Deaths of Chess Players
In 1485, Pedro Arbues (1441-1485), Dominican member of the Inquisition, ordered victims of persecutions to stand in as figures in a game of living chess. The game was played by two blind monks. Each time the captured piece was taken, the person representing that piece was put to death.
On March 18, 1584 (old style), Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584) died of a stroke while playing chess against his adviser, Bogdan Belsky.
In 1598, Paolo Boi (1528-1598), one of the leading chess players of the 16th century died in Naples. Historian H.J.R. Murray says he was poisoned in by jealous rivals. Other sources say he caught a cold when hunting and died as a result of it.
On May 18, 1853, Lionel Kieseritzky (1806-1853), died penniless at a charity hospital (La Charite) for the insane in Paris and was buried in a pauper’s grave. Only one person came to his funeral, a waiter at the Café de la Régence. The location of his exact plot has not been found.
On January 3, 1866, William Henry Russ (1833-1866) one of America’s leading compiler of chess problems, died in a hospital after trying to commit suicide. He adopted an 11-year old girl and proposed to her when she was 21. When he rejected him, he shot her four times in the head. He left her for dead (she survived), then tried to commit suicide by jumping into the river to drown himself. However, the tide was out and the water was not deep enough. He climbed out of the river and shot himself in the head. He died 10 days later in a hospital, lacking a will to live.
On October 25, 1872, Pierre Saint-Amant (1800-1872), a leading French chess master, died after being thrown from his carriage at his chateau near Algiers, Algeria.
On June 22, 1874, Howard Staunton (1810-1874) died of a heart attack at his home in London while working on his last chess book, Chess: Theory and Practice, which was published in 1876. His grave had been unmarked and neglected until 1997. Then, a memorial stone bearing an engraving of a chess knight was raised over his grave.
On August 20, 1874, Thomas Wilson Barnes (1825-1874) died after going on a diet and losing 130 pounds in 10 months (he originally weighed 220 pounds). No one really knows the cause of death and some suspected stomach cancer. He was one of the strongest English chess players in the 1850s. He scored more wins than anyone else against Paul Morphy, defeating him 8 times. Morphy considered him the strongest player he had ever encountered.
On July 10, 1884, Paul Morphy (1837-1884) died of a stroke while taking a cold bath at his home in New Orleans. He had taken a long walk during the afternoon and returned for a bath. He remained so long in the bathroom that his mother grew alarmed and went up, to find him dead in the bath. The cause was congestion of the brain following the shock of cold water to an overheated body. The funeral took place very quietly the next day. Only some relatives and a few friends were present.
On June 20, 1888, Johann Zukertort (1842-1888) died of a stroke while playing chess at Simpson’s, a London coffee-house. While playing a chess game with Sylvain Meyer, Zukertort fainted. Instead of calling for medical help, he was taken to the British Chess Club in an unconscious state. They then took him to Charing Cross Hospital where they diagnosed the problem as a cerebral attack. He never regained consciousness, and died at 10 a.m. the next day. The cause of death was cerebral hemorrhage. At the time, Zukertort was also in the middle of a tournament at the British Chess Club and was in 1st place. He was scheduled to play a match with Blackburne on June 23, 1888 and Bird on June 26, 1888.
Baron Ignatz von Kolisch (1837-1889), age 52, died of kidney on April 30, 1889, yet his obituary does not even mention chess, even though he was one of the top players in the world. From July 1867 to November 1868, he was ranked as the number one chess player in the world.
On April 14, 1891, George Mackenzie (1837-1891) was found dead at a hotel in New York. A hotel worker called at his room and found him dead in bed. He had terminal tuberculosis before his death. The day before, he visited the Manhattan Chess Club and was arranging to challenge the winner of the forthcoming match between Blackburne and Gunsberg. William Steinitz reported that his death was from an intentional overdose of morphine. This rumor was started by a doctor who refused to sign a certificate for an insurance policy because the doctor had not been paid a fee.
On August 12, 1900, former world champion William Steinitz died in the Manhattan State Hospital on Ward’s Island. For months, he had been confined there, diagnosed as insane. He was committed by his wife.
On May 15, 1901, Johannes von Minckwitz (1843-1901) committed suicide by stepping in front of an electric car near Biebrich, Germany. He lost both arms and died May 20, 1901.
On June 17, 1906, Henry Pillsbury died of syphilis, which he caught from a prostitute in Saint Petersburg about 10 years before his death. In March, 1905, he tried to jump out a 4th story window at the Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia. He was stopped by several nurses and doctors. He died at Friends Asylum in Frankford, Pennsylvania. His obituary in the New York Times stated that he died from an “illness contracted through overexertion of his memory cells.”
In August, 1909, chess master Rudolf Swiderski, age 31, committed suicide in Leipzig. He took some poison, and then shot himself in the head with his revolver. He had recently been convicted of perjury in connection with a love affair and he was to face legal proceedings.
On September 11, 1913, Dr. Julius Perlis (1880-1913), died in a mountain climb in the Alps. During a pleasure trip, he went astray and spent the night on a mountain. He died of extreme exposure to low temperatures during a climb in the Austrian Inntaler Alps (Hochtor-Ostgrat). He froze to death.
On December 27, 1918, Carl Schlechter (1874-1918) died from pneumonia and starvation in Budapest, Hungary, during the war-imposed famine in Central Europe. He never mentioned to any of his acquaintances that he needed food or money. He was found in a room without any money, heat or food. He was buried in Budapest on December 31, 1918.
On January 31, 1924, Curt von Bardeleben (1861-1924) threw himself out of the second floor window of his boarding home in Berlin. He was living in extreme poverty at the time.
In May, 1931, Andors Wachs of Hungary had just checkmated his opponent at a chess club in Hungary. He then dropped his head on the table and died of a heart attack.
On April 20, 1932, Edgar Colle (1897-1932) died in Gand, Belgium, after an operation for a gastric ulcer. He survived three operations for a gastric ulcer, but died after a 4th operation.
On November 11, 1932, Frederik Yates (1884-1932) died in his sleep at his home in London from a gas leak due to a faulty gas pipe connection. It was not suicide. A gas company official proved that no gas tap was turned on. It was ruled an accidental death. He was buried at Leeds on November 16, 1932.
On December 14, 1934, Paul Leonhardt (1877-1934) died of a heart attack while playing chess at a chess club.
In 1935, Mrs. R.H. Stevenson, one of the top women chess players in the world, was killed after she walked into the propeller of the plane she had been flying on. She was on her way to Warsaw to take part in the Women’s World Chess Championship when the plane made a refueling stop at Poznan. She left the plane to have her passport inspected. On returning to the plane, she stepped in front of the plane and the rotating propeller hit her.
On July 29, 1938, Nikolai Krylenko (1885-1938), who headed the Soviet chess association, was executed in Stalin’s purges. His trial lasted 20 minutes, he was then found guilty and immediately shot.
On February 17, 1940, former New England chess champion Harold Morton (1906-1940), died in a car crash in Iowa when he hit a truck. His passenger, chess master I.A. Horowitz, survived. The two were giving simultaneous chess exhibitions throughout the country.
In April 1940, David Przepiorka (1880-1940) died in a mass execution outside Warsaw. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, he was present at a forbidden meeting of the Warsaw Chess Circle. The Gestapo arrested everyone there. Most of the players, including Przepiorka, were taken to Palmiry, Poland, and killed by the Germans in a mass execution. Over 2,000 men and women were executed there by the Nazis.
On September 3, 1941, Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky (1894-1941) died during the siege of Leningrad by the Germans. He was on a barge on Lake Ladoga, east of Leningrad, trying to escape the city, when a German aircraft bombed the barge. He was the only one killed on the barge, which was displaying Red Cross flags.
On October 2, 1941, Karel Treybal was charged will illegal possession of a firearm (a pistol) by the Nazis and condemned to death. He was executed the same day in Prague.
On March 7, 1942, Sergey Belavenets, former Moscow chess champion, died in combat in Novgorod, Russia.
On March 8, 1942, Jose Capablanca (1888-1942), died after watching a skittles game at the Manhattan Chess Club. The cause of death was given as “a cerebral hemorrhage provoked by hypertension.” He died at Mount Sinai Hospital, the same hospital that Emanuel Lasker died a year earlier. Capablanca’s body was given a public funeral in Havana on March 15, 1942.
On April 18 1942, Karl Leonid Kubbel (1891-1942), a chess problemist, died during the siege of Leningrad.
In August, 1942, Alexey Troitzky (1866-1942) died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad.
In 1942 Ilya Rabinovich (1891-1942) was evacuated from Leningrad, but died of malnutrition in a hospital in Perm, Russia.
On August 26, 1943, Vladimir Petrov died in a prison camp in Russia. He was sentenced to 10 years in a corrective labor camp (Gulag) for criticizing decreased living standards in Latvia since the Soviet annexation of 1940. He died at Kotlas from an inflammation of the lungs.
In 1944, Salo Landau (1903-1944) was gassed by the Nazis in a German concentration camp in Poland. He was sent to a forced labor camp in Graditz, Poland and died sometime between October 1943 and March 1944. His wife and daughter were sent to Auschwitz, where they were gassed and died in 1944 in an Auschwitz gas chamber.
On June 26, 1944, world woman chess champion Vera Menchik-Stevenson (1906-1944) died in a German bombing of London. She died along with her sister, her sister’s husband, and her mother. She died in Kent after a German V-1 rocket hit her home (the bomb shelter in the garden remained intact). Her sister, Olga Menchik-Rubery, was world woman chess challenger in 1935 and 1937. At the time of her death, Vera was serving on the editorial staff of Chess magazine as games editor.
On November 9, 1944, Frank Marshall (1877-1944) was returning home from Jersey City, New Jersey where he had gone for an evening of bingo. He collapsed on Van Vorst Street and died.
On December 20, 1944, George Sturgis (1891-1944), president of the US Chess Federation, died of a heart attack in Boston after returning from his honeymoon.
On April 17, 1945, Klaus Junge (1924-1945), a German officer, was killed in action at Welle, Germany. As a lieutenant, he refused to surrender and was killed by Allied troops in the battle of Welle on the Luneburg Heath, close to Hamburg, three weeks before World War II ended. (George Koltanowski claimed that Junge was stabbed to death in a chess club fight.)
On March 24, 1946, Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946) choked to death on a piece of meat (see picture). He was found dead in his hotel room in Estoril, Portugal on the morning of March 24. The date on his grave notes that he died on March 25, 1946. The cause of death has been attributed either by his choking on a piece of meat or by a heart attack. His body was found by a waiter when he brought in breakfast. Conspiracy theories have led that Alekhine either killed himself or was murdered.
On March 11, 1952, Jan Foltys (1908-1952) died of leukemia. In 1951, he qualified for the Interzonal tournament in Saltsjobaden, Sweden, but died before it took place.
On June 18, 1952, Efim Bogoljubov (1889-1952) suffered a heart attack after concluding a simultaneous chess exhibition in Triberg, Germany.
In 1952, Juan Quesada, Cuban chess champion, died of a heart attack during an international tournament in Havana.
On November 25, 1955, Herman Steiner died of a heart attack after a California State Championship game in Los Angeles. He was defending his state championship title and finished his 5th round game (a 62-move draw against William Addison). He then said he felt unwell, so his afternoon game was postponed. About two hours later, around 9:30 pm, Steiner had a heart attack while being attended by a physician. By agreement of the players, the 1955 California State Championship tournament was cancelled.
In 1959, a Soviet scientist killed another Soviet scientist at a Soviet research station in Vostok, Antarctica after a chess game argument. The losing player got so mad that he killed his opponent with an axe. After the incident, the Soviets banned chess at their Antarctic stations.
In 1960, an American sailor got into a fight with in a Greenwich Village bar when a spectator criticized the sailor’s chess game. The sailor struck the spectator with a broke beer bottle, which cut his jugular vein. The sailor was eventually acquitted of murder and charged with accidental death instead.
On October 25, 1962, Abe Turner, an American chess master, was stabbed 9 times in the back by a fellow employee, Theodore Smith, at the Chess Review office. His body was placed in a safe and found by the superintendent of the building later that afternoon.
On November 3, 1963, Boris Kostic (1887-1963) died of blood poisoning from a scratch in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
In 1964, Raymond Weinstein, a chess master, killed an 83-year old man in a nursing home. He was judged mentally ill and confined to Ward’s Island for the mentally ill.
On July 31, 1965, E. Forry Laucks (1897-1965), founder of the Log Cabin Chess Club, collapsed of a heart attack and died after the 6th round of the U.S. Open in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
On May 26, 1967, Gideon Stahlberg (1908-1967) died of a heart attack during the 1967 Leningrad International chess tournament.
On September 25, 1968, Russian grandmaster Vladimir Simagin (1919-1968) died of a heart attack while playing in a chess tournament in Kislovodsk, Russia.
In 1970, Charles Khachiyan, President of the New Jersey Chess Association, died of a heart attack while playing chess at the Montclair Chess Club in New Jersey.
On October 31, 1971, Alexander Zaitsev died of thrombosis (blood clot) as a consequence of a leg operation to have one of his legs lengthened.
On October 4, 1972, USCF business manager Kenneth Harkness (1898-1972) died of a heart attack on a train in Yugoslavia on his way to a FIDE meeting in Skopje, Yugoslavia, where the chess Olympiad was to take place.
On June 5, 1975, Paul Keres (1916-1975) died of a heart attack in Helsinki, Finland, while returning home to Estonia from the World Class Championship in Vancouver, B.C. He had just won the event.
On July 24, 1975, Nicholas Rossolimo (1910-1975) fell from a flight of stairs in Greenwich Village, New York and died of his head injuries. He had been giving chess lessons late at night.
In 1979, Patrick McKenna, a prisoner in Nevada, strangled his Las Vegas cellmate, Jack J. Robles, after an argument over a chess game. At age 63, he has been on death row for over 30 years. He was denied the latest in a long line of appeals.
On November 6, 1979, Cecil Purdy (1906-1979) died of a heart attack while playing chess in the Sydney, Australia chess championship. His opponent was Ian Parsonage. His last words were, “I have a win, but it will take some time.”
On October 21, 1982, Ed Edmondson (1920-1982) died of a heart attack while playing chess on a beach in Honolulu, Hawaii.
On December 9, 1983, Janos Flesch (1933-1983) died in a car wreck in Whitstable, England. He was returning from the Kasparov-Korchnoi match in London to a tournament in Ramsgate when he became involved in a car accident. He and his wife died in the crash.
In 1986, Grandmaster Georgy Agzamov (1954-1986) fell between some rocks at a beach and died. He had just finished a chess tournament in Sevastopol and was taking a shortcut to go swimming. He fell off a cliff and got stuck between two rocks. Several people heard him yell for help, but he was too deep down in the rocks and died before a rescue team could get to him. At one time he was ranked number 8 in the world, with a 2728 rating.
In 1989, Karen Grigorian (1947-1989) committed suicide by jumping.
In 1992, Gyorgy Negysey (1893-1992) died just short of his 99th birthday. He was one of the longest-lived chess masters.
In 1993, a person was shot and killed while playing chess with a friend outdoors in Bosnia. It was the first recorded killing of a chess player by sniper fire. In 1996, a chess tournament was held to raise funds to assist in clearing Bosnia of leftover mines.
In 1997, Alvis Vitolins (1938-1997) committed suicide by jumping.
In 2000, GM Vladimir Bagirov (1936-2000) died of a heart attack when in a winning position in a tournament game in Finland. He had just finished a move while in time pressure and his flag fell. As both players moved to a separate board to reconstruct the game, he collapsed and died.
In 2000, Latvian grandmaster Aivars Gipslis (1937-2000) died of a stroke while playing chess in Berlin. He was playing for a local Berlin chess club when he collapsed from a stroke during the chess game. He died in a German hospital after being in a coma for several weeks.
In 2000, Laurence Douglas stabbed Craig Williams to death over a chess game in Poughkeepsie, New York. Williams beat Douglas in a chess game that had a $5 wager. Williams took a $5 bill from Douglas after the game and Douglas then stabbed Williams 16 times.
In 2001, Alexei Suetin (1926-2001) died of a heart attack after returning home from the Russian Seniors Chess Championship.
In 2001, Claude Bloodgood (1924-2001) died of lung cancer while serving a life sentence in a Virginia prison.
On October 27, 2003, Essam Ahmed Ali (1964-2003), an International Master and Egypt’s top chess player, died of malaria after returning home from the All Africa Games chess tournament in Nigeria. The 60-year old head of the Egyptian chess delegation, Mohammed Labib, died of the same disease the next day. Both were incorrectly diagnosed in Egypt after becoming ill. Both were bitten by an infected mosquito that gave them malaria.
In 2004, at the Canadian Open, Donal Hervieux collapsed and died over the chess board while playing a FIDE master during round 8.
On July 26, 2006, Jessie Gilbert, a rising British female chess star, fell through a window in her room at the Hotel Labe in Pardubice in the Czech Republic. She won the Women’s World Amateur Championship when she was 11. Police believe she may have been sleepwalking.
In July 2007, Bernard Papet, age 73, died right after completing his 10th round game in the Veteran’s French championship.
In 2007, GM Maxim Sorokin (1968-2007) died in a car wreck on his way from Elista, Kalmykia to Volgograd.
In October 2008, David Christian killed Michael Steward over a chess game. The two got into a fight while playing chess at Christian’s home in Iowa.
On May 8, 2010, Andor Lilienthal (1911-2010) died three days after he turned 99.
On September 9, 2010, Bent Larsen, considered Denmark’s greatest chess player, died at Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he had lived with his wife since 1980. Larsen was, at his peak, rated #3 in the world, with an Elo of 2755. He was a 6-time champion of his native Denmark, and the winner of the 1976 Biel Interzonal, among other tournaments. Larsen is also remembered as one of Bobby Fischer’s victims en route to his World Championship, besting the Dane by a 6-0 score. Bent Larsen was 75.
In November 2011, Quinton Smith, age 17, was competing in the K-12 Nationals in Dallas. During the tournament, he climbed to the roof of the Hilton Anatole (27 stories) and fell (or jumped) to his death. He laid on the ground for several hours while being attended by bystanders and police. He had lost his first four games and was given a bye in the 5th round.
In May, 2012, Shanker Roy, age 36, one of Bengal’s leading chess players, committed suicide. He hung himself from a ceiling fan using his wife’s long scarf. He had been suffering from depression.
– Bill Wall