It's easy to get obsessed with chess.
— Magnus Carlsen, Highest rated chess player of all time
Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do.
Many writers view chess
players as not just brilliant
, but also mad as a hatter. As a result, this trope shows up in various works featuring chess or similar games such as go. Expect rants about conspiracies against the player, bizarre and borderline-OCD match behavior (such as demanding that spectators be seated in a symmetrical manner around the board, or throwing out people whose watches are ticking a bit too noticeably), and, in some cases, violent rage (culminating in flipping the board
) or total depression. Expect someone to proclaim at one point that 'It's only a game!', and more often than not, the madman will disagree.
There are a few different reasons for this trope. Some writers may genuinely believe it, or may be alluding to specific Real Life
players who were known for being a bit off. Others may be trying to develop An Aesop
about the dangers of obsessions; the mad player in this case is almost always someone who spends almost all their time in isolation studying the game. There could also be anti-intellectual messages; if smart people play chess
and chess players are nuts, then smart people in general must be crazy.
Tropes Are Not Bad
, of course; if the portrayal is Crazy Awesome
, then no harm done.
Expect the effect to be greatly intensified
when certain chess variants are played instead, such as 3D chess, chess with a round board, chess with many new pieces, chess where you can't see your opponents pieces, 4-player chess, and even chess with random (and shifting) rules.
Anime and Manga
- Cowboy Bebop's 14th episode, entitled "Bohemian Rhapsody", contains a chess game between an old senile chess master and Ed. The game is played over the internet and lasts for days until the chess master wins, and subsequently dies.
- Mao and Lelouch in Code Geass. Mao is crazy enough that he rigs a bomb to detonate if he wins.
- Ami in Sailor Moon plays an opponent, Berthier, who is such a lunatic that she freezes different parts of Ami's body as Ami loses her pieces. Granted, Berthier was going through a Despair Event Horizon, thinking she was worthless and preparing to die. She eventually Heel Face Turns and loses the 'crazy' part.
- In the Death Note live-action movie, Light and L do this.
- Brainwashed, based on the novel The Royal Game.
- Green Lantern — Hector Hammond, soon to be infused with yellow fear energy, is first seen playing chess against a computer.
- The main character in Knight Moves, a chess grandmaster, spends a lot of time as a patient in asylums.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey — A Genius Bonus for chess enthusiasts is found in the game that HAL 9000 and Poole play; although HAL predicts mate, there's actually a way for Poole to avoid it. A subtle hint at HAL's error-prone nature...
- In the book it's explained that HAL is programmed to lose a certain percentage of the games, but so well that the human players can't tell that the defeat was deliberate.
- Sherlock Holmes A Game Of Shadows, An epic chess match between Holmes and the main antagonist serves as both the climax and a representation for the entire movie's events. It should also be mentioned that both of them were not using a chess board and playing throughout portions of the match.
- Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, features a chess-crazed Wonderland. Wonderland, of course, is populated mostly by those who are as mad as hatters.
- Famously, in Vladimir Nabokov's The Defense, the chess grandmaster is so tormented that his whole life disintegrates. Even when he resolves to abandon chess for the sake of his sanity, he finds that he can't.
- The protagonist, Luzhin, is based on the real chess player (and nut) Curt von Bardeleben.
- Los Voraces 2019 is about a $20,000,000 tournament in the future. A good chunk of the players are... a bit odd. And then there's the serial killer.
- In Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game, the trope is played with. Chess at first saves the main character's sanity, as all he has to relieve his boredom after being imprisoned is a book of chess games. But once he memorizes the book, he becomes a complete lunatic who has split himself into two personalities, Black and White, in order to play games against himself.
- In The Eight, one of the minor chess players is like this. When he captures a piece, he demands that a spectator be thrown out so that the room remains 'symmetrical'.
- In The Queens Gambit, the main character is driven so mad by chess that she becomes a pill addict.
- Zugzwang, by Ronan Bennett, features a chess master named Rozental who begins the story on the verge of a complete mental breakdown.
- "Quarantine", a drabble by Arthur C. Clarke. Aliens reach earth, and their computers determine that chess will so utterly derange them that the only solution is to blow up the planet.
- Unsound Variations, by George R. R. Martin. A guy botches a chess tournament and is scorned by his team. So he invents a time machine to go back in time and ruin their lives.
- In a Kurt Vonnegut short story, 16 Americans (including an officer and his family) are captured by a Southeast Asian warlord who lives in a old palace with a people sized chessboard. He's fascinated by the fact that he has these people who he hates and forces them into a game of living chess. The American leader (who admits he's only a fair player) must be the King, but he can put the others anywhere he wants. He makes his wife the Queen, his two small boys the Bishops and the rest as the other pieces. The rules are simple. When the American takes a piece it is removed from the board. When one of the Americans is "taken", he is immediately removed and shot. The American officer is rattled by the first players he has lost but also because he realizes the warlord is not really playing to win, but to take and kill as many people as he can. Then he sees that the warlord's erratic playing has left him vulnerable and he can be tricked into a game losing error - but only if he can get him to move his Queen. To do that he pretends to make a mistake and moves one of his sons into the fatal square. The boy is "taken" but before he can be shot a sympathetic concubine kills the warlord. The warlord's Russian advisor takes over and allows any taken pieces to live until the game is over. He loses and spares the surviving Americans. In a TV version, it takes place in South or Central America and no one is killed, although they are taken away and a shot fired each time.
- Endgame is about a chess grandmaster who becomes a hikikomori and cannot leave his hotel due to paralyzing fear.
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent used a mentally damaged chess expert as a villain in one episode.
- In one episode of Leverage, Ford has to play in a speed-chess tournament. His opponents include a guy who sleeps through the whole match and only wakes up in brief spurts to move. He still is trouncing Ford until Sophie intervenes.
- The Cape features a supervillain with multiple personalities. One such personality is called Chess, and he's a sociopathic lunatic who speaks in chess metaphors and has contact lenses that make his eyes look like chess pieces.
- Windom Earle from Twin Peaks plays chess, when he isn't murdering people and stuffing them in paper-mache pawns.
- Criminal Minds had Caleb Rossmore, a chess champion UnSub who copycatted the Zodiac killer.
- Mr. Monk and the Genius had Monk butting heads with a chess Grandmaster and serial wife murderer.
- Unsurprisingly, The Doctor plays a game called "Live Chess", which ramps up the voltage to over four million volts just to move a piece. Really crazy people play crazy chess.
- One Vampire The Masquerade scenario involves a series of mysterious murders. The people behind it are bored, evil chess players who are using henchmen as pawns and killing them off when their corresponding pawn gets captured.
- Freddy Trumper in Chess. In some versions of the play, including the official one, his anti-Soviet rantings at a press conference convince the press as well as most of the Russians that Freddy is delusional. In the Broadway version, he gets worse, with Florence angering him to the point where he goes through a drawn-out breakdown while filming a TV interview.
- Trumper may be based on Real Life World Champion (and nut) Bobby Fisher.
- In American McGee's Alice, the main character, Alice, starts the game in an insane asylum. She also has to play some chess as she moves through the game, even turning into different pieces at some points.
- The Sewer King in Hey Arnold!, despite liking chess, is horrible at playing; Arnold beats him in a few moves seven times in a row. He admits having only rats to practice with...
- Several famous chess world champions and top players:
- Wilhelm Steinitz, the 1st world champion. Had a mental breakdown and was institutionalized. Allegedly tried to challenge God to a chess match, and believed himself to have telekinesis (only for chess pieces) as well as something like a wireless phone, over a hundred years before the latter existed.
- Bobby Fischer, the 11th world champion. The man who took down the Soviet chess machine. Also a raving anti-semite (despite being Jewish), Conspiracy Theorist who thought that the Soviets (and later, the Jews) were trying to assassinate him or at least screw up his games, and all-around nutjob.
- Rumor has it that Fischer and his opponent Spassky hated each other so much that the championship organizers had to put a board under the chess table to stop them from kicking each other between moves.
- Akiba Rubinstein. Another famous player who was among the first of the endgame experts. His schizophrenia became so bad that, at one point, he would leave the chess table and literally go curl up in a corner and try to hide while his opponent was considering his next move. According to (a completely unverified but nevertheless popular) legend, the Nazis didn't take him to the concentration camps (despite his Jewish heritage) because he was so delusional and pathetic that they didn't see the point.
- Considering that the mentally ill were quite high on the Nazis' "to kill"-list, this seems decidedly improbable.
- Carlos Torre-Repetto, a somewhat obscure player who was still able to beat Emmanual Lasker (2nd world champion). One day, while on a bus, he decided to strip completely naked for no apparent reason. On another occasion, he stripped and ran down a busy public street. He was eventually institutionalized.
- Aron Nimzowitch, another famous chess player who revolutionized the game. Would occasionally stand on his head during matches, claiming it helped him think. Unlike Fischer, his paranoia didn't extend to thinking that people were trying to kill him or ruin his games; he did, however, believe that restaurant chefs were conspiring to give him less food than everyone else.
- Paul Morphy, often considered to be one of the best chess players of all time, is often considered to have been at least a little mad. There's no real evidence for this, but it's why they call him 'The Pride and Sorrow of Chess'
- Morphy's case is a bit more complicated, and something of an inversion: unlike the others here, Morphy wasn't obsessed with the game, but rather with getting away from it. A Child Prodigy, he graduated from college and was awarded a law degree before he was actually old enough to be admitted to the bar, and turned to chess to pass the time until he could enter his chosen profession. He was a very talented attorney (he had the entire Louisiana Civil Code committed to memory) and wanted to be remembered more for his legal career than his chess career (this was at a time when chess was considered a somewhat disreputable pasttime in the United States). He was frustrated that chess had overshadowed his law practice and gave up the game completely (he'd also beaten everyone even remotely in his league and would only play by giving odds of pawn and rook). Unfortunately he was never able to set up a successful law practice because his chess fame kept potential clients distracted from their actual cases.
- Henry Pillsbury, who won the 1895 Hastings tournament (a tournament of the elite players of the era. Both Steinitz and Em. Lasker were there). In a fit of insanity, he attempted to leap from a 4th floor hospital window. The syphilis that killed him is also commonly thought to have induced a mental breakdown.
- Raymond Weinstein, an International Master who had beaten noted players Reshevsky and Benko, was deported after assaulting a man, then institutionalized after killing another. He plead insanity and was sent to a psych ward. After he'd been in a psychiatric hospital for some time, he requested a transfer, because he was able to beat any of the other inmates in his own asylum at chess.
- Curt von Bardeleben, a lawyer and player who beat Mieses and Lasker and (famously) lost to Steinitz at the 1895 Hastings tournament. Years later, he died when he threw himself from a high window.
- Aleister Crowley, himself a good example of this trope, at one point had the ambition of becoming chess grandmaster, until he saw some leading chess players up close: 'I saw the masters —- one, shabby, snuffy and blear-eyed; another, in badly fitting would-be respectable shoddy; a third, a mere parody of humanity, and so on for the rest. These were the people to whose ranks I was seeking admission. "There, but for the grace of God, goes Aleister Crowley," I exclaimed to myself with disgust, and there and then I registered a vow never to play another serious game of chess.'
- He did, however, play some decidedly non-serious games. He was particularly noted for his unusual variant on "blindfold chess" - he would disappear into a bedroom with his current girlfriend and call out his moves through a closed door while they were presumably... engaged in an activity not traditionally associated with chess.
- Then again, there were also some amateur players who were just as nuts:
- Alexander Pichushkin, who tried to kill sixty-four people (and did kill fifty-two), one per square on the chessboard. He was a casual player, who often enjoyed his matches in the same park where he buried his victims.
- Claude Bloodgood. Sent to jail for murdering his mother, he played thousands of correspondence games and games with other inmates. He also wrote a book on the Grob opening (1. g4). He was even given a furlough to go play in a chess tournament (he attempted to escape and was hauled back to prison).
- A chess team from Bethlem Mental Asylum (the place that gave us the word "bedlam") once defeated a team from Harvard University.
No chess grandmaster is normal; they only differ in the extent of their madness.
— Viktor Korchnoi, grandmaster