Playing Chess With Death

Version 1.2.6 of 29/8/2020-10:22 p.m.

"There are two kinds of chess players: Those who know what might happen to them if they lose and those who don't"
--- Fischer's Law of Chess Champions[1] (from New Murphy's Laws & Meta-Laws)

chessboard for chess with death
POVRay rendering of Chess board and pieces, consisting solely of glass and steel, using pieces designed by Mike Kost.

When I was a teenager, I asked my father why chess is not an Olympic game. His response was brief and to the point: "Chess is not a noble sport. When you play chess, your object is to crush the opponent's mind. In today's world a man's mind is his most precious commodity. Proving to your opponent that his most precious commodity is useless can be devastating to him.".

Chess is the most complex game in the world. You are either good at it, or bad at it. There's no in-between ground. Chess has claimed the most severe casualties than any other game. People have abandoned family, studies, careers and other hobbies because of it.

You can be number one in any other endeavor, you can be a top mathematician, doctor, engineer or physicist, yet losing a game of chess to another player is always very annoying and severely disturbing. The reason for the latter is exactly the explanation given by my father: A chess win or loss "orders" one's intelligence relative to that of the opponent.

What makes the above worse, is that chess is Death's favorite game, so when you play often with other humans, you can never be sure who you are playing against.

Before my father died, me and him used to meet at a coffee-house in central Athens, where many players congregated. This coffee-place attracted all sorts of players, from national champions, who tired of the check-mate blows were playing card-games, to occasional money-scavengers, who played a game for a buck, to elderly retirees, who played from morning to night, having nothing better to do. The place is so famous that Karpov himself had come to the coffee-place and played some simultaneous games against some of the locals. The coffee-shop owner has his photograph proudly displayed against the wall.

Back then I was too young to know the meaning of "danger", so I remember one day engaging an old man. The old man was in his mid eighties. He was tall, approximately 1.80 m, with white hair, wore a black suit and tie and was shaking and twitching all over. He couldn't stand still. Everything, from his false teeth to his crossed legs and cane was in constant parkinsonian motion. He was moving the pieces with his left hand and with his right hand he held his cane, shaking it back and forth as in a display of vigor and hidden strength. He looked like an automaton-puppet ready to completely disassemble after a hard blow.

Playing rules in a coffee-shop are never as strict as in clubs, so I remember that when we began, he sort of apologized to me immediately: "I am not afraid of anything. I've been to wars with bullets flying around me, I lost all my money many times and I have nothing to lose anymore", as if trying to justify somehow his subsequent desire to devour my young mind. Of course the previous was not really an apology perse, rather a covert attempt to instill fear in my my young mind. This, I realized much later.

The opening was good. I didn't lose any pieces against his Sicilian Accelerated Dragons black defense. His average response time was around half a minute, whereas I was huffing and puffing at around one move per minute. By the time of the middle game, several coffee-shop players had congregated around us, quietly, watching the moves.

The old man seemed to be twitching and moving more as the game progressed. He was moving his cane back and forth as if trying to balance his mind and game and he was chewing on his false teeth with excess delight and pleasure.

Then, he blundered. A queen/king fork with my knight and he lost his queen. With great relief I asked him if he wanted to resign. He moved again his cane and he repeated what he told me in his apology: "I am not afraid of anything. I've been to wars with bullets flying around me, I lost all my money many times and I have nothing to lose anymore. Play..."

OK. How hard could it be to win? I had his queen after all. A huge difference. The strategy now was clear: Exchange everything and be left with the difference, so rejuvenated I continued.

The old man tried all the tricks he knew in his book. Some really amazing tricks. He managed to almost regain the difference and after almost two hours, the difference was reduced to a single pawn. My pawn. At that time, I had lost so much energy that I prayed the game would end quickly, because it seemed as though the old man was sucking my soul out.

In one last effort to regain my strength, I took the opposition and promoted the pawn. The old man stopped only after I directly check-mated him with the newly promoted pawn-queen in the last row.

The crowd of watchers silently dispersed. It was late and I needed to head back home. I didn't realize there was a problem until I stood up. I could not walk straight. I quickly lost my balance and grabbed a chair to support myself. With some more effort I exited the coffee-shop and took a minute to take a breath.

The breeze was cool and the summer night delightful. As I watched the orange-gold light of the high pressure sodium street lights at the center of Athens, I felt the entire world spinning around me, as if I had just stepped out of a roller-coaster.

Severe nausea and an indescribable disorientation were in my mind. It was as if the old man grabbed a piece of my soul, chewed on it and then digested it for his soul's rejuvenation. As a result, my soul reserves were as low as down to 15-20%. It was as if I had not slept for a week. I took another deep breath and headed for the bus station, watching carefully my every step.

As I was heading back home in the bus, I contemplated what this man could have done to me had I lost. He could probably have killed me ruthlessly and mercilessly with the entire audience watching.

The soul depletion that I felt after this one game was so great that for all practical purposes, this resembled a game of chess with Death himself[2]. And that, after winning. Go figure.

Be careful who you play chess with. You never know who they might turn out to be. On the other hand, it doesn't hurt to be ready. You never know when Death will approach you, so when your time comes, you may be able to stall him a bit for time by playing a respectable game.

playing chess with death
(Source unknown[3])


  1. In honor of Bobby Fischer.
  2. First documented case of death by chess?.
  3. Photoshop job which merges an old photo of mine with a static chess smoking scene background produced by an artist long time ago. If you are the owner of this background, please email me so I can give you appropriate credit (or remove it as per your request). See my Copyright & Disclaimer.

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