Chess and violence 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. (Murray, 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, which he died.

In 1264, another court case was opened when a man stabbed a woman to death with his sword after a quarrel over a chess game.

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 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.”

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.

In 1923, Alekhine smashed all the furniture in his hotel room after losing a game to Rudolf Spielmann.

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 was cut with a knife by his opponent during a chess game, leaving a 4 inch gash in his forearm.

In 1954, the Argentine Chess Federation called off the national chess tournament after a player punched a referee.

In 1960, a U.S. sailor got in a fight with a spectator in a Greenwich Village bar when the spectator criticized the sailor’s chess game.  The sailor struck the spectator with a broken beer bottle, which struck his jugular vein.  The sailor was eventually acquitted of murder and was charged with accidental death instead.

In 1962, chess master Abe Turner was stabbed to death by Theodore Smith at the office of Chess Review magazine.

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 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.

In 1966, Mikhail Tal 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 jealous boyfriend got in a fight with Tal.  He missed the first five rounds of the Havana Chess Olympiad because of his injuries.

In 1979, Patrick McKenna, a prisoner in Nevada, strangled his Las Vegas cellmate, Jack J. Robles, after an argument over a chess game.  At age 63, he has been on death row for over 30 years.  He was denied the latest in a long line of appeals.

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.

In the 1989, a Russian scientist killed another colleague with an axe after losing a chess game at the Vostok Research Station in the Antarctic.

In 1991, Patrick McKenna was sentenced to die in Nevada for killing a jail cellmate after an argument 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 to death 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, bushed 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.

In 2010, someone fired a shot at The Chess Club in Syracuse, New York.  A 16-year old boy received a gunshot wound to the foot.