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Crazy People Play Chess

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"No chess grandmaster is normal; they only differ in the extent of their madness."
Viktor Korchnoi, grandmaster

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. It can also be shown to demonstrate the character's (usually a villain) psychopathy: they view people as pieces to be manipulated on a chessboard. 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.

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.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Mao in Code Geass is crazy enough that he rigs a bomb to detonate and kill Nunally if he wins, in order to force Lelouch to play him. Subverted (or perhaps reinforced) in that he doesn't actually know how to play chess except by reading Lelouch's mind.
  • The Cowboy Bebop episode "Bohemian Rhapsody" contains a chess game between an old, senile chess master and Cloudcuckoolander Ed. The game is played over the internet and lasts for days until the chess master wins, and subsequently dies. Overlaps with Smart People Play Chess, as this old senile chess master planned, decades in advance, for several spaceship warp gates to explode out of revenge for the company he worked for at the time that supervised the project.
  • Durarara!!'s Izaya doesn't just play chess. He plays chess-reversi-cards-alcohol-matches. And he is definitely crazy.
  • PandoraHearts has Vincent, though his crazy and chess-playing don't overlap.
  • 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.
    • The manga and Crystal has a chess match between the same opponents, but Berthier is more crazy and less sympathetic: she tries to exploit Ami's fear to distract her into losing the match and used dowsing to decide her next moves. When the dowsing crystal stops reacting, she realizes Ami will checkmate her, and proceeds to directly attack her, which led to her own death and Ami's capture by the Black Moon Clan.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: The Joker is a brilliant chess player able to consistently beat Ra's al Ghul, Batman's oldest (as in, the most long-lived in-universe) and most strategically sound foe, at chess.
  • Judge Dredd: Judge Death, who thinks life itself is a crime punishable by death, has been a master at chess since his teens. He doesn't really get around to it anymore after becoming a zombie, though.

    Comic Strips 
  • In one FoxTrot strip, Jason and Marcus combine chess with Dungeons & Dragons. ("As if regular chess isn't nerdy enough," sighs Paige.)

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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...
  • Brainwashed, based on the novel The Royal Game.
  • Green Lantern (2011) — 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.
  • Pawn Sacrifice is a biopic about Bobby Fischer (cf. Real Life below), focusing on the World Chess Championship 1972 and Fischer growing more and more insane.
  • Searching for Bobby Fischer: There are some creepy weirdos at the chess club that Josh goes to. Part of the goal of the Waitzkin family is to make sure Josh doesn't turn out like them.
  • In 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.
  • In X2: X-Men United, Magneto and Professor X play chess at the end.

  • In the Kurt Vonnegut short story "All the King's Horses", 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.
  • 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.
  • 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'.
  • The Laundry Files: One of the short stories sends Bob to do an audit of a rest home for Laundry employees for whom the job has proven to be a bit much, and finds some of the more lucid residents sitting around a chessboard in the common room. They're not using it to play chess, nor are they actually insane, and what they're really up to has created yet another mess for Bob to clean up.
  • In the Mordant's Need novels checkers (this world doesn't have chess) is used to show the King's disconnect with reality. The kingdom falls apart while King Joyse obsesses over games with his mad adviser Adept Havelock, struggles to grasp his land's predicament with checkers analogies, and even goes out of his way to humiliate a powerful foreign prince for not knowing how to play the game. Somewhat subverted - Havelock is mad, but King Joyse is actually playing a part to try and identify the kingdom's enemies.
  • "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.
  • In The Queens Gambit, the main character is driven so mad by chess that she becomes a pill addict.
  • 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.
  • Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, features a chess-crazed Looking-Glass World. Wonderland, of course, is populated mostly by those who are as mad as hatters.
  • 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.
  • 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 The Wheel of Time, Moridin is notes to be a mater of his world's variation on chess. Hes also so off his rocker from use of The Dark Side that his fellow Forsaken admit hes completely insane.
  • Stacey Abrams's political thriller While Justice Sleeps opens with a Supreme Court justice losing his mind in public and ranting about certain chess moves. Then it turns out that his counterstrategy in the deadly game of politics he played was keyed to a specific chess strategy.
  • Zugzwang, by Ronan Bennett, features a chess master named Rozental who begins the story on the verge of a complete mental breakdown.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • Criminal Minds had Caleb Rossmore, a chess champion UnSub who copycatted the Zodiac killer.
  • Doctor Who:
    • Unsurprisingly, The Doctor plays a game called "Live Chess" with electrified chess pieces in "The Wedding of River Song". With voltage that climbs, sometimes up to over four million volts just to move a piece. Really crazy people play crazy chess.
    • The episode "Nightmare in Silver" has The Doctor playing chess against "Mr. Clever", a Cyber Planner using half the Doctor's own brain and driven to insane levels of Large Ham as he plays The Doctor for control of the rest of his brain.
  • Endgame is about a chess grandmaster who becomes a hikikomori and cannot leave his hotel due to paralyzing fear.
  • On Farscape when Crichton was seeing hallucinations of Scorpius actually a neural clone implanted in his head, mumbling to himself and shooting at things that weren't there, the two of them ended up playing chess.
  • 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.
  • Midsomer Murders: "The Sicilian Defence" revolves around a chess tournament and a computer chess game. As it takes place in Midsomer, needless to say there are more than a few unbalanced personalities involved. The killer leaves chess notations in the pockets of the victims.
  • Monk; "Mr. Monk and the Genius" had Monk butting heads with a chess Grandmaster/serial wife murderer.
  • New Tricks: In "The English Defence", UCOS investigates the cold murder of a freelance translator who was a chess master. When it starts to look like it may have been chess that got her killed, they start to look at her rivals. One was a physicist with a genius IQ who lost multiple games to her and became obsessed with defeating her. He finally defeated her in the last match she played before her murder. When the team reveal he cheated in this game, he suffers a complete breakdown.
  • The Queen's Gambit: downplayed, but Beth suffers from a combination of possible eridetary mental illness, and a traumatic childhood from growing up in an orphanage where she developed an addiction to tranquilizers. Other players she meets tend to be more on the Bunny-Ears Lawyer end of the spectrum, and historical examples of real Chess Grand Mastrs that went insane are discussed.
  • Windom Earle from Twin Peaks plays chess, when he isn't murdering people and stuffing them in paper-mache pawns.


    Tabletop Games 
  • In the first setting of the Vortex of Madness module of 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, which is also the Framing Device, the PCs come across a room with a giant mobile chess set and an unusually talkative iron golem, who refers to them as "Baron" and itself as "General". They'll likely assume they have to play chess with it, but if they do, the golem is unsatisfied with the result (even if it wins) and demands a rematch. Eventually, the players are going to lose patience and try fighting it (well, if they don't they'll be stuck playing chess forever) and if they do, it obliges, its chess pieces supporting it and the PC's pieces siding with them; if beaten, the golem finally yields to them before falling apart. (The point? The whole complex is an interpretation of the life of Baron Lum the Mad, who is being held prisoner by his terrible Machine, which is almost as insane. This particular room is the Machine's interpretation of the final battler between Lum and his traitorous General Leuk-O, which ended inconclusively.)
  • 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.

  • Freddie 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 Freddie 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.

    Video Games 
  • 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.
  • Herman "The Doctor" Carter of Dead by Daylight has many chess related add-ons, implying he was an avid chess player. He's also an unhinged lunatic, a mind-breaking torturer who flings electricity to drive survivors mad and was already completely amoral and out of his mind even before he was a killer.
  • The completely loony Queen from Headlander runs... she started with chess, but her Grid Clash is now just a chess-themed gladiatorial arena in which the patterns of fired lasers imitate the movements of the "firing" piece.
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has King Radovid V, an increasingly paranoid despot obsessed with chess and hunting sorceresses. Fittingly, the first place you meet him is at a chess club where he explains his passion for the game.

  • Billy Thatcher in morphE is a chess grandmaster who has some inspiration drawn from Bobby Fischer. His behavior is narcissistic, paranoid and obsessive. He is, however, brilliant.

    Western Animation 
  • Geri's Game: Geri is an eccentric old man who plays chess by himself.
  • 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...
    • He should have played Fred Fertig then...note 

    Real Life 
  • 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 (in spite of his Jewish ancestry) and 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. Various psychological profiles, including one by the KGB, concluded that Fischer was a certifiable psychopath.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • Retired Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov is a famous supporter of a pseudohistorical "theory" known as New Chronology, which basically explains that events attributed to civilizations of Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome are a forgery reflecting similar events from Middle Ages.
  • 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 Royal Asylum (the place that gave us the word "bedlam") once defeated a team from Cambridge University.
  • At the 1952 Chess Olympics in Helsinki a Swiss psychologist were allowed to examine a selection of the players. The results were not published, but a Danish player who managed to sneak a peek at the results claimed that just about every conceivable diagnosis were represented and that less than 10 percent of the players could be considered normal.
  • More generally, most psychiatric facilities will have a few chessboards in the common-room; they're cheap, the pieces are difficult to turn into weapons and large enough to be difficult to lose, and the rules are so well-known that it doesn't really matter if the instructions get lost. Patients who've been there for a while are liable to get quite a lot of practice simply because there's not a lot else to do.

It's easy to get obsessed with chess.
—Magnus Carlsen, highest rated chess player of all time