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Human Chess

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Storm: I propose a game of strategy.
Galactus: I accept.
Ant-Man: Aw, man. I know where this is going.
Storm: Knight Ant-Man, move to King's Bishop 4.
Ant-Man: I knew we were going to be used as pieces.
Marvel Adventures: Avengers #26

The favorite pastime of every Chessmaster and Evil Overlord. Chess played with actual people, sometimes to the death.

A subtrope of Variant Chess. Expect somebody to go into Evil Overlooker mode at least once.

For a higher scale of this trope, see Cosmic Chess Game.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In one episode of Knight Hunters, the villain/target of the episode is responsible for running what are referred to as "human chess games" for entertainment purposes. However, it isn't so much actual human chess as it is one-on-one combat on a chessboard-patterned floor.
  • Miyuki-chan in Wonderland has the Les Yay version of the Alice in Wonderland chess game where pieces are slapped (sometimes with a whip or riding crop) and lose their clothing, forcing them to flee from the game board naked.
  • Apos in Mnemosyne is frequently shown playing chess with rather... kinky pieces. It is later revealed that he wasn't so much playing, as tracking down the Immortals' movements throughout the series.
  • In No Game No Life, Sora and Chlammy serve as the Kings for their game, which functions like a real-time strategy game and the pieces attack each other. If a piece is too scared or unmotivated, it will not move. Sora uses a Rousing Speech and charisma to motivate his pieces and seduces Chlammy's Queen to get her to switch sides. Chlammy uses fear and intimidation to motivate her pieces and uses mind control to steal some of Sora's pieces. Eventually, one of Chlammy's pieces gets fed up with her and "assassinates" her.
  • Umineko: When They Cry has an incredibly elaborate version of human chess. The entirety of Rokkenjima on Oct 4-5, 1986 is the chess board, and the pieces include members of the Ushiromiya family and servants, and demons summoned straight from heaven and hell. The players exist in the meta-world and are witches and sorcerers. As to exactly who is what kind of piece, beyond piece Battler being white king, no one's really sure...
    • There are some theories. Maria is the Black King, and the third arc suggests Eva, and maybe the other siblings as well, are pawns.
    • The anime version even comes with a chess motif, and both the anime and visual novels are filled with chess references.

    Asian Animation 
  • Episode 9 of BoBoiBoy features a variation in the form of human checkers; the Sleep Monster challenges Papa Zola to a game of checkers with BoBoiBoy and his friends and enemies as the checker pieces, with everyone's freedom at stake. Humorously, Papa Zola doesn't know how to play checkers, and at first tries to use chess moves before the Sleep Monster teaches him how to play.

    Comic Books 
  • Attila Mon Amour has a renegade (sort of) Roman noblewoman playing Human Chess against Attila The Hun, using it as a metaphor to explain the strategy he should use against the Romans.
  • Countdown to Final Crisis shows Darkseid looming over a chessboard with pieces of the heroes, for reasons that are never fully explained.
  • Iznogoud: In "The Giants' Island", Iznogoud hears the title place is inhabited by two man-eating giants. He tricks the Caliph into coming with him to the island, and they find out that the giants are vegetarians. Then Iznogoud asks the giants what they did to the thirty sailors of the man who told him about the island. The giants reply that with Iznogoud, Wa'at Alahf, and the Caliph's arrival, their set is complete, although they have one extra, so the Caliph is sent home as Iznogoud, Wa'at, and the thirty sailors are put to work as a living chess set. Later in Iznogoud's Returns, Iznogoud provokes a fight between the giants by cheating, only for it to backfire when they decide to play human checkers instead.
  • Alan Moore's Lost Girls retains the chess game from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, only in this version, once a player has taken a piece, they have sex with them.
  • Used in a Marvel Adventures issue. The chessboard is presumably gigantic to accommodate Galactus, who plays against the Avengers with his Herald Silver Surfer as King. After this ends in stalemate, they play baseball... in a human-scaled stadium... but it's okay, Rule of Fun fully applies. After that failed they try Texas Hold 'Em and then end up in an Infinite-Star Restaurant.
  • A variation appears on a recent cover of New Mutants with Cyclops looming over the chessboard.
  • An older comic involved a witch capturing a mermaid's friends and family, turning them into statues, making those statues chess pieces, and then challenging the protagonist to a game chess with the pieces. Unlike a lot of examples, it showed that the pieces were very heavy.
  • In Prince Valiant, the usual deathtrap is foiled by the (nearly as) usual stalemate defense (= nobody wins, i.e. nobody dies).
  • A non-villainous version appears as a one-page gag in The Smurfs comic book story "Smurfery".

    Films — Animated 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Born American (1986). The crazier inmates of the Russian jail regularly have games of chess like this, where jumped pieces get killed. One of the main characters becomes part of it after severe Sanity Slippage.
  • In Dolittle the good doctor and Chee-Chee try to play chess using mice as the pieces, keyword: try.
  • In the Mel Brooks movie History of the World Part I, Louis XVI of France is shown playing this, although it rapidly degenerates into an orgy.
    "Knight jumps queen! Bishop jumps queen! Pawns jump queen! Gangbang!"
  • The Magic Blade has one of its action scenes on a gigantic Chinese Chess board in in the main villain's mansion. The rooks even have projectile launchers.
  • In Man of La Mancha, Cervantes sets this up in the prison, but it is a storytelling device rather than an actual chess game.
  • The Queen and a rich baron play this in Mirror, Mirror. There were different pieces like ships, and the pieces attacked each other.
  • In Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, Holmes sets up a human chess game to decipher a clue.
  • The Three Musketeers (1973) had animal wearing costumes as pieces.

  • All the King's Horses by Kurt Vonnegut. Also adapted for TV in a SF anthology series with a twist that made the villain more sympathetic. He didn't really execute the lost pieces, just pretended to to make a point. The Sadistic Choice he faced still cost the hero his family.
  • Adam Wiśniewski-Snerg's short story "Anioł Przemocy" ("Angel of Death") involves a woman forced to take part in one of these. It's a game played by two computers where the pieces are mind-controlled humans that kill each other. (It turns out to be a virtual reality simulation, though.)
  • Billy and the Bubbleship had a regular chessboard - with frozen people mirroring the actions on the larger board. As lost pieces (for one side) are used as food for the monster, Billy wanted to complete the game without losing any pieces, and figured the Queen of Mordra played against an opponent who just let her win. The solution was the four-move scholar's mate.
  • Carrion Comfort, by Dan Simmons. The mind vampires (pretty much in name only, they are simply people who can control minds) in the novel are seen doing this on several occasions. In the first instance, holocaust victims are used as pieces (to the death, naturally). The plot of novel runs like this as well, as the two puppet master villains play a game corresponding to the events of the plot. The book is even divided into "beginnings" "middle game" and "end game".
  • The second Gentleman Bastard novel Red Seas Under Red Skies featured a cartoonishly evil scene, with nobles playing a Variant Chess with people. The catch was that whenever a player lost a piece, the opposing player could inflict ANY punishment besides death on the piece.
  • The first Harry Potter book uses something like this, where Harry and friends direct the pieces and it's not clear while they're playing what happens if the pieces they control lose.
    • In the book, the "eaten" pieces (and Ron) were dragged off of the board, unconscious. In the movie they were destroyed, though they had the decency to aim at Ron's horse rather than Ron's body. The ones left simply left the board after the game was over.
    • There's a less horrifying variant where normal-sized chess pieces are animated and able to talk... and very outspoken on what they deem to be boneheaded moves, suggesting moving other pieces instead.
  • The Emperor of the Agatean Empire in Interesting Times prefers to play with living pieces. It's not shown but his insanity and screams heard from a distance indicate it's not pretty.
  • The John Carter of Mars novel Chessmen of Mars uses the to-the-death variant, where "chess" games are a form of gladiatorial combat.
  • The Lords of Creation: In the Courts of the Crimson Kings features Adventurer Archaeologist and his Love Interest being forced to participate in a lethal game of atanj with each on opposing sides (the book is a homage to the John Carter novels).
  • Played seriously in the Lymond Chronicles novel Pawn in Frankincense where the hero is forced to play such a game with both his friends and enemies being pieces.
  • A variant of this is seen in the children's book Soonie and the Dragon, a collection of Irish folk tales. The heroine Soonie, in one of her adventures, is captured by the King of the Fairies, who wishes to marry her. She refuses, so he offers to let her go free if she can beat him in chess. Day after day she loses, and can't quite figure out why... until she accidentally discovers that the pieces are actually live pixies and they've been cheating on the king's behalf.
  • The Squares of the City by John Brunner. Here the "moves" are political maneuvers, but a real person is assigned to each piece.
  • The Star Trek novel The Final Reflection, by John M. Ford, starts with Klingon children preparing to take part in live klin zha. And since we're talking Klingons, you've already guessed that this is a gladiatorial version.
  • Most of the plot in Through the Looking Glass, but probably better known for being in Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland film.
  • In the first novel of the surreal action-adventure series TNT, The Pornomancer hero has to play against Mad Scientist Piran as described in this blog.
    Six games on an giant board filled with colored lights. On the other side are forty nude women, all either violently psychotic or mentally retarded, each in a separate cage. Whenever Twin loses a game or is forced to crown Piran (who is playing electronically from a hidden location), one cage opens, and Twin has only a few minutes to bring her to orgasm or else he dies. Twin loses every game against the genius Piran, but since he manages to successfully screw all of the women into normalcy, he is allowed to live and face his opponent.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Community: In the episode "Curriculum Unavailable", during a montage of eccentric goings-on at Greendale, we see a game of human chess against City College.
    Britta: Dean! This is not the way to agree on parking for the job fair. It's inhumane!
    Dean Pelton: Do you have a better idea, Britta?
    Britta: Yes, thousands of them!
    Dean Pelton: Vicki to Queen Three.
    Vicki: Neigh!
  • Glee: In the "100" episode, Brittany, of all people, uses the chess club in costumes to recreate famous games.
  • The Land of the Giants episode "Deadly Pawn". The castaways are forced to play the pieces in a game of chess for their lives.
  • A fourth season episode of Lexx involved a human chess match between Kai and Prince.
  • Happens in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode "The Alexander the Greater Affair, Part 1"; Alexander's staff are the pieces, and he and Napoleon Solo call the shots. Alexander is embarrassed when Napoleon checkmates him.
  • The Prisoner (1967), in the episode "Checkmate". Unlike other examples of this trope the players are volunteers, but one of them is taken to the hospital for 'treatment' when he makes a move on his own initiative. Also, both sides are dressed identically.
    Number 6: Who's he?
    Woman: He's the champion.
    Number 6: Who was he?
    Woman: Hard to say. I've heard rumors.
    Number 6: Such as?
    Woman: That he's an ex-count. They say that his ancestors used to play using their retainers as chess pieces. They say they were beheaded as they were wiped from the board. Oh, don't worry; it's not allowed here.
  • True Jackson, where Max challenges his fashion rival to a game.
  • Invoked in Twin Peaks with Windom Earl playing a standard chess game against Dale Cooper with a secret assist from Pete Martel, but killing a person for each piece removed from play (in one instance encasing them in a giant chess piece).
  • In the short-lived Weird Loners Eric is a member of a human chess league, which features in the plot of one episode.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Judges Guild Revised Guide to the City State. In the Bloody Tusk Banquet Hall the PCs can hear a rumor about Bandares the Thinker, a sorcerer who plays chess with real fighters.

    Video Games 
  • Archon was a fantasy version of this, with pieces like dragons, genies, goblins, and knights, who fought over the squares.
  • On one level of Durlag's tower in the Baldur's Gate expansion Tales of the Sword Coast you end up on a large chess board with a full set of hostile chess pieces bearing down on you. Since The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard, they all move at once. Although they adhere to some appropriate rules; any pawns that manage to cross the board without getting killed (and the pieces are tough) will turn into queens... with spellcasting ability.
    • The computer even cheats double: the other pieces scurry about like crazy, but if your characters don't stick to the appropriate movement (and there's no reminder of who's 'playing' what piece) they get zapped by columns of fire from the ceiling. Most strategy guides recommend just staying put and opening up with Fireballs, Potions of Explosion, and Arrows of Detonation to clear out as much of the enemy forces as possible and badly injure the rest.
  • The old Battle Chess computer game is a comedic version of this, with animated scenes when one piece takes another: the elderly king pulls out a gun and shoots the bishop, the rook turns into a stone-golem and eats the queen, and so on.
  • Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening has you fighting an entire demonic chessboard set in Mission 18. Each life-sized Damned Chessmen piece behaves in ways appropriate to their real-game counterparts.
    • The Pawns take small steps (though they can change direction) and attack not only to the front, but to the back diagonally (as a reference to how a pawn attacks diagonally and the move "en passant." They can also be promoted.
    • Knights can jump over the pieces and attack by landing on Dante (other pieces will try and fail to move through other pieces).
    • The King can only attack in his immediate area, and killing him destroys every other piece on the board, but if he's attacked while the Rooks are alive, he'll switch places with them when hit, as a nod to castling.
    • The Queen can move diagonally and horizontally the full length of the board (though, ironically, this, along with the cackle she makes when she moves, allows her to be the most easily avoidable).
    • Rooks and Bishops also only move and attack along their normal counterparts' paths.
  • Eternal Evil has one giant chessboard in one of the rooms, albeit a 4 X 8 version with only 1 knight, 1 bishop, and 4 pawns alongside the king and queen. You'll need to checkmate at least one side to unlock a hidden key for you to proceed.
  • Really, this is what the entire Fire Emblem series may look like from an outsider’s perspective. The player takes control of several characters and takes turns moving them across a “board.” There are a certain amount of spaces that each character can move and they each do different amounts of damage depending on the unit of the player and their opponent. Usually, there are even leaders who act as the “king,” since if they get defeated, the entire team instantly loses. A lot of the time, if a character, good or bad, loses their HP, they permanently die.
  • Kabuki Z have a baffling stage where in the middle of fighting undead samurai in Feudal Japan, you're suddenly transported into a stage resembling a Westernized Chessboard. And the pieces are alive, attacking you on sight while moving in a manner reminiscent of actual chess moves (e.g. bishops slides diagonally, rooks comes at you in a straight line, knights moves on their elevation before moving one step upwards or downwards to ambush you).
  • Mortal Kombat: Deception has a chess mode where even if you get "captured", you can fight back to the death.
  • One battle in the Sega Genesis RPG Shining Force II takes place on a chess board against chess pieces, though it's rather unconventional because the pieces can move however they like and are quite hard to defeat. It's one of the hardest battles in the game.
  • The action/chess hybrid Through the Looking Glass pits Alice against a set of life-size chess pieces. Each side is confined to legal chess moves (with Alice given the choice of which piece to play as), but can make them continuously, without waiting for the other side's turn.
  • Warcraft:
    • One of the custom maps that came with Warcraft II was laid out like a chess board, with one unit on each square. Nothing actually obligated the units to follow the rules of chess, since the Map Editor had no ability to define custom rules in this way, but you could play it PVP with someone who agreed to.
    • A popular Warcraft III custom campaign had a chess piece encounter within Karazhan, where you were required to keep the two sides as equal as possible so that when one side won and attacked you, you'd have as little fighting as possible to do.
    • You fight a Puzzle Boss (possibly based on the above WC3 custom campaign) in Karazhan in World of Warcraft by controlling the chess pieces. And your opponent cheats, though very badly, it should be noted. He'll frequently set fire to squares occupied by his own pieces.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY: In "Rude, Red, and Royal", Ruby Rose has to play the spoiled, petulant Red Prince in a game of chess. The pieces fight each other to be taken. The Red Prince blatantly cheats because his pieces are brand new and strong and Ruby's pieces are old and weak, plus he keeps intimidating Ruby's pieces to take a dive. When the game started, three of Ruby's pieces were missing, so the Red Prince shrinks Weiss, Blake, and Yang to serve as replacements. This backfires because those three are strong and able to beat up the Red Prince's pieces, motivating Ruby's other pieces into fighting back. Thanks to this, Ruby is able to win despite being unfamiliar with chess, but the Red Prince throws a tantrum, accuses them of cheating, and orders them executed, forcing them to fight their way out.

  • In Clockwork Atrium, the school organizes a yearly game of human chess with selected students deemed to need the challenge. No need to worry, however. Only 2 out of 10 of the deaths are intentional.
  • Homestuck has an entire PLANET of chess people fighting a never-ending war.
  • In one Spiky-Haired Dragon, Worthless Knight, the titular knight saw an ad for "knight". He answered it, but found out that it involved being the chess piece. He took the job anyway, as he really needed money.

    Western Animation 
  • Amphibia: In "The First Temple", the final puzzle of said temple is a game of Amphibia's version of Chess called "Flipwart" that Marcy knows how to play, but it also includes a life-size counterpart that Polly, Hop Pop, Sprig, and Anne end up being forced into, where the pieces can physically hit each other (which puts them at risk of being hurt), Anne ends up on the opposing side, and the game eventually starts cheating. It turns out to be a Secret Test of Character; Marcy ends up throwing the game to save the Plantars, which is exactly what she needed to do to complete the puzzle.
  • Johnny Test: This concept is the main plot point in the episode "King Johnny". Bored with playing chess, Johnny convinces his genius twin sisters to bring the chess pieces to life in human form. They play with the real chess pieces on a life-sized board in the backyard of their house. At first, Johnny enjoys the new game. Unfortunately, he loses his sanity and starts acting like a real king. To make matters worse, he rampages through Porkbelly with his live chess pieces.
  • Near the end of the Phineas and Ferb episode "It's About Time!", Dr. Doofenshmirtz reveals that him getting Perry the Platypus and the rest of OWCA's agents on a talk show was an elaborate plan to freeze them in suspended animation and use them for a giant chessboard.
  • One episode of The Simpsons has a gag where Mr. Burns goes away and part of his human chessboard escapes... and then the opposing pieces beat up the now-unguarded king.
  • The Smurfs (1981) episode "The Grouchiest Game In Town", which had a villain named the Game Master who forced people to do this in a game similar to chess. Losing meant being turned into a piece for his ever-growing collection. Fortunately, he had a rule "wizard takes all" which Grouchy took advantage of when he used Papa Smurf (who is both a Smurf and a wizard) to remove all his opponent's pieces from the board, thus freeing all the people who became game pieces.
  • In the Teen Titans Go! episode "Crazy Day", Raven plays chess, with the white pieces looking like Cyborg and Beast Boy. She defeats them incredibly easily, by tricking the Beast Boy pieces into knocking down the Cyborg King.
  • In an episode of ThunderCats (1985), Snarf is taken hostage by a race of tiny people. To pass the time, Snarf and the people's leader play chess with tiny people as the pieces.
  • In Visionaries Knights Of The Magical Light, the series Evil Overlord Darkstorm plays with on an oversized board with actual humans. When "captured", the person is dunked by trapdoor into the moat. (This becomes an escape route later on.)
  • In Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?, Carmen Sandiego challenges the two detectives to a game of Human Chess in which she's the black king, and the detectives are the white king and white queen. (The other pieces are priceless artifacts that she stole during the episode.) She promises to turn herself in if they checkmate her. Zack takes her up on it, but Ivy only plays along until she's in a position to take a more direct approach.

    Real Life 
  • Xiangqi (Chinese chess) is often played like this at folk festivals in Vietnam.
  • Often a (pre-choreographed) feature at Renaissance Faires. Stage combat usually determines the outcome of each match; it's not unusual for the entire thing to devolve into a grand melee.
  • Occasionally public parks will have chessboards drawn into the ground for this purpose; usually not the fatal version, though.
  • A typical feature at anime conventions is "cosplay chess," in which cosplayers become chess pieces on the board and act out fight scenes when one piece has to take another.
  • Ningen Shogi, played every spring in Tendo City, Japan.
  • This event in Marostica, Italy.
  • A real, and absolutely horrible example of this trope: In Singapore's St. John's Island, there is an old internment camp formerly used by the Japanese during World War II, containing a life-sized chessboard in its landing area where higher-ups of the Japanese army will use captured POWs as chess pieces, having the "captured" or "defeated" pieces executed on the spot. After the war the camp was abandoned before being restored as a tourist attraction, but the chessboard remains and is allegedly haunted due to its awful past.


Video Example(s):



During a game of human chess in The Village, one rook steps out of line and makes a move on his own initiative...and is promptly ejected.

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