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Chess with Death

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King me.

Death looked long and hard at the board. The abbot waited to see what long-term, devious strategies were being evolved. Then his opponent tapped a piece with a bony finger. Remind me again, he said, how the little horse-shaped ones move.

A character gets into a contest of some sort with The Grim Reaper, Satan, or some other supernatural entity, usually with some dire consequence if the human loses.

This is Older Than Feudalism, with examples dating back to Greek myths of the 5th century BC—Apollo had at least one musical duel, the Muses had another musical contest, and Athena had a weaving contest with Arachne (the details vary between different versions, but the end result is that Arachne is turned into a spider). Note that the Greek Gods were prone to throwing tantrums if they were beaten and cursing the mortals for it; having the supernatural entity take a defeat on the chin was a rarity.

The most mimicked version is to have a dying man challenge The Grim Reaper to a chess game in return for a longer life, hence the trope title. See also Enemies with Death and Smart People Play Chess. But it doesn't have to be chess—if the player is allowed to pick the game, absolutely anything can happen.

Sub-Trope of Hanging Up on the Grim Reaper. Compare Did You Just Scam Cthulhu? for when you cheat death in this game (which may be the origin of the idiomatic phrase). Also compare Judgement of the Dead, when Death evaluates the morality of your actions in life rather than your prowess at a game. See also The Problem with Fighting Death.

Not to be confused with Human Chess where the pieces are humans and captured pieces are sometimes killed.

As this is a Death Trope, unmarked spoilers abound. Beware.

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Examples with Chess

  • The Ur-Example of this trope can be found in Sweden, in the Täby Church near Stockholm. The church displays a fresco "Death playing chess", painted by Albertus Pictor. See Death Playing Chess.

    Comic Books 
  • Used in one issue of Marvel Adventures: Avengers. The Avengers end up playing Human Chess with Galactus over the fate of an alien world. Hulk screws up and it's a stalemate, so they try in a human-scaled stadium baseball. Ant-Man screws it up, so they play poker. Hulk screws up again, and then Spider-Man mentions that he's hungry and they end up in an infinite-star restaurant.
  • The Marvel Comics cosmic villain, The Grandmaster, is obsessed with games, especially using humans as pawns. In one occasion, he challenged Death herself, in order to get back his dead brother. He won, but had to die in his place. This turned out, however, to be part of his larger Thanatos Gambit.
  • In one issue of Dylan Dog, a guy in a coma challenges Death at a chess game. If he wins, he gets to wake up and live; the catch is that every time he loses a piece, he must name someone he cares about, and that person will die. At the end, the guy loses but reveals that he actually wanted to kill those acquaintances and then die. Death, furious, decides to revive him anyway; at the same time, Dylan ends up killing the man's physical body in the world of the living. As a result, the man is left neither alive nor dead, and finds himself stranded in an endless white void forever.
  • In Top 10 spin-off Smax, there is actually a specific Death responsible for playing chess with "wily peasants". His name is Lionel. Naturally, he even looks like the Grim Reaper in The Seventh Seal. Just as naturally, he isn't very good at chess (that's why the peasants always win).
  • In Grant Morrison's Seaguy, the eponymous hero plays chess with a none-too-clever Death who was visually unable to distinguish black from white.
  • The Brazilian comic book Turma da Mônica Jovem (Teenage Monica's Gang) plays with this trope on edition 40. Cebolinha (Jimmy Five) brags about being an online chess master but fails miserably to win a single match when playing on a real chessboard. He buys an old chessboard in a local store run by a strange sexy girl. She lets him take it for free, as long as he plays a match against her some day. He agrees and seeks to learn the rules of chess. He eventually becomes an expert player and even wins a local chess contest. Later in the story, he meets the strange girl again, and she reveals to be no other than Death herself. She reminds Cebolinha of his earlier promise, and they start a match. The pieces come to life, portrayed by Bug-A-Boo, Bubbly, and other in-universe characters - culminating with the Queen portrayed by Monica - Jimmy's (not so) secret passion. As he begins to fall short of pieces, he commands the King to come out of his castled position and attack. He partially succeeds until he finds himself at the verge of sacrificing the Queen in order to win the match. He refuses to do so, claiming that he loves her too much to endure her loss. The Queen retorts that she is not actually Monica, that it was him who brought her to life - and that the Queen's role is to protect the King, not the contrary. He ignores her and advances anyway. The Death, impressed by his love and determination, quits the match by dropping her King. She then greets Jimy for being so determined and pure-hearted, stating that many great leaders along human History (such as Napoleon Bonaparte) were skilled chess players.

  • Parodied hilariously in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. The boys challenge Death, but since they don't know the rules of Chess, they convince him to play other games... like Clue, Battleship, and Twister. Because Death is a Sore Loser, he keeps challenging them to "best two out of three", "best three out of five", and so forth until he finally gives up. In the original script (used for the novelization and comic adaptation), this becomes a Chekhov's Gun during the final showdown, wherein where Bill and Ted get killed several times by their evil robot duplicates and get Death to bring them back by bringing up all the times they beat him.
  • In the 2011 short film Dave Vs Death, David Kane dies, and in the void between life and the afterlife he propositions Death for a game of chess. The rules dictate that for every piece David loses, one of his loved ones will die. By the end, it's revealed as a Xanatos Gambit on David's part: all his friends were plotting behind his back, so if he beat Death then he would regain life, but if he lost, then he would take all his false friends with him to the grave. Death doesn't like the fact that Dave cheated to win and starts a new game, although Dave's "friends" are still dead. Death is played by Julian Richings, who had earlier portrayed Death in Supernatural.
  • Short film The Dove, another Bergman parody, has the heroine playing badminton with Death.
  • Momentarily referenced during "We're Doing a Sequel" in Muppets Most Wanted, where the Swedish Chef is shown playing chess with the Reaper.
  • Famously occurs in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. This is the better-known origin of the "chess with the reaper" form of this trope.note  Interestingly here Death isn't above cheating slightly. At one point he impersonates a priest the knight confesses his sins to and mentions that he has a strategy that he is sure will beat Death. So Death (still pretending to be a priest) asks what it is. So the knight tells him. Death thanks him for the knowledge and leaves. The knight also tips over the chessboard (mainly to distract Death so that Death won't see his friends slipping away) and claims not to remember where the pieces were. Death, however, has not forgotten.

  • A 1936 French chess story/puzzle has a drawing of 16th-century chess player Paolo Boi playing chess with a suspiciously devilish-looking woman. According to the story/puzzle, Paolo Boi once played a chess game with a beautiful and mysterious woman and managed to get the upper hand on her but just as he was ready to announce mate in two, his white queen suddenly turned black and the woman smugly said that he had no chance of winning now that his queen belonged to her instead. However, Paolo Boi noticed that he could still mate in two even without his queen and the woman, seeing this too, vanished in a huff, causing him to realize that he had been unknowingly playing chess against the devil. (No word on if losing would have caused him to lose his soul or worse, though.)
  • One of the oldest written accounts comes from Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Book of the Duchess", which features a knight who played chess with Fortuna (the Greek Goddess of Luck) for the life of his wife.
  • In Thomas Bontly's Celestial Chess, the monk Gervaise played conventional chess against Satan and won the first two matches. Unfortunately, he then played the eponymous game in a Deal with the Devil. The twist is that Satan's pieces were indicated by planetary or stellar bodies in this variation; Gervaise knew enough astronomy that he thought he could predict all the possible responses to any given move. He didn't expect a supernova...
  • Constance Verity Destroys the Universe: Connie once played a game of chess with a Mountain God to keep it from sinking all of Asia into the ocean.
  • In the The Demonata series by Darren Shan, the first real scary scene has Grubbs' mother, dad, and sister brutally butchered because they lost a game of chess against Lord Loss. The same book ends with Grubbs playing Loss in a game of chess for the same reason his parents did.
  • In the Discworld novels, Death is willing to play games for one's soul if it's requested of him, with the twist that he cannot be beaten by normal means. Many a chess grandmaster has expressed considerable annoyance with this, especially since he displays that he neither knows the names of the individual pieces nor how they actually move, though he can choose to lose if the situation is right. He has a standing match with the Abbot of the History Monks, who reincarnates after losses. People have tried other games, but the best anyone has ever achieved against Death at "Exclusive Possession" is three streets and two of the Utilities.
  • In The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Death hates it when knights try to play chess with her. She explains that she doesn't even like chess and gets fed up enough to switch the pieces around when no one is looking.
  • In Teresa Edgerton's The Grail and the Ring, Tryffin plays a series of chess matches with the king of The Fair Folk for the freedom of his party (not realizing, upon entering the series, that the local rules of the game are different from those with which he is familiar).

  • Terry Jones' The Saga of Erik the Viking has the eponymous character play Death to fulfill a bargain made earlier in the book for the life of one of his men. He was steadily losing, but Death was banished before the game ended.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The concept is parodied in Beetleborgs, where the Grim Reaper is Little Ghoul's uncle, and plays chess with his niece simply to pass the time.
  • Parodied in Big Wolf on Campus, in which the eponymous character's knowledge of the trope causes him to impulsively challenge Death to a game of chess, or as he calls it, "the one with the towers and the horsies... right?" Naturally, he loses, but does manage to convince Death to play another game of checkers, and loses. Then Battleship, loses. Then Candyland (which he was a master at). By the time they try to pull out Barrel of Monkeys, Death's had enough.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer lampshades this trope.
    Xander: If Death ever tries to challenge you to a game of Chess, don't. He's some kind of whiz.
  • The opening to The Colbert Report's "Cheating Death" segment shows Stephen Colbert tricking Death into looking away, then rearranging the pieces, as well as several other forms of cheating such as playing a Shell Game. In the final episode, Death finally catches Stephen cheating and tries to kill him, so Stephen shoots and kills Death in self-defense, thus making himself immortal.
  • In Lexx, the undead Kai plays chess to win back his soul... but his motivation isn't to rejoin the living, but to finally, properly die. His opponent is Prince, who is either Death or the Devil, or both. Kai wins, and Prince does eventually make good on his offer. However, because Prince is a dick, he deliberately chooses a moment where Kai's death will have the most impact on his friends.
  • In a Brazilian soap opera Vampi, a romantic-horror comedy about a normal guy and a vampiress, the final showdown against the equivalent of Dracula is about to happen. One kid well known to be nerdy was challenged to a game of chess against him. The kid won the game, who makes the vampire losing his coolness and flip the table in rage.
  • The Young Ones: The episode "Nasty" starts with a direct homage to The Seventh Seal, where Death loses. Then kills his opponent anyway.
    Death: Checkmate? Bollocks to this!

  • Russian band King and Jester has a song called "Henry and Death" in which Henry the King, a chess prodigy, defeated every worthy opponent in his kingdom and decided to challenge the Death itself. He loses due to death knowing his every move in advance.
  • Starflyer 59's "No New Kinda Story" music video is a very clear Shout-Out to Bergman's chess match. (Although the hooded figure could be interpreted as God instead of Death; the video is something of a Mind Screw.)
  • The original promotional video for "Vérone" from Romeo et Juliette: De La Haine a l'Amour included Prince Escalus playing chess with a mysterious and unidentified old man while the events of the story the musical is based on play out around them in a highly compressed format. Given that promo videos for French musicals are often designed and filmed long before the show itself opens or is even being properly rehearsed, and since Death is a character in the show (albeit in the form of an Amazonian Beauty dancer), it's probable that this trope was being invoked before the Death character concept was finalized.
  • Scott Walker wrote a song about Bergman's The Seventh Seal (appropriately called "The Seventh Seal") which mentions the trope-naming chess game.
    "This morning I played chess with Death", said the knight
    "We played that he might grant me time
    My bishop and my knight will shatter his flanks
    And still I might feel God's heart in mine"

    Tabletop Games 
  • One of the 101 game scenarios, called Haunts, in Betrayal at House on the Hill, has players attempting this trope. The other players (except for a traitor) are expected to help the one stuck playing against death cheat, running around the house finding items that help the chess player cheat to defeat Death. This is expected and usually required, as Death is nearly impossible to beat fairly, having a massive Knowledge stat and even getting to rerolling any blank dice after his first roll.
  • Duel Master 1: Challenge of the Magi (one of a series of game books, a la Fighting Fantasy, designed for two players) featured the player being able to help out a potential ally in a chess game for an extra year of life. If she survives, you get a place to rest and some special equipment.
  • In Talisman, playing chess is one of the random events that happen when a player character encounters the Grim Reaper NPC. In terms of game mechanics, this simply results in the player in question missing their next turn.

  • The ballet Checkmate focuses on a chess game between Love (who plays with red pieces) and Death (who plays with black ones). The chess pieces then come to life and act out the game. It results in one of the Red Knights falling for the Black Queen and being unable to kill her and getting (literally) stabbed in the back for his trouble. Naturally, this leads to Death winning the game and the Black Queen taking the Red King's crown.

    Video Games 
  • The Crusader Kings II expansion "The Reaper's Due" added an event where an aging character plays a game of Chess with a random courtier whom he realises is Death. Success grants bonus health (making that character live longer) whereas failure means Death collects.
  • In Fallen London this is one of a number of ways for your character to return to life after being killed. Notably, the more you play him, the more he ups his game; at his best, he's practically impossible to beat by mortals like you (going by the sheer difficulty of the Watchful challenge needed). You can also play dice, which stay random and slightly in your favor.
  • The player in A Fine Day For Reaping must win a chess game (or otherwise convince the person to move on) to reap one soul.
    • Except the player doesn't play any chess, this being Interactive Fiction, and your character isn't very good at it. You have to read a chess manual to beat the person, in fact.
  • The "Chess Event" against Medivh in Karazhan. Failure to win the game results in the players' deaths. Medivh cheats.
  • Referenced in the Flash game Knightfall 2, where Death rides a chess horse and can attack the 8 squares that a chess knight can. You still kill him like any other enemy (and he's far from being the worst enemy in the game).
  • The Sims has had several variations, but only The Sims 3 plays the trope with actual chess. Living sims can challenge the Grim Reaper for a dying relative's life (assuming a chessboard is present in the vicinity). He's a strong, but not invincible chess player; Sims can generally count on succeeding if they have 8 Logic skill points or more out of 10.
  • The premise of Umineko: When They Cry is the main character getting trapped into playing a chess game (Although the way it plays out looks more like 13 Dead End Drive) with a witch - with one big catch - it's Human Chess with his family as the chess set.
  • Lampshaded, like everything else, by Geralt in The Witcher. (When confronting the King of the Wild Hunt at the end of the game.)
    King: "You want to fight me? So be it. Your flight from death ends here. Draw your sword!"
    Geralt: "I was afraid you'd suggest chess."


    Web Original 
  • A meme on about 17th century master Gioachino Greco says that he's immortal because the Grim Reaper got sick of losing to him, even when Greco gave him queen odds.
  • In Lawrence Friday's Let's Play of Dante's Inferno, Lawrence explains why Death is so easily beaten in a physical fight:
    Lawrence Friday: Yeah, I'm guessing what it is, everybody goes for the chess game, and Death has just perfected his chess game. But when it comes to Final Destination...
  • Pushing Up Roses discusses the history of the trope in her Best Portrayals of Death video. She even does the video in skeleton makeup and has a chessboard in front of her at one point.
  • The Slimebeast creepypasta Chess Champion. Relatively unusually for this trope, it is Death who issues the challenge, apparently purely for his own amusement. The champion makes Death regret it, though, by deliberately getting into a stalemate with only the kings remaining.
    Champion: "I have nowhere important to be, but I'm guessing you have rather a lot of work piling up. I wanted to see you resign."
  • The Shortest Story has a story where the protagonist spends all his life mastering chess so he could win a game against Death. When Death does arrive, he just calls them a nerd.
  • Star Wars Uncut: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader play chess instead of having their lightsaber duel in a 15-second clip inspired by The Seventh Sign.

    Western Animation 
  • The animated film Animalympics lampoons The Seventh Seal's iconic scene mentioned above with the film being called "Price and winnies" and directed by the avian Ingmar Birdman. The role of the Death is played by the horse Bjorn Freeborg and we see the famous scene with him saying the following:
    Bjorn Freeborg: "I remember, as a little boy by the seaside. It was a game, and I knew I had won."!
  • Earthworm Jim:
    Professor Monkey-For-A-Head: I challenge you to a game of chess!
    Death: *bored sigh* Alright, alright, union rules state I must take your challenge. What do you want, white or black?

Examples With Non-Chess Games

    Anime & Manga 
  • In the hentai OVA Ane Haramix, a female shinigami comes for the protagonist's life but reveals out of pity that shinigamis have a secret rule: if a human sires a child, his lifespan is extended by several years. Thus, he sets out to impregnate the only girl he knows well, who turns out to be his sister, so things get complicated. One Thing Led to Another, and in the end both his sister and the shinigami end up pregnant, at which point the other rule is revealed: if a human sires a child with a shinigami, his lifespan is extended way beyond natural one.
  • Don Arlelelle from Blood Blockade Battlefront is fond of this and invokes it with the beyondian game "Prosfair", which is essentially a version of chess with ridiculously complex rules, to the point where a game of 4 hours left a chess grandmaster writhing on the ground with greyed hair. Anyone who loses to him has their brain assimilated into his, but should a person manage to win, or more likely, to not lose for the amount of time he sets at the start of a match, he'll let them go while granting their requests. Klaus typically comes to him with requests for information.
  • At the climax of Summer Wars, Natsuki takes advantage of the fact that Love Machine treats everything as a game and played several matches of Koi-Koi with it. She managed to make a mere card game look epic and won back the millions of stolen accounts. If she lost? A missile-powered satellite will crash into a nuclear power station around the world and... yeah.
  • The entire premise of Yu-Gi-Oh!. In early volumes of the manga, Yugi challenges naughty people (mostly bullies and liars) into various "Shadow Games", and punishes them once they inevitably lose (he's the Yu-Gi-Oh! - the King of Games, after all), typically by trapping them in endless illusions with his mystical ancient power. Later in the series when the manga starts to be written in arcs and adopted in the anime (focusing almost exclusively on the Duel Monsters card game), Yugi has to face his matches that are equally capable of inflicting Penalty Games to his and his friends' souls, such as Bakura and Marik.

    Comic Books 
  • In the Marvel MAX Destroyer miniseries, the eponymous character is allowed to come back after winning a fistfight against several reapers.
  • Jack from Fables played cards in a Louisiana swamp with the devil in disguise. At first it seemed like the devil had the upper hand and when Jack had nothing left to bet he offered up his soul, but only if the devil would give him his Bag of Holding the devil agreed and Jack won, having had four of a kind the entire time and simply waiting 'til the devil was cocky enough to bet the sack.
  • One man has the audacity to play Lawn Darts with Death. That man is Flaming Carrot.
  • The Flash has escaped Death by beating him in a race on numerous occasions. This is even a game mechanic in the GBA version of Justice League Heroes!
  • In one issue of Ghost Rider, Ghost Rider races against Death for the lives of a man, a little girl, and himself. The Rider cheated by kicking Death into a ravine.
    • It should be noted that Death mentioned before they began how There Are No Rules. Before kicking Death's cycle, Johnny Blaze commented in his thoughts how he normally wouldn't do that to a cyclist, but Death isn't a normal cyclist.
  • Groo the Wanderer once had a sword fight with Death. Groo won.
  • Wolverine has at times engaged in battle with Lazaer, the Angel of Death, for the right to return to his body.

    Comic Strips 
  • Dilbert: Dogbert once escaped death by walking away from the game (Scrabble in this case) on his turn and leaving the issue unresolved. Death should've specified a time limit beforehand.

    Fairy Tales 
  • There is an Austrian legend about a drunkard playing bowling with Death, and in a church to boot! He tried to cheat by throwing a pin out of the window, having bet Death to match his number of strikes. Guess who was quickly turned into the replacement pin...
  • There is an old Bavarian folk tale about how Bavarian Death (Boandlkramer meaning something like Bone huckster) is supposed to collect an old man who died from being shot while poaching. He makes Death drunk and plays cards with him, cheating in the course of the game and winning ten more years on earth. However, Death has to keep book, so he takes the poacher's granddaughter 10 years early for the statistics to work out. When she arrives in Bavarian heaven (really!) the mistake comes to light and Death has to persuade the poacher to forfeit his additional 10 years for his granddaughter's sake.
  • The Bavarian story Der Brandner Kaspar by Franz von Kobell is about someone who tricks the Boandlkramer (Grim Reaper) into playing cards for some more years of life, then gets the reaper drunk and cheats so win more years. Eventually, he will go with the reaper because all of his loved ones die.
  • "The Soldier And Death": The titular soldier plays card games with a bunch of demons, and wins every round thanks to his magic pack of cards.
  • "The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was": The youngster spent three nights in a haunted castle, where he plays nine-pins with a bunch of skeletons.

    Fan Works 
  • In the Calvin and Hobbes fic "Hello Operator, Please Give Me Number Nine", a college-age Susie challenges Death to Calvinball.
  • In the Death Note fic "A Cure for Love" L challenges Ryuk to a game of tag.
  • In the Death Note fic "Kira, Sweetheart" L gets Ryuk hooked on EverQuest.
  • Harbinger (Finmonster) (Danny Phantom, ParaNorman): Danny's ancestor did this to save his wife.
  • In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic Near Death Experience, the protagonist Pinwheel and two other ponies meet Death, who will let them go if they can best him in challenges of strength, skill, and wits. Death wins the first two challenges easily and claims the other two ponies, but lets Pinwheel go when she wins the Test of Wits.
  • In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fan comic Time Fades, Pinkie makes a deal with Death. If she can make Death laugh, she gets one free mulligan.
  • In a weird way, the four are playing a kind of LARP for their lives against Jeft in With Strings Attached, though they don't know it. He throws them in with his favorite gaming character, Jim Hunter, in an effort to get them to fight, which is something Jeft has been itching for over the course of the book. However, the four “beat” Jeft by befriending Jim instead of fighting him. And Jeft indeed has several tantrums over this, especially when Jim decides to give up his BFS and return with the four to C'hou. The tantrums are meant to be quite lethal, but the first (the Battle on the Plains of Death) sees the four and Jim winning, and the second (when Jeft brings Blackfire to life and it tries to kill the four while Paul tries to separate it from Jim) is averted when the four decide to just leave rather than rescue Jim.

  • The Seventh Seal example is parodied in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, with the heroes besting the Reaper (who looks almost exactly like he did in The Seventh Seal) instead in games like Battleship, Clue, and Twister. The Reaper is a Sore Loser here, insisting on a rematch each time he loses. Eventually the Reaper gives up and joins them. The multiple wins become a plot point in the novelization and comic adaptation, where the boys get killed several times during the final showdown with their Evil Twins and make Death bring them back each time by citing all the games. Likewise, in the novelization, the villain tries to invoke this after he is killed, coincidentally suggesting the same games Bill and Ted played with Death. The Grim Reaper refuses since he just found out he is really bad at those games.
  • In Coraline, the cat suggested this to the titular character since the Other Mother loves to play games. So Coraline challenged the Other Mother to a game where she has to find her parents and the three lost children's souls. If she wins, the Other Mother has to let her go. If she loses, she must stay with the Other Mother forever. As it turns out, the Other Mother has no intention of letting Coraline go even if she wins the game, so Coraline has to trick her into letting her escape.
  • The climax of the 1986 film Crossroads (1986) is a guitar battle between Eugene and Jack Butler (the Devil's chosen one) for Willie Brown's soul. Eugene wins.
  • In the short film De Düva (U.S. title The Dove), 1968. Despite the name the film was made in the U.S. Death is challenged to a game of "badmintonska", and loses. The film was nominated for an Oscar (short subject), but didn't win. Perhaps the director should have challenged the Academy to a game of badminton!
  • Fritz Lang's Der Mude Tod, also known as Destiny, revolves around a woman trying to meet Death's challenge to save one of three people's lives in order to get her husband back. When she fails at that, Death asks for another soul in return. When she refuses to give him a baby trapped in a fire, Death takes her instead. Bergman cited this film as an inspiration for The Seventh Seal.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest: Will Turner's game of Liar's Dice against Davy Jones, pitting his soul against the key to the Dead Man's Chest. In the spirit of the game itself, the trope is subverted—all Will really wants is the key's location, so he can steal it later. Interestingly enough, he technically loses, but just as Jones is starting to gloat—"Welcome to the crew, boy..."—Will's father ups the bet so as to save Will.
  • In Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, the song "Beelzeboss" shows the aftermath of the devil managing to break the seal put on him by a wizard and coming to Earth, intending to end it. Tenacious D challenges him to a rock off: if they win, he must return to hell; if he wins, then Kage will be taken back to hell with Satan for conjugal purposes. In the end, Tenacious D is outclassed in skill - at least according to the devil - but win due to luck and knowing the story of how he was beaten last time.

  • In American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Shadow plays checkers with the god Czernobog, who must join Shadow and Mr. Wednesday on their quest if Shadow wins, but will bash Shadow's brains out with a sledgehammer if Shadow loses. When Shadow does lose, he asks for one more game, same terms. Czernobog responds, "How can it be same terms? You want I should kill you twice?" Shadow points out that the Exact Words is that Czernobog gets one swing; as he is an old man, he might well miss, so the second game will be for a second swing. Shadow wins, and Czernobog agrees to the terms: he will help them, and then he gets one swing. At the end, Czernobog takes his swing - but just taps Shadow's forehead with the hammer. In Slavic mythology, Czernobog was half of a duology, the other half being his good twin Bielebog whom Czernobog is now becoming. However, he says that he will not completely become Bielebog until the next day, and chose to give Shadow just an honorary tap out of respect for him and his actions.
  • The Warhammer novel Bane of Malekith uses a version of this trope as a framing device. Caledor Dragontamer, greatest mage of the elves of old, has trapped himself beyond space and time to hold open the world-saving magical vortex that was his last gift to his people. While trapped, he must play a game with Death (strongly hinted to be the elven war god Khaine) for the fate of the elves and the Warhammer World - though the pieces of the game are the mortal elves and immortal daemons battling it out in reality, and the game is in fact the unfolding events of history as they happen. Given that Warhammer is a tabletop wargame, the meta-fictional implications of this are all too apparent. It becomes clear throughout the book that Caledor and Death have played this game many times before, and thus far Caledor has always won, though never more than barely. The novel ends with Death offering a cheery "perhaps next time I shall win eh?", and an exhausted Caledor muttering "perhaps next time I will let you".
  • In the medieval poem "The Devil and the Juggler", a juggler's soul is accidentally picked up and dragged to hell when he dies. (He was a rather pathetic fellow who didn't deserve it, but the demon was in a hurry.) The Devil asks him to stay and work in Hell, and he agrees. When the Devil leaves on business, a wanderer turns up and asks to be able to warm himself at the fire. The wanderer wants the juggler to play a dice game. When the juggler says he has no money, the wanderer suggests he "borrows" a few souls off his boss; he can always pay them back later. The wanderer turns out to be really lucky with his dice and basically wins all the lost souls of Hell, which he sets free. When the Devil comes home he kicks out the juggler's soul... who tries to enter Heaven. There he meets St Peter, Heaven's Doorman - who turns out to be the wanderer who was lucky at dice, and he happily lets the juggler enter.
  • In the Discworld series, Death is often challenged to these. Again, with the twist that he can't lose (unless he wants to). For example:
    • In Maskerade, Granny Weatherwax challenges Death to a poker game for the soul of a dying child, with the stakes being that if she wins he'll instead take the sick cow in his place (but if he wins, it's double or nothing; Granny has to put her own life on the line as well). Granny shows four queens — and Death immediately folds despite having four ones, because even Death knows not to cross Granny Weatherwax... and because Granny initially tries to cheat, but Death then insists they exchange hands (because he also wants to save the child and always wins at any game).
    • In Reaper Man, Death refers to playing a game called "Exclusive Possession", which he won, even though his opponent had got three streets and all the utilities.
      I was the boot.
    • In Discworld Noir, Death remembers once being challenged to a game of "flog" (Golf). The soul he's collecting asks what kind of game it is.
      Death: An extremely stupid one to play against someone who spends every second practicing his swing.
    • In The Light Fantastic, Twoflower attempts to teach Death (and the rest of the Four Horsemen) how to play Bridge. It doesn't come easy:
      Did you say humans play it for fun?
      "Some of them get very good at it, yes. I'm only an amateur, I'm afraid."
      But they only live eighty or ninety years!
    • The Discworld Roleplaying Game mentions this, and adds that it must be a game with a clear winner and loser; which rules out challenging him to an RPG.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Tales of Beedle the Bard- "The Tale of the Three Brothers". In which case each brother "tricks" death by crossing the river safely, and each wins a "prize". They unknowingly are putting up their lives for bargain, as the first brother (who wins an unbeatable wand), shouts about his good fortune so that another man slits his throat and steals it from him. The second brother has won a stone to reawaken the dead, and recalls back a past flame; but as the dead cannot belong among the living, his lover suffered back on Earth, and the second brother took his own life to be with her in the afterlife. The third brother had won a cloak of invisibility, which he used to "hide" from death until he was old and ready to "welcome Death as an old friend".
  • During the game-focused stories in Haruhi Suzumiya, notably the baseball game and "Day of Sagittarius", if the SOS Brigade lost either of these games, Haruhi would become infuriated and end the world.
  • Pact, the protagonist challenges Conquest to a contest in order to safeguard his freedom, specifically mentioning The Seventh Seal. Conquest points out that the one challenged in the movie was Death, not Conquest-but he accepts anyway when it's pointed out to him that this is a chance to crush someone under his heel while they're engaged in a futile act of defiance, which is within his nature as much as it is in Death's nature to struggle with all living things.
  • Ready Player One: The first Easter-egg challenge is to navigate through a recreation of the Tomb of Horrors D&D module. The Lich waiting at the end challenges the player to a joust, as in the old video game.note  Losing the game would result in a fight, which a low-level character like Parzival would certainly not survive.
  • In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", Death and Life In Death gamble with dice, and Death wins the crew, while Life In Death wins the Mariner, and gives him a Fate Worse than Death.
  • In Richard Adams' Watership Down, the story of "El-Ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inle" invokes this trope as the rabbit hero attempts to maneuver the Black Rabbit, a god of death, into accepting his life in exchange for those of the rabbits in his warren - once in a game of bob-stones (the lapine equivalent of liar's dice) and then in a storytelling competition. El-Ahrairah loses both times.
    • The ending implies this is how El-Ahrairah ascends to become a Trickster God. The utterly crushing defeats (both psychologically and physically; while the Black Rabbit is not evil, there are consequences for challenging him) in the very things he's legendary for and subsequent realization that all his cleverness and manipulative skills did nothing more than drive him and his charges straight to this point finally purges him of hubris and makes his intended sacrifice worthwhile.

    Live-Action TV 
  • A Halloween-themed episode of Benson involved Benson challenging Death to a game of Trivial Pursuit, wagering his life against that of a school bus full of children in an accident whom Death actually came to collect. While it at first seems like Death is cheating (the answers to the first questions Benson asks are Death Valley and the Dead Sea, respectively), Benson wins because Death just hasn't been keeping up with popular films. (The answer to the third question, which he misses, is Death Wish.) Benson struggles with his third question too ("What was the name of the pet pig on Green Acres?) but remembers at the last second the answer: Arnold Ziffel.
  • Parodied in Bottom when Eddie — as part of a ploy to trick Richie into letting him back into the flat after being kicked out — plays on Richie's recent fortune-teller inspired paranoia about dying by dressing up as Death. Richie challenges him to the standard game of chess, which hits a snag when 'Death' admits he doesn't know the rules. Richie then suggests Cluedo, which hits a snag when 'Death' reveals that he knows perfectly well that Richie always cheats by looking at the mystery cards. They settle on I-Spy, which hits yet another snag when 'Death' betrays an inability to spell.
  • In the Doctor Who serial "The Celestial Toymaker", the First Doctor and his companions have to play games against the Celestial Toymaker, who appears again a few times in the Expanded Universe.
  • Farscape. One of John Crichton's Imagine Spots with Harvey, an Imaginary Friend version of the Big Bad Scorpius, involves them playing chess on a battlefield. Just when you think the scene is going to riff on the Chess with Death trope, they've suddenly changed to checkers and then Go Fish.
  • In Reaper, Sam plays quarters (a game bouncing coins into a shot glass) with the Devil. He loses. He plays again and is going to win... but an angel CRUSHES HIS HAND. 'Cause the forces of good don't want him to win. While it's all part of their plan, they really didn't need to be such assholes about it.
  • Parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch, where Death has given up chess in favor of Trivial Pursuit — the Baby Doom edition. The categories are: Death, Death, Hell, Armageddon, Death, and Sports.
  • Scrubs once featured J.D. playing Connect Four with Death on behalf of a patient in an Imagine Spot, and Death wins on the diagonal, prompting J.D. to say "Pretty sneaky, Death!" in a parody of an old commercial.
  • In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, a female Death offers Roxton several chances to win back his life. Roxton accepts that he died and actually requests that she just claim him, but she says that if he doesn't try, his friends' lives will be forfeit, too. Death uses an hourglass to give the games a time limit, and Roxton fails at each one: Retrieve a diamond from a maze made of walls of fire (ran out of time), Retrieve a raptor egg (he tripped and dropped it), Guess which bowl holds oysters (guessed wrong). Each time he loses, Death captures another one of his friends. The final game is: shoot his own girlfriend, or himself. Roxton shoots the hourglass, making it impossible for the game to end. Death concedes victory to Roxton and lets them all go.
  • In Six Feet Under, Nate has accidentally taken ecstasy, and dreams of playing Chinese Checkers with his dad, Death, and Life. Death And Life (a white man in a suit and a large black woman respectively) start having sex, and Nate's dad quotes the Bhagavad Gita.
  • In Supernatural Dean has one of these with Death: in exchange for bringing Sam's soul back to his body Dean has to do his job for a day. Dean ends up failing the test, but Death returns the soul anyway. Firstly because his real reason for the task was to show Dean what forces he was messing with by constantly resurrecting, and also because Sam and Dean's current investigation suited his purposes. He may have wanted a day off too.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959):
    • In the episode "One for the Angels", a salesman talks death into letting him stay alive until he can make the sales pitch of a lifetime, e.g., "one for the angels". Death agrees, whereupon the salesman smugly quits his job. Unfortunately, Death still has to take a soul, and chooses a little girl who lives in the same building. To save her life, the former salesman distracts Death with a series of enthralling sales pitches, keeping Death occupied until after the appointed time — and willingly sacrificing his life in the process since now that he's made his sales pitch of a lifetime, his bargain with Death is now complete and Death gently walks with him into Heaven.
    • The episode "A Game of Pool" features this when a man (Jesse Cardiff) who dedicated his life to pool would "give anything" for a chance to play Fats Brown, the pool player that everyone says was the best, and better than Jesse is. Fats Brown then gets a call from his heavenly pool table to report to Jesse's pool hall, where Fats then appears and accepts Jesse's challenge — if the stakes are for Jesse's life. Jesse accepts, and they play pool. Both are very good, but Fats gets on Jesse's nerves when he notes that all Jesse did was pool — he didn't get married or see the world or anything. Jesse thinks that Fats is just trying to psych him out. Before making the final shot, Fats says that winning this game may have undesired consequences — but Jesse blows him off. (Fats adds that he was required to say that.) Jesse makes the shot, and Fats acknowledges that Jesse is, in fact, the best pool player ever. Jesse laughs hysterically for a while — but the scene then cuts to Jesse asleep at the heavenly pool table, getting an announcement to report to a pool hall in Sandusky, Ohio. In the meantime, Fats Brown has gone fishing.
  • The Twilight Zone (1985):
    • In "Dealer's Choice", Pete, Jake and Tony correctly deduce that Nick, who has taken Norman's place at their regular poker game, is the Devil and that he is here for one of them. Nick suggests that they make a game of it: whoever picks the highest card "wins" and gets to go with him. Tony picks an eight, Jake picks a seven and the unfortunate Pete picks a jack. Tony suggests that Pete and Nick play a game of one-on-one, all or nothing. Nick agrees and tries to put up $18 (three sixes) but instead puts up $19 at Pete's insistence. As it is dealer's choice, Pete chooses a game of lowball, where the lower hand wins and players don't want matching cards. Being the Devil, Nick has been getting three sixes in every hand. Pete gets four fives and Nick gets three sixes, meaning that Pete loses. However, Marty, who is too innocent for the Devil to trick, reveals that Nick's Tarot death card is in fact a fourth six. After been caught out, Nick leaves empty-handed, though not before filling Pete's empty kitchen with food and beer.
    • In "I of Newton", Sam is a mathematician trying to solve a complex problem. In frustration, he says he'd trade his soul for the answer. And sure enough, a demon appears. The devil (wearing a red T-shirt with an ever-changing series of slogans, the most memorable being "Hell is a City Much Like Newark") says the only way Sam can save himself is to come up with a request the demon can't perform - i.e., a riddle he can't solve, a game he can't win, an object he can't retrieve, and so on. The demon describes in fantastic detail how he can instantaneously appear anywhere, any time; how he can zip into and out of parallel universes, imaginary dimensions, impossible situations. At last the demon says, "What is your request?" And Sam's reply? "Get lost."
  • And then there's another from The Twilight Zone (2002) where the devil shows up to a few friends' poker game, intending to take one of their souls. When the soul he picks challenges him to a card game to decide it, the devil slyly accepts and promptly gets caught cheating. To save face, he decided to fill their fridge with beer instead of killing them all, proving that even the devil could be a good sport.
  • In Wellington Paranormal, Officer O'Leary plays the board game Guess Who? with Satan — or more specifically a Bland-Name Product version called "Who The Hell".

  • The Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" describes a fiddle-playing contest between Johnny and Satan.
    • Wigu parodied this. Satan challenges Topato Potato to a fiddling contest for custody of Sheriff Pony's soul. Topato wins by pointing out that Satan failed to explicitly define "fiddle" and the terms of victory, then proceeding to play the fiddle of the Butter Dimension Cubed, a tuba-like instrument whose only measure for proficiency is that one play it loudly.
    • And in Mono Puff's "The Devil Went Down to Newport", Satan and God go "surfing for souls". God wins because Satan's hooves make it difficult to stand on a surfboard.
    • Tenacious D's song "Tribute" describes the band's encounter with "a shiny demon" who demands that they play "the best song in the world" or he will eat their souls. They do so and blow the stunned devil out of the water, but afterward inform the audience that they can't actually remember how that song went, so "this is just a tribute".
      • The event that "Tribute" chronicles is seemingly the climactic battle against Satan in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, meaning that said greatest song in the world would be the D's half of the song "Beelzeboss". However, it seems the D was embellishing a bit considering how their survival was mostly luck and had nothing to do with their song, which Satan said was lame. Then again, they both get stoned after the battle, and it is implied that they write "Tribute" then, so that probably is how their inebriated minds remembered the battle.
    • Don't forget the stoner parody entry into this, "The Devil Went to Jamaica".
    • Johnny Cash joined Charlie Daniels for "The Devil Came Back To Georgia", one of the few Sequel Songs in existence, as well as possibly the only one that features a Training Montage in the music, not the lyrics. (Johnny—from the song, not Mr. Cash—hadn't had time to practice much since his wife gave birth to their child...)
  • Sting gets in on the act. "The Soul Cages", from the same-named album, has a child get in a drinking contest against a hellish creature intent on keeping his father's soul. The enemy is 'the king of the ninth world/ the twisted son of the fog bell's toll', for clarification.
  • Chris de Burgh's "Spanish Train" is God vs The Devil at draw poker for souls (including that of the trainman, as he realises a little too late), they later on switch over to chess. The Devil wins each game through cheating, netting him more and more souls each time.
  • In the video for "I'll Be Haunting You" by They Might Be Giants, a guy who fell off a ladder is challenged by Death to a game of ping-pong. He wins, but he dies again due to a falling toolbox, and then prepares to face Death in an actual chess match.
  • In the Gene Vincent song "Race with the Devil", it is a drag race with automobiles.
  • In Motörhead's music video for their version of "Hellraiser", Lemmy plays poker with Pinhead and wins with, fittingly, the ace of spades.

    Myths & Religion 
  • Classical Mythology:
    • Played with in the story of Sisyphus. The game was not a formal institution, but nevertheless, he played it. Among his more popular exploits, he once evaded his fate by tying Thanatos to a tree and running off.
    • Arachne entered a weaving contest with Athena; in the end, Athena turned her into a spider. There seem to be a few variations on the tale: Arachne won the contest, but Athena was a sore loser (note that this version was popularized by Ovid, who had a known dislike of authority); Arachne won and Athena drove her to suicide in revenge, eventually immortalizing her as a spider in apology for overreacting; Both tapestries were exactly as beautiful as the other, but Arachne wove in mocking depictions of the Gods which is just Tempting Fate given her opponent; Arachne LOST fair and square, and hanged herself. Out of pity, Athena changed her into a spider so that she and her descendants could have all of eternity to practice their weaving.
    • Marsyas entered a musical contest with Apollo. He lost, so Apollo flayed him. Why did Apollo flay him? Some would say it was because Apollo was that vain. Others would note that Marsyas, a satyr (aka horrendously ugly), stipulated that if he won, Apollo would have to do him some favors. This is not to mention Marsyas's choice of performance, which ended up being a very bawdy flute piece against Apollo's divine cithara-plucking. Excessive punishment, yes, but not entirely undeserved.
    • In the myth of Alcestis, Heracles challenged Death to a wrestling match over the soul of his friend Admetus' beloved wife, to repay said friend's hospitality. Heracles won.
  • Egyptian Mythology: In the tales of Prince Khaemwase, the sorcerer-prince Khaemwase Setna went on a quest to find the Book of Thoth. He found it, but it was guarded by an even better sorcerer, who challenged him to several games of draughts (checkers). Setna had no chance against a guy who'd been perfecting his game for several hundred years, and each time Setna lost, he would sink lower into the ground and was due to be completely swallowed up on his fourth game. However, his brother managed to get the amulet of Ptah and save him before he was killed, allowing Setna to grab the Book of Thoth and run. Though Egyptian, this story is only known from the 1st century C.E.
  • In Mayan Mythology, two young men played ball with the Lord of Death. They lost but were reincarnated as catfish.

  • The Magnus Archives: The dying soldier in the folk tale in "Cheating Death" challenges Death to a game. When Death offers him a choice of chess, dominoes, and dice, the soldier rejects all of those, takes out his own deck of cards, and challenges Death to faro. This is partly because he knows that Death must be too good to lose any game that isn't pure luck, and partly because the soldier knows how to cheat at faro. It turns out that there are actually multiple Deaths, each of whom was once a mortal who, upon winning a game against a previous Death, was doomed to take over from them until they find someone who can beat them (which is difficult because they become unsurpassedly skilled at all games and unable to play badly on purpose). Oh, and it's not just a folk tale - that soldier became one of them.
  • In the episode of the Mythological Monsters Parcast podcast on the Grim Reaper, the prince Callum challenges Death to a hunting contest — the first to capture an imaginary white stag wins. When Death races off to begin the hunt, Callum runs home and distracts himself with a party. When Death eventually returns to claim Callum, and his party guests, he presents the stag's corpse as a trophy — and with it, the cowl and responsibilities of Death.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Deadlands: Hucksters get their powers by wagering bits of their souls against evil spirits in mental contests visualized as a game, usually poker. In game terms the Huckster draws a poker hand and the results depend on how good it is.
  • A /tg/ DM put Death into his Dungeons & Dragons game, and allowed dead PCs to challenge him to a game of their choosing. If they won, they came back to life. Of course, Death is extremely overpowered and a master of bullshitting so he almost never loses. After a near Total Party Kill, Death naturally shows up to reap their souls and of course, they all challenge him.
    • First, the fighter challenges him to a Body-Count Competition against an infinite horde of weak enemies. Death wins by spamming AoE spells.
    • Next, the cleric challenges him to a contest of who can do the most acts pleasing the cleric's god in 24 hours. He then communes with his god and says that because the contest was his idea, he should therefore share credit for every act Death does, and then does a ritualistic dance in order to break the tie and beat Death by one. Death then goes out and massacres a bunch of the god's worshippers, losing the contest. He brings the cleric back to life as was agreed, and the cleric is immediately smote by his angry god and dies again. After all, he did say he should share the credit for everything Death did...
    • The wizard then challenges Death to a riddle contest. Whoever gets three wrong first loses. Death wins by making up a bunch of bullshit Insane Troll Logic riddles that nobody would ever be able to figure out naturally.
    • Then, in a surprising turn of events, the sole surviving member of the party, a binder, challenges Death to a game of planar hide-and-seek. If he can't find Death within two weeks, then Death can kill him too, but if he can, Death has to revive the entire party. Death finds this proposal interesting and goes off to hide. The binder simply turns around and fights the enemies that wiped the rest of his party. When they inevitably curb-stomp him, Death of course shows up to reap his soul. "Found you."
  • Exalted: there is the demon Sigereth, The Player of Gamesnote . You can issue a challenge to her, either by sorcery or by being a game master of sufficient repute and casting a personally written letter of challenge to her into the sea. You can wager anything you have against her, but if you wager yourself and lose, you're turned into a soulless mannequin. If you win, you can demand something that Sigereth has, including restoring someone who lost to her. Challenging Death itself is not possible though, due to the No-Resurrection meta-rule.
  • One route players can take through the inner region in Talisman forces the player to "Dice with Death" by rolling dice against the Grim Reaper. If the player rolls higher, the player's character can progress further towards the Crown of Command. If the Grim Reaper rolls higher, the character loses a life and must dice with death again on subsequent turns until the player either wins or the character is killed.
  • Warhammer 40,000: A variation. Eldar Solitaires are the most powerful of the Dance Battler Harlequins, but their soul is forfeit to Slaanesh when they die. But when they do, the Laughing God Cegorach can try to trick Slaanesh into letting go of the soul, though how is not explained.

  • The Seventh Seal's "challenge Death for more time" trope is cleverly spoofed in Woody Allen's short play "Death Knocks", where the protagonist plays gin rummy with The Grim Reaper for the right to stay alive one more day and a tenth of a cent a point "to make it interesting".
  • In Igor Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress, Tom plays cards with Nick Shadow for his soul. The odds are horribly stacked against Tom because he has to correctly guess three randomly drawn cards from an entire deck — but he wins thanks to the The Power of Love. (Except Nick vengefully inflicts Tom with insanity as he leaves.)

    Video Games 
  • The main villain of the Banjo-Kazooie series, Gruntilda Winkybunion, sets up the penultimate confrontation with the character as a GAME SHOW in the first two games. Not only that, but in the second game she gives quiz questions during the ACTUAL final battle; answering them makes her go easier on you because she's... just that nice?
    • More likely obsessive-compulsive, given her reliance on speaking in rhymes in the first game.
  • Card Shark: Getting caught cheating usually involves getting kicked out of the venue, but some chapters cause Eugene to be killed by their opponent. This sends them to Hades where they are given one more chance for life if they can beat Death in a hand of cards. Naturally the player has to cheat to win.
  • The eponymous character in the old Genesis game Chakan: The Forever Man gained immortality by beating Death in a duel. The point of the game is to get him to lose it. Death even shows up as an Optional Boss.
  • Dante's Inferno begins with the eponymous character getting murdered and the Reaper coming to take his soul. The game's first battle tutorial is the fight between Dante and the Reaper, which ends with Dante crushing the Reaper and taking his scythe.
  • DragonFable: Ash Dragonblade will, in his storyline, challenge Death to Tic-Tac-Toe because it's Serious Business.
  • The final stage of Guitar Hero 3 is a guitar battle against the Devil for your soul, to a heavy-metal remix of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
  • In King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, Alexander gets to challenge Death to save the souls of his lover's parents AND to leave the Realm of the Dead free. The challenge is especially difficult: make Death cry. Alexander succeeds.
  • In Martha Is Dead, Guilia dreams of meeting Death with Martha not long after her boyfriend dies and she is shot. Death can't tell them apart but tells the girls it is time for Guilia to die. The girls drew lots by tossing a medallion and then the one that loses goes with him, trusting the choice to Fate. Death knows that while Fate plays by its own rules, Fate is Death's ally and would always choose the proper girl. However, the medallion only had Martha's name on it and thus both Fate and Death are cheated.
    Death: One thing is for sure. I will correct my ignorance and give Fate back its blindfold.
  • The Flash game Necrorun has knights challenge death to a jousting match. Except you play Death, and it's a platformer where you need to aim your lance to kill the targets.
  • In Pirate101 Captain Blood manages to obtain immortality when he challenges Death to a game of poker. However, it's not because he beat Death. He's immortal because after Death showed a winning hand he left the table for a bathroom break. Since he has never played his hand, Death still hasn't technically won so Death can't claim his soul. Death is ticked about this and has rewritten the rules to ensure this doesn't happen again.
  • Return to Zork's final showdown pits the player against the Big Bad Morpheus in a game of Survivor for both their own lives and the Kingdom of Zork. The game is chess-like and only has two pieces. The Mage Canuk and The Wizard Trembyle, who actually are those two characters that have been turned to stone. As well as all the other major magic wielders in the game whose statues blankly observe the contest. If Morpheus wins, the player shares the fate of the others. If the player wins, the spell over the others is broken, and they use their considerable power to send him back to...where is he from again?
  • The Sims 3 involved actual chess, but The Sims has put several spins on it in other games:
    • The Sims allowed a Sim to play a game of rock-paper-scissors with the Grim Reaper for another dying Sim's life. The reaper is predisposed to declining the challenge outright, but if he accepts there's about a 50-50 chance the Sim will win the game. If the Sim loses, there's a further 50-50 chance the dying Sim will be brought back as a zombie.
    • The Sims 2 featured a similar mechanic, albeit with a game of chance rather than rock-paper-scissors; the reaper will also always accept the challenge. This time, the relationship between the challenging Sim and the dying Sim determines the chance of success: If it's below 25 on a scale of -100 to 100, it's a guaranteed fail. The maximum chance is capped at 90%.
    • The Sims 4 massively expanded the range of mechanics by which Sims can plead for someone's life - by which we mean there's an entire guide for it on the fan wiki. Examples include seducing the reaper (10% success chance), demanding he change his mind (40%), wailing about the death (33%), toying with him via voodoo magic (the chance varies but increases with repeated attempts), and yelling at him (always fails). Which options are available at any given time depends on the mood and skills of the living Sim.
  • In Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher, Socrates and his daughter Ari are sent to the philosophers' afterlife realm after getting into a car accident. Ari convinces the Arbiter there to let Socrates return back to the living world (she's actually still 'alive', but Socrates is not) if he can give an acceptable answer to a centuries-old "wager" of what the true source of morality is — a wager that incidentally has been answered correctly only once in all of human history. Oh, and if he fails, both of them will become trapped forever in the afterlife.
  • In Touhou Project, defeating a Shinigami who comes for a human's life in a duel will extend their lifespan. However, it's usually Celestials and Hermits, ascended humans, who are able to consistently defeat the Shinigamis.
    • Tenshi's lucky in that the only shinigami to ever defeat her was only the ferrywoman of the Sanzu river - and was only after her because she was killing spirits.
  • Wishbone and the Amazing Odyssey:
    • Dying causes Wishbone to play an unnamed board game with Pluto (Hades). The first to the potion of Asclepius that restores life wins. Opting out of playing is an automatic game over.
    • Non-Death example — Wishbone plays checkers with Circe to free his men after she turns them into pigs.
    • Wishbone later plays a game called "The Trojan War" against the deceased Agamemnon, his old companion from the actual Trojan War, in Hades. Winning gets him a coin that he uses in Elpenor's funeral rites.
  • In The Witcher, the ghost of a gambler challenges Geralt to a popular dice game for the soul of a boy Geralt has become guardian of. When challenged to mortal combat by a more powerful spirit of death for a soul, Geralt remarks, "Thank God, I was afraid you wanted to play chess."
    • Although Geralt can just beat the gambling ghost to true death using his sword if the player chooses. Which is what he does anyway if he loses at dice.
  • In Witches' Legacy 7: Awakening Darkness Jack plays checkers with Death. When Jack wins Death creates a bridge over a chasm so he can continue chasing Cassandra, who possessed his sister.
  • In Witches' Legacy 11: Rise of the Ancient the Ancient One plays a board game version of Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors with the Shadow Guard, with her return to the living world as the wager. When he protests her victory, she suggests and wins a rematch, resulting in the release of a number of imprisoned witch souls.
  • This is the whole point of Reaper's game in The World Ends with You, though you compete against other humans as well.
    • In the first game, the competition is a seven-day gauntlet. All players that survive until the end get to choose one of them to come back to life, with the rest playing again the next week.
    • In the sequel, the reaper's game has teams of players competing for points. At the end of the week, the top team gets a wish and the bottom team gets Erased.

  • Irregular Webcomic! had an early running gag where the various Deaths would admit that they had to accept any game as a challenge, whereupon the recently-departed would find some game their Death had never even heard of. Challenges have included poker, Quidditch, pod-racing, and Myth-busting, which ended up being the origin of Hitler's Brain in a Jar. "Pirate Slang" was deemed too humiliating by the Deaths, who let the pirates return to life.
    • It is also stated that chess is no longer an option since in the 1970s, no Russians had died for about a decade. Apparently an earlier strip where chess was used was forgotten - though with the huge amounts of time-travel in the comic, this may refer to another earth.
    • The Deaths do seem to be a bit trigger-happy with this, accepting the idea that Quidditch was just a coin toss.
  • In Kukuburi, the female protagonist plays battleship with a well-dressed, if tacky, skeleton Card-Carrying Villain whom she takes to be Death (but later refutes this misconception). The ships take the form of the flying whales present in the environment. She does not know that the attacks are reflected as bombs thrown against real flying whales - including the whale on which her friends are travelling in an attempt to rescue her. Besides, he cheats.
  • In Mortifer, Vlad tells the story of how, after receiving a grievous head injury from hitting a demon with his car, he challenged said demon to a game, in order to keep the demon from killing him.
    Vlad: "It was meant to be a card game. Zebidiah believed because I had a head injury, I couldn't think. Well... And that of course was very true. But cheating always works well... So when I had the chance, I pulled out a gun and shot Zebidiah down."
    • Not only did it work, it left Zebidiah unconscious long enough for Vlad to tattoo his name on Zebidiah's arm, enslaving him.
  • In this page of The Non-Adventures of Wonderella, Wonderella challenges Satan to a drinking match for her soul after using Satanic powers one too many times. She wins and not only does she get to keep her soul, but takes Satan's place.
  • Phantomarine: Lampshaded. Cheth offers a chess game as a potential challenge. Phaedra turns it down, commenting "You must've played millions of chess games." So they play a different game.
  • In Problem Sleuth dead characters are almost always sentenced to a battle with Death in any board game other than chess. Death will play a board game with you even if you aren't dead. Such as the Game of Life. Death loves Life.
  • In Roommates, James really just wanted to get a glass of milk (and maybe midnight snack) from the kitchen but got invited to a friendly game of poker by, well, a Fair Folk Psychopomp, a Humanoid Abomination, an Anthropomorphic Personification of Fear and a Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl of the vengeful type. As he survived the experience they either let him decline or he won, we don't know which he didn't tell.
  • In The Order of the Stick, it all depends on choosing the right contest.
  • In this Skin Horse, Tigerlily Jones explains how she won the plans for her ultimate weapon by beating the devil at Jenga.
  • A mild subversion occurred in the webcomic Those Destined: The being claiming to be Death was lying, and had no power to resurrect the protagonist. However, since he had bet his own soul, his nemesis was more than happy to help.
  • Three Panel Soul inverted the trope - the mortal narrator won the Devil's eternal soul in a game of mancala. He eventually traded it to an angel for "the ideal method of grilling grilled corn on the cob."
  • In a tribute to Gary Gygax, xkcd has Gary playing D&D with Death. He's going to be there a while.
    • Aaron Williams neatly reverses the whole thing in this Backwards Compatible strip about the death of Dave Arneson.

    Web Original 
  • An example which is more Played for Laughs than most comes from The Adventure Zone: Balance, in which Kravitz the Grim Reaper offers Merle a chance to save Noelle's soul through a quick game of cards. Merle happens to have a deck of cards on him, but it's a cheat deck. Kravitz doesn't spot the cheat, so Noelle is free to go.
  • In The Gamer's Alliance, the rebel leader Mae Torazo ends up playing chess with the Grim Reaper after her death. She wins the game and is allowed to possess her corpse for a limited period of time to have her revenge on the people who murdered her.
  • Jenny Everywhere played such a game against the Grim Reaper in one of the vignettes in Mitigating Circumstances, and appeared to win fair and square (although she had to miss a college assignment's deadline to make it to the game).
  • SCP Foundation: SCP-1440 once challenged Death to a card game for his life and won. Four times, in fact. Now he wishes he didn't.
    • Its sister site The Wanderer's Library has the story "For the Glory", where a former heavyweight champion challenges Death to a boxing match. He loses, no thanks to Death getting the hang of the sport far quicker than he anticipated. The story also notes that chess isn't the only game you can pick to play against Death; it can be any other sport, game, or activity of your choosing and he has to play along.
  • In Survival of the Fittest V5, Tessa Blackridge, given her choice of game (except Twister) to challenge Death for her life, chooses Go Fish. She loses.
  • A young boy is seen competing against death in some unseen mobile/handheld video game in this T-Shirt, apparently successfully given that it is entitled "...And Billy Lived Forever"

    Web Videos 

    Western Animation 
  • On Adventure Time we have Finn getting in a music battle against Death to save the soul of a plant.
  • In "Meatballs or Consequences", an Animaniacs pastiche of Seventh Seal, they play checkers (as Dot and Yakko say that chess is unknown to them) for Wakko's life with Death. (The Warners win, but they blatantly cheat, and for some reason, Death fails to notice.) They play to stay together, which Death interprets as taking all three, but Death finds them too annoying to keep dead.
  • In BIONICLE: Mask of Light, the hero Takanuva confronts the evil Makuta in a Kolhii match (a sport similar to lacrosse) to determine the fate of the Matoran villagers. Unlike many examples, Makuta actually proposes the confrontation in order to toy with his opponent.
  • Death appears in Chilly Beach to take away Dale, who opts to challenge him and then proceeds to annoy Death by taking too long to pick what game they're going to play. It leads to this exchange:
    Death: "CHOOSE! or I shall choose for you!"
    Dale: [panicked] "Uh, hockey!"
    Death: "Very well." [summons a hockey rink and puck, then proceeds to slapshot said puck into the goal so fast it burns a hole through the net] "...By the way, hockey is what I would have chosen."
    Dale: "Aw, crap."
  • In the animated short "Come Again in Spring", the elderly Hark is approached by Death himself during the middle of the winter, claiming that it is his time to die. Hark, however, has other ideas — as the birds he feeds every day normally migrate during the winter they will die without his support, so he tells Death to come again in spring. In this example, however, it is Death who ultimately makes the challenge, and boy is it a doozy: he gives Hark one day to remember the type of cake that his mother served him on his second birthday. When Hark finally remembers, death is furious and decides to prolong the game by asking him to remember what wildflowers his mother picked for him on his first birthday. Hark gets it right again (buttercups if anyone was interested), and Death, fed up, offers a third, final question: on the day that Hark was born, what were the first words his father said to him as he held him for the first time? Understandably this has Hark stumped, and he begins to wither away as the deadline draws near. When Death finally arrives to claim him, however...
    Hark: Open...the window...let the birds... sing.
    Death: What?! What did you say?
    Hark: (stronger) Open the window, let the birds sing.
    Death: Nooo!!! (disappears into the shadows)
  • Darkwing Duck dies in a motorcycle accident because he refused to wear his helmet in the heat of pursuit. Eventually he challenges the Grim Reaper for one more hour in the world of the living so he can defeat the criminal he was chasing. The game? Darkwing simply has to do something that Death can't do; he does a cute finger trick with his hands. Death, lacking necessary muscles, tendons, and other body parts, fails to copy him.
  • Parodied in the first Family Guy to feature Death. While hanging out at the Griffins' trying to work off his sprained ankle, he and Lois play Life.
  • In the Futurama episode "Hell Is Other Robots", the Robot Devil explains that the Fairness In Hell Act requires him to give visitors the option of challenging him to a fiddle contest to win back a robot's soul (in this case, Bender's). A solid gold fiddle is even part of the dealnote . Losers only get a smaller, silver fiddle, and the Robot Devil may kill them at his discretion (in this case, Fry). Of course, playing well on a solid gold fiddle is pretty hard as it is, and the Robot Devil's prehensile tail serves as a third arm. Leela, who accepted the challenge with the explanation that playing the fiddle was just like the drums, yells "Time for the drum solo!" and beats the Robot Devil unconscious with the gold fiddle.
  • The entire premise of The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy stems from this. In the show's pilot episode, Billy & Mandy play a game of limbo with the Grim Reaper for the soul of the former's dead hamster. Grim loses thanks to Mandy's cheating, forcing him to be their "friend" forever.
    • It turns out not to be the first time. An early episode of the show has Mandy meet an old lady who somehow beat Grim at a staring contest in order to continue living on as ghost.
  • In Haunted Tales for Wicked Kids Grandmother Peperonito has a rivalry with Death (who is a voluptuous blue skinned woman in this world) and constantly beats her at everything, which is why she's lived for so long. Death challenges her to a motorcycle cage race for her soul, but after Grandmother Peperonito injures her arm, she volunteers her grandson Pepe to take her place and throws in his soul as a prize as well. He loses the challenge instantly, but still wins thanks to Death's dyslexia and poorly worded announcing of the rules. It turns out that the reason that Grandmother Peperonito shrugs off her bullying is because she's Death's older sister.
  • Parodied on an episode of Kaeloo, where Stumpy challenges the Grim Reaper to a rap battle. As the Reaper has actually come for Adele the flower's soul and not Stumpy's, he blatantly ignores him.
  • An episode of The Mask has Stanley signing a contract for good luck to the Devil (who's passing off as a guy named "Bub"). When the time to collect the soul comes, The Mask decides to compete against Bub in a dancing contest at the Coco Bongo.
  • A Nightmare Sequence in Nightmare Ned featured Ned playing checkers against the Tooth Fairy in order to keep his teeth.
  • A Halloween episode of Pinky and the Brain sees Brain challenge one "Mr. Itch" (implied to be Satan) to rhythmic gymnastics for Pinky's soul (which he had voluntarily offered to Mr. Itch in exchange for Brain becoming the ruler of the world) — but Mr. Itch specifies that if Brain wins, he loses control of the world and can never try to take it over again. Brain goes through with it anyway, and his routine is scored a perfect 10. Mr. Itch barely even tries, but as the judges are his own minions, they give him a score of 11. The Reset Button is only hit when Pinky reveals that he actually sold his soul for two things, one of which Mr. Itch cannot provide, which means the original deal is void.
  • Regular Show had Skips arm wrestling with Death with his soul on the line to bring back Rigby, whom he had killed in the first place. Skips cheated by using an arm brace (that Rigby used previously to beat him), but got away with it.
    • This is what happens in pretty much any episode featuring Death. Various characters have defeated him at bowling and hot dog eating contests in order to retain their mortal souls. Probably this is the reason he started instead to ask them to babysit his son Thomas instead of challenging them in order to let them live.
  • In Robot Chicken, Spawn challenges Malebolgia to a fiddle contest. Spawn's act is flawless, while Malebolgia sounds like he's scraping a chalkboard. Unfortunately, the demons are the judges, so Spawn loses.
  • The South Park episode You Have Zero Friends has Stan being sucked into Facebook, in a parody of TRON. Once there, he faces off with his "profile" in a game of...Yahtzee.


Video Example(s):


Battleship with Death

Parodied by having Bill and Ted best Death in a number of modern party and board games until he finally admits defeat.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (7 votes)

Example of:

Main / ChessWithDeath

Media sources: