chess (shatranj) with one of his courtiers, who was a much stronger player than the Caliph, but was purposely making bad moves in order for the Caliph to win. One day, the Caliph observed this and was highly offended. He seized one of the heaviest chess pieces and hurled it at the courtier's head saying, 'May evil befall thee, base sycophant! Art thou in thy senses to play chess with me in this foolish manner?' An Arabic manuscript says that the caliph broke his opponent's head with a blow with his firzan (equivalent to the Queen piece).

One of the Charlemagne romances that may not have any historical importance is the following incident, related by Murray in the History of Chess, page 413. The son (Charlemagne?) of Pepin the Short (714-768) was playing chess against the son of Okarius (Okar), the prince of Bavaria, and became so enraged at repeatedly losing, that he hit the prince in the head with one of the chess pieces (rochus or rook) and killed him on the spot. In those days, chess pieces were usually made of rock crystal.

The Arab historian al-Masudi (896-956), writing in his travel diary in 950 A.D., described how they played and betted on chess in India. Players would wager their fingers on a game of chess. If a player lost, he would cut off a finger with his dagger, then plunge his hand in boiling water with special ointment to cauterize the wound. Then he returns to the game. Another loss would mean another loss of another finger. Sometimes a player who continued to lose would cut off all his fingers, his hand, his fore-arm, his elbow, and other parts of his body. After each amputation, he could cauterize the wound and return to another game of chess. (Murray, page 37)

Canute (995-1035), king of England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden, was said to have killed an earl over chess. The story is found in The Chronicles of the Kings of Norway called the Saga of Olaf Haraldson. In 1028, the king, also known as Cnut the Great, was playing a game of chess with his brother-in-law, Earl Godwin Ulfnadson (Ulf), the husband of the king's sister, when the king made a bad move, which led to a loss of one of the king's pieces (a knight). The king took his move back, replaced his knight, and told the earl to play a different move. The earl got angry over this, overturned the chess board and started walking away. The king said "Runnest thou away, Ulf the coward?" The earl responded, "Thou wouldst have run farther at Helga river if thou hadst come to battle there. Thou didst not call me Ulf the coward when I hastened to thy help while the Swedes were beating thee like a dog." The earl then left the king's quarters. The next day, the king ordered the earl to be killed. The earl was stabbed to death at Saint Lucius' church. In 1035, Canute died at the Abbey in Shaftesbury, Dorset. According to Henry Bird in Chess History and Reminiscences, the king was killed while watching a chess game. Armed soldiers rushed into the building and slew Canute while his friend, Valdemar, who was playing chess, was severely wounded. Valdemar escaped using the chess board as a shield.

Around 1060, William the Conqueror (1027-1087), was playing chess with the Prince of France and got checkmated. The king then took the chessboard and hit the prince over the head with it.

Around 1120, King Henry I (1068-1135) of England and King Louis VI (1081-1137) of France got into a fistfight over a game of chess in Paris. One story says that Louis threw the chessboard at Henry; another says that Henry hit Louis over the head with the chessboard. Courtiers stepped in to stop the fight. This episode supposedly was the start of events that kept England and France at war for almost 12 years.

Around 1213, Jeanne or Joan (1194-1244), Countess of Flanders and the daughter of Baldwin IX (1172-1205), count of Flanders and first emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, beat her husband, Ferdinand (1188-1233), prince of Portugal, in a game of chess. He got so mad that he hit her. In revenge, she left her husband in French captivity from 1214 to 1226, refusing to ransom him. (source: Murray, A History of Chess, 1913, p.436).

In 1251, the first known court case involving chess and violence appeared. It dealt with a chess player who stabbed his opponent to death. A quarrel arose between two players of Essex over a chess match. One of the players who lost was so angered that he stabbed his opponent in the stomach with a knife, killing him.

In 1263, an English court case was opened when a man stabbed a woman to death with his sword after losing to her in a game of chess (ad scaccarium). David de Bristoll was playing chess with Juliana, wife of Richard le Cordwaner, at Richard's house. David lost to Juliana, then stabbed her in the thigh before fleeing. (source: The London Eyre, 1276, case 151)

Atahualpa (1497-1533) was the last sovereign emperor of the Inca Empire. In 1532, the Spaniards sacked the Inca army camp and imprisoned Atahualpa. While in prison, he was taught chess by the Spaniards and became very good at it. Atahualpa advised Hernando de Soto in one game of chess that helped defeat one of the Spanish friars named Riquelme. Popular tradition in Peru says that Atahualpa would not have been condemned to death if he remained untutored in chess. Atahualpa was sentenced to death by 13 votes for and 11 against. It was Riquelme's vote that broke the tie that called for the death sentence. The Peruvian people say that Atahualpa paid with his life for the checkmate that Riquelme suffered because of his advice.

In the Middle Ages, murders resulting from chess were classed as lesser crimes, like wife-beating and dog napping.

In 1867, Wilhelm Steinitz got in a dispute with Blackburne at a City of London Chess Club game. Blackburne made an insulting remark and Steinitz spat towards Blackburne. Blackburne then smashed Steinitz in the face with his fist. Steinitz wrote, "...he struck with his full fist into my eye, which he blackened and might have knocked out. And though he is a powerful man of very nearly twice my size, who might have killed me with a few such strokes, I am proud to say that I had the courage of attempting to spit into his face, and only wish I had succeeded." Later, at a tournament in Paris in 1878, Blackburne returned to the hotel drunk and got in a quarrel with Steinitz. Steinitz wrote, "...and after a few words he pounced upon me and hammered at my face and eyes with fullest force about a dozen blows...But at last I had the good fortune to release myself from his drunken grip, and I broke the window pane with his head, which sobered him down a little." [sources: International Chess Magazine, Nov 1889, Chess Amateur, March 1913, pp. 132-135, and American Chess Bulletin, June 1913]

In the 1890s, Peter Hill (1870-1929) of Boston was operating the automaton Ajeeb at the Eden Musee when one defeated chess woman got so enraged tht she stuck a hatpin into the mouth of the automaton, wounding Hill. [source: Time magazine, Feb 4, 1929]

In 1915, the chess automaton was set up at Coney Island. One player lost to it and was so angry he took out a gun and shot at the automaton. It killed its hidden operator, which was covered up. In another incident with Ajeeb, a Westerner emptied his six-shooter into the automaton, hitting the operator in the shoulder. [source: New York Times, Jan 1929]

At Vienna in 1922, Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946) got so mad that he resigned in a game against Ernst Gruenfeld (1893-1962) by throwing the king across the room. (source: Reinfeld and Kmoch, Chess Review, Feb 1950, p. 55)

In May 1923, Alekhine smashed all the furniture in his hotel room at the Helenenhof Imperial Hotel after losing a game to Rudolf Spielmann (1883-1942) at the Carlsbad tournament. (source: Kmoch, Chess Review, May 1950, pp. 136-138).

In 1940, German Nazis arrested all the Jewish chess players that were meeting at the Kwiencinski Chess Cafe in Warsaw. The Germans had banned Jews from playing chess there. The Jews were all taken to a concentration camp and were later killed in a mass execution. Those killed included Polish masters Dawid Przepiorka, Achilles Frydmann, Stanislaw Kohn, and Moishe Lowtzky. [source: Chess Review, Jan 1942, p. 17]

In 1948, grandmaster David Bronstein (1924-2006) survived an assassination attack during the first chess Interzonal in Saltsjobaden, Sweden. On the last day, Bronstein was playing Tartakower when, suddenly, a Lithuanian made a lunge at Bronstein to kill him. Several spectators grabbed the would-be assassin. The attempted killer wanted to murder a Russian because he claimed the Russians were responsible for sending his sister to Siberia and murdering her.

In 1950, Walter Bjornson of Vancouver, British Columbia, was cut with a knife by his opponent during a chess game, leaving a 4 inch gash in his forearm. [source: Chess Review, Feb 1951, p. 38]

In 1954, the Argentine Chess Federation called off its national chess tournament in Buenos Aires after one of its invited chess players, Pedro Martin (1931-1973), punched one of the tournament directors. Martin was banned from Argentine tournament for one year. Twelve other chess masters joined Martin in a protest over the judging, so the national championship was cancelled. [sources: New York Times, Dec 1, 1954, p. 45 and Chess Review, Dec 1954, p. 358]

In 1959, there was a fight between two scientists over a game of chess at the Vostok Station in Antarctica. When one of the chess players lost his chess game, he became so enraged that he attacked the other with an ice axe. It is not known if the attack was fatal. Afterwards, chess games were banned at all the Soviet Antarctic stations.

In On June 1, 1960, an American sailor, Michael L. George, got into a fight at a Greenwich Village bar, Chumley's at 86 Bedford Street, when a spectator criticized the sailor's chess game after he lost. The sailor struck the spectator (Clinton Curtis, a free lance editor from Miami) with a broken beer bottle, which cut his jugular vein, and he died. The sailor was eventually acquitted of murder and charged with accidental death instead. (sources: New York Times, June 2, 1960 and The Village Voice, June 8, 1960).

In 1962, chess master Abe Turner (1924-1962) was stabbed to death by Theodore Smith at the office of Chess Review magazine. His body was found in a safe. [sources: The New York Times, Oct 26, 1962 and Tartajubow on Chess, July 16, 2011]

In May 1962, during the Candidates Tournament in Curacao, Bobby Fischer and Pal Benko got into a fight after Fischer asked Bisguier to assist him during an adjournment. But Benko also wanted Bisguier to help with his own adjournment with Petrosian. Benko supposedly insulted Fischer and Benko responded by slapping Fischer.

In 1964, chess master Raymond Weinstein (1941- ) killed an 83-year old man in a nursing home. He was judged mentally ill and is confined to Ward's Island for the mentally ill. [source: Tartajubow blog spot, Oct 11, 2011]

In 1966, ex-world chess champion Mikhail Tal (1936-1992) was beaten up and hit on the head with a beer bottle during the 1966 Olympiad in Havana. He was drinking and had been flirting with a woman in a bar when her drunk jealous boyfriend got in a fight with Tal. He missed the first five rounds of the Havana Chess Olympiad because of his injuries. [source: "17th Chess Olympiad: Havana 1966,"]

In 1979, Patrick McKenna, a prisoner in Nevada, strangled his Las Vegas cellmate, Jack J. Robles, after an argument over a chess game. He has been on death row for over 30 years. He was denied the latest in a long line of appeals. [source: Pinnock, "10 Facts About the Most Dangerous Criminal in Nevada — Patrick McKenna,", Jan 17, 2020]

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union banned cosmonauts from playing chess in space with each other (they can play against ground control personnel) after a fist fight once broke out between cosmonauts over a chess game.

From 1992 to 2006, Alexander Pichushkin (1974- ) went on a killing spree in Moscow. Pichushkin claimed he killed 63 people (48 confirmed) and his aim was to kill 64 people, one for each square on a chessboard. He is known as The Chessboard Killer.

In 1993, a person was shot and killed while playing chess in Bosnia, the first to die from sniper file while playing chess.

In 1994, Martin Wirth of Fort Collins, Colorado, shot Vernie Cox after the two argued over a chess game. Cox died of two gunshot wounds to the chest. Witnesses said that Wirth had lost a chess game with Cox, knocked over the chess board and some furniture, then began to argue with his opponent. Wirth went across the street to his home and returned with a gun and shot Cox to death.

In 1997, the Japanese ambassador's mansion in Lima, Peru, was taken over by a terrorist group with 72 hostages. A chess set was delivered during the hostage crises. Embedded in the chess pieces were tiny microphones. That gave the Peruvian commandos knowledge of the hostage takers. The information allowed an assault by the commandos, which freed 71 hostages. One hostage died of a heart attack. All 14 terrorists were killed.

In 2000, Laurence Douglas of Puoghkeepsie, New York, stabbed Craig Williams to death over a chess game. Williams had just beaten Douglas in a chess game that had a $5 wager. Williams took a$5 bill from Douglas after the game. Douglas then pulled out a knife and stabbed Williams 16 times.

In 2002, two players got into a fight at the World Open in Philadelphia when one of the players threw a basketball at another player between rounds.

In 2003, Simon Andrews of Falls Township, Pennsylvania, stabbed to death Jerry Kowalski during a chess game. Authorities said that Andrews was disturbed by Kowalski's constant talking during their chess games. Andrews then pulled a knife from under a sofa-bed mattress and stabbed Kowalski in the neck. Andrews was sentenced from 15 to 30 years in state prison.

In October 2004, the FIDE vice president, Zurab Azmaiparashvili, was punched, wrestled to the floor and dragged to jail by a group of security agents. During the closing ceremonies, he tried to get closer to the stage, but security people stepped in front of him, pushed him back, and assaulted him.

In 2005, chess master Robert Snyder was arrested in Colorado on charges of sexual assault. He later escaped and was featured on America's Most Wanted in 2009. He was later captured in Belize after someone recognized him from the TV show.

In 2006, Angela Gilbert, the mother of chess prodigy Jessie Gilbert who fell to hear death from a hotel, was arrested for threatening to kill her ex-husband.

In 2007, two players got into an argument at the Village Chess Shop in New York during a chess game. One player was using his piece to knock off the other player's piece rather than using the hands to remove a captured piece. One player than picked up the wooden board and hit the other player in the mouth, which drew blood. The police were called. The player that was hit was pressing criminal charges and vowed to sue.

In January 2008, Zachary Lucov was playing chess with Dennis Klien in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, when a scuffle broke out. Luco pulled out a gun and Klein was shot in the elbow. Lucov was arrested for aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.

In October 2008, David Christian of Iowa City got in a fight with Michael Steward while playing a game of chess at the rooming house where they both lived. He was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Christian choked Steward to death.

In February 2009, a man killed a friend with a sword after a chess game in Alameda, California. An argument broke out during their game, and the two started wrestling. Joseph Groom retreated to his bedroom and returned with a sword, which he used to stab Kelly Kjersem once. Kjersem later died.

On August 15, 2010, someone fired a shot at The Chess Club in Syracuse, New York. Damani Prince, a 16-year old boy received a gunshot wound to the foot. The shooting occurred shortly before midnight after a fight broke up a party at the Chess Club.

On September 1 2010, a chess game between inmates at the Indian River County Jail in Florida led to a fight. Christopher Brown was playing chess with another inmate in the cell block when Christopher O'Neal, 22, who was watching the game, commented about the game on the other inmate's behalf. Brown told O'Neal to shut up, but O'Neal ignored him and continued to discuss the ongoing chess game. The two then got into a fight. It took several detention deputies to break up the flight.

On August 11, 2011, two people were stabbed at Chuy's restaurant in Phoenix after police say a person got mad over a game of chess. Officers at the scene said two people were playing a game, but when one person won the game the other person got mad and stabbed the winner twice. The victim's friend jumped in and tried to help, but he was also stabbed.

In January 2012, K. Mohan stabbed a cabby, Ngoh Chin Boon, in the neck in Singapore after the victim ticked him off for disturbing his chess game. Mohan was talking loudly and shouting vulgarities while using a phone. Boon told Mohan to not talk so loudly because he was concentrating on a game of chess with a friend. A fight broke out and Mohan left, only to return with a knife. Mohan attacked Boon with the knife until he was pulled away by Boon's chess partner.

In July 2012, Jessie Leeth and Charles Cox were playing a game of chess in Morgan County, Alabama, when Cox started winning. Leeth got upset that Cox was winning and they got into a fight. Leeth then stabbed Cox in the side with a knife. Leeth was charged with assault.

On July 17, 2013, two players got in an argument over a chess game in Bellevue Washington. One of the men invited his neighbor over for a game of chess, but they got in an argument about the game. The man then pulled a gun on his opponent (perhaps they were playing bullet chess). The opponent fled the house and called the police. This led to an 8-hour standoff until a salvo of "flash bang" stun bombs and gas grenades were thrown into the house. The man then surrendered.

In January 2014, a 39-year-old minister named Tom O'Gorman was found stabbed to death in Dublin, Ireland in what detectives believe may have been a dispute over a late night game of chess. A man covered in blood was taken into custody and said to officers that a dispute started when an illegal move was played. An Italian man, Saverio Bellante, who had been living in a rented home in Dublin, killed his landlord over a game of chess. He was arrested for the killing after stabbing his landlord, Tom O 'Gorman, multiple times. Bellante told police that they were fighting over a chess game. Bellante was then asked by O'Gormon to leave the house following an argument over a chess move. Instead, Bellante found a kitchen knife and stabbed O'Gormon, then beat him over the head with a dumbbell. Bellante was also accused of eating the heart of his victim.

In March 2015, Stephen Dillard, a chess master, chess organizer (Vice President of the Kentucky Chess Association) and chess teacher, was stabbed by Ronshal Jenefor more than 140 times. Jenefor claimed that Dillard had molested him.

In October 2015, a fatal stabbing was averted at a library. James Vernon, a 75-year-old public library chess club teacher was injured saving children from a knife attack. He acted as a human shield against a public library attacker with two hunting knives. The attacker, Dustin Brown, barged into the classroom where Vernon was teaching chess claiming he was there to kill somebody. The children escaped, and Vernon suffered several knife wounds. The attack occurred at the public library in Morton, Illinois.

In June 2020, Ian Lewis, 56, was playing chess with his friend Louise Bailey, when he lost a game then became violent. He flipped the chess board over, pulled out a knife, cut her arm, and plunged the knife into her thigh at his home in Brighton, England. The knife did not penetrate an artery or cause more serious harm, bur her arm and thigh required several stitches. Both had been drinking. Lewis was sentenced to 3 years in prison in November, 2020. [source: New York Post, Nov 12, 2020]

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