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I’ve been an editor on wikipedia for 13 years. I am constantly amazed at what an excellent resource that weird project has become but I admit it has grotesque flaws, from spreading flat-wrong information to reflecting contributors’ gender and economic imbalance (most of them are geek-leaning white guys from rich countries – like, say, me).
A less important (but irritating) flaw is the way some editors become so persnickity about protecting wikipedia’s “encylopedia” tone that they kill off interesting, useful and fun stuff. The worst example of that which I have been involved with is the wonderful article “Chess-related deaths.” It lasted for a decade, even getting a nod from Time magazine as one of wikipedia’s gems, before it was killed off in 2014 following a vote from a small group huffy editors, over my objections.
Once a wikipedia article is deleted it is very hard to find any remnants of its existence, so I cut-and-pasted the text in hopes of resurrecting it some wiki-day. That hasn’t happened yet (the anti-article editors are still around), so I thought I’d reprint portions of it here, for your amusement. (I didn’t include a long list of chess-related deaths in fiction that references, among others, Agatha Christie, Nabokov, and Ingmar Bergman).
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. The reliability of many of these anecdotes is suspect, but some appear to be based on fact.
Rice and chessboard problem
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. 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, a value roughly comparable to the combined mass of all life on Earth.
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.
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.
1959 Antarctica killing
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.
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.
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.
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.