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Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do.
It's easy to get obsessed with chess.—Magnus Carlsen, 2nd highest rated chess player of all time
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. 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.
Anime and Manga
- Cowboy Bebop's 14th episode, entitled "Bohemian Rhapsody", contains a chess game between an old senile chess master and Ed. The game is played over the internet and lasts for days until the chess master wins, and subsequently dies.
- Mao and Lelouch in Code Geass. Mao is crazy enough that he rigs a bomb to detonate if he wins.
- Ami in Sailor Moon plays an opponent who is such a lunatic that he paralyzes different parts of her body as she loses her pieces.
- In the Death Note live-action movie, Light and L do this.
- Brainwashed, based on the novel The Royal Game.
- Green Lantern -- 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.
- Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, features a chess-crazed Wonderland. Wonderland, of course, is populated mostly by those who are as mad as hatters.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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'.
- In The Queens Gambit, the main character is driven so mad by chess that she becomes a pill addict.
- Zugzwang, by Ronan Bennett, features a chess master named Rozental who begins the story on the verge of a complete mental breakdown.
- "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.
- 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.
- Endgame is about a chess grandmaster who becomes a Hikikomori and cannot leave his hotel due to paralyzing fear.
- Law and 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.
- The Cape features a Super Villain 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.
- Windom Earle from Twin Peaks plays chess, when he isn't murdering people and stuffing them in paper-mache pawns.
- Criminal Minds had Caleb Rossmore, a chess champion UnSub who copycatted the Zodiac killer.
- 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.
- Freddy 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 Freddy 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.
- 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.
- The Sewer King in Hey Arnold.
- In a bit of subversion,he is horrible at playing:Arnold beats him in a few moves seven times in a row.He however admits having only rats to practice with...
- 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.
- Alexander Alekhine, the 4th world champion. A brilliant player who took down Capablanca and who won his championship back from Euwe, himself a genius in his own right.
- Bobby Fischer, the 11th world champion. The man who took down the Soviet chess machine. Also a raving anti-semite (despite being Jewish), 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.
- 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. According to (a completely unverified but nevertheless popular) legend, the Nazis didn't take him to the concentration camps (despite his Jewish heritage) because he was so delusional and pathetic that they didn't see the point.
- 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.
- Paul Morphy, often considered to be one of the best chess players of all time, is often considered to have been at least a little mad. There's no real evidence for this, but it's why they call him 'The Pride and Sorrow of Chess'
- 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.
- Reymond 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.
- 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.
- Charles 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).
No chess grandmaster is normal; they only differ in the extent of their madness.—Viktor Korchnoi, grandmaster