How dangerous is chess?

by ChessBase
6/5/2024 – It is a passionate game. There have been studies which have demonstrated that in dramatic positions with chances on both sides the adrenalin levels and the pulse rates of the players involved can rise to heights experienced by paragliders, extreme mountaineers or deep sea divers. Hence, it is not surprising that some people actually have died at the chess board when the setting became extremely stressful and prolonged.

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Death by Chess

By Prof. Christian Hesse and Frederic Friedel

In Agatha Christies thriller A Chess Problem, published in 1927, a chess master dies due to a sudden heart attack in the middle of a chess game. It was a fictional book  (in which Capablanca, Lasker and Rubinstein are mentioned), but there are examples in real life. 

In 1933 Geza Maroczy, one of the strongest players a hundred years ago, was present when Adolf Olland (1867-1933), a chess master of the Netherlands, died through a similar fate during a tournament game. Maroczy later remarked that he, too, would like to die like this: “That's the best kind of death for a chess master”.

Over the years, there have been numerous other examples – though there aren't so many documented cases of chess grandmasters literally dying in the middle of a game. However, here are some who died during chess tournaments from heart attacks:

Death by chess: Vladimir Bagirow, Gideon Ståhlberg, Vladimir Simagin, Adolf Olland

  • Russian grandmaster Vladimir Bagirow (1936-2000): died while playing a tournament in Finland. He was in the lead with three straight wins. In round four he had an extra pawn, but after a time scramble he suffered a heart attack, and died the next day.
  • Swedish grandmaster Gideon Ståhlberg (1908-1967): died of a heart attack during the 1967 Leningrad International Chess Tournament. Ståhlberg came to fame when he won matches against Rudolf Spielmann and Aron Nimzowitsch in 1933 and 1934 respectively, and came third (after Alekhine) in Dresden 1936, and second (after Fine) in Stockholm 1937. In 1938 he drew a match against Keres.
  • Russian grandmaster Vladimir Simagin (1919-1968): died of a heart attack while playing in a chess tournament in Kislovodsk, Russia. He was three times Moscow Champion (1947, 1956, and 1959), helped to train Vasily Smyslov in the World Championship, and made many significant contributions to chess openings.
  • Dutch chess master Adolf Olland (1867-1933): died of a heart attack while playing in the 1933 Dutch chess championship. Born in Utrecht, Olland was a medical doctor, and the leading Dutch chess master in the time before Max Euwe. 

There seem to be two standard situations of people dying a chess related death. The first one is due to a heart attack or stroke, often caused by the tension of a game of chess being played. Here are some examples:

  • Johann Zukertort (1842-1888) died of a stroke while he was playing chess at the London coffee house Simpson's.
  • Aivars Gipslis (1937-2000) died of a stroke while playing a game of chess in a chess club in Berlin.
  • Efim Bogoljubow (1889-1951) died of a heart attack just after finishing a simul.
  • Victor Ciocaltea (1932-1983) died of cerebral apoplexy while playing a chess game in a tournament in Spain.

  • Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946) was found dead by a chambermaid in his hotel room in Estoril, Portugal, with a peg chess set on the table. Probable cause of death: choking and asphyxiation over a piece of meat.

The second standard situation arises from deadly violence connected to a game of chess just played. Here are some examples:

  • Martin Wirth shot Vernie Cox in 1994 in Fort Collins after they argued over a chess game.
  • In 1960, sailor Michael George lost a chess game and a spectator criticized one of the sailor's moves. The sailor killed the onlooker with a beer bottle.
  • in 1915 Ajeeb, a chess automaton with a hidden chess player inside (Sam Gonotsky) was playing at Coney Island. A visitor lost to the “automaton” and got so angry that he shot at the machine and killed the hidden Sam Gonotsky.

For more people who died a chess related deaths see Bill Wall's Deaths of Chessplayers from which the above examples are summarized. There you will find a large number of further players who died while engaged in chess activities.

Perhaps the most notable example of a direct chess death is that of Cecil Purdy, the first World Champion in Correspondence Chess.

On November 6, 1979, during a regular chess game in the Australia Championship in Sydney, Purdy suffered a massive heart attack. He was rushed to a hospital and people informed his son, who managed to get to the hospital while his father was still alive but in very bad condition. When Cecil Purdy recognized his son, he gave the impression that with his last breath he wanted to say something to him. So his son lowered his ear towards his father's mouth.

Let us pause in this situation for a moment. There are many words that he could have said, for example: "I have tried to be a good father. But I don’t know if I succeeded." Or perhaps: "You have to take care of the family now. I won't be able to do it any more."

What did Cecil Purdy say? With the little energy remaining, he uttered these last words with his last breath before he died: “I have a win, but it will take some time.” For us, this is one of the prime examples of the immense passion one can have for chess.

After having talked about all these chess-induced death one might wonder whether chess is in fact a healthy or a risky game?

The answer is not easy, as we will see. In part two we will try to statistically quantify the risk of playing chess, using a unit developed by Ronald Howard in the 1970s: the micromort. Micro stands for one millionth, and mort is the French word for death. So one micromort is statistically one millionth of a chance of dying. If a million people are exposed to a risk of this magnitude, then on the average one of them will die.

One micromort is the risk of a 25-year-old male in Central Europe of getting up in the morning and not surviving the day, for whatever reason. It happens to one in a million 25-year-olds. At 90, you are facing 500 micromort and at age 100, you have 1500 micromort against you every day. The risk of running a marathon is eight micromort, climbing Matterhorn 2840 micromort, attempting to scale Mount Everest: 38.000 micromort.

So what is the risk of playing a game of chess? And does chess in general detract or add to your life expectancy? Stay tuned for a statistical analysis of these questions in part two.

Schachgeschichten – Chess Stories

This book was published in October 2022. It consists of alternating chapters, with Prof. Christian Hesse writing, in his entertaining style, about mathematical aspects of the Royal Game, and Frederic Friedel writing about his encounters with World Champions, of whom he got to know and befriended around a dozen.

The book has been published in German and is endorsed by five world champions (Garry Kasparov wrote the foreword).

If you speak German you can read the first 30 pages here

The book is available from Amazon for €20. Plans for an English language version are under way. 

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.
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BonTheCat BonTheCat 6/6/2024 08:00
Interesting article, but just one point to note. Gideon Ståhlberg didn't die during the tournament at Leningrad, but before it had started. The reason in his case was more specifically alcoholism (just like his fellow GM and compatriot, Gösta Stoltz) which severely undermined his health.
oxygenes oxygenes 6/6/2024 06:49
It was clear, that picture of Alekhine is construct, I am glad, you bring more details. Instinct of self-preservation do not allows just quietly wait until end comes. Body always has few moments to do something for saving, to try reach some drink, ... In consequences the table would be pushed off or overturned, chessboard would fall down too. And very strange fact, that all dishes are empty, so how unbelievable fatal and insidious last piece of meat must to been, which killed Alekhine.
So there is important warning for all - never eat last piece of meat, if you are not familiar with chambermaid. :)
Frederic Frederic 6/6/2024 02:22
@lajosarpad: It means that from one million 25-year-olds in Central Europe one will not survive the day. That includes the sick and the infirm. In part two we give sample values for surviving other activities, e.g. riding a bike for 25 miles, air travel for 7000 miles, train travel for 6000 miles, marrying Henry the VIII (spoiler: that is 500.000 micromort). And also for playing a game of chess, at amateur and top grandmaster level.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 6/6/2024 09:45
Interesting Hoynck, thanks for sharing the information.

As about the micromort, was it a figurative way to put it that it relates to people (25 year olds in this case) who get up from bad, or does it include people who were not getting up (being sick or dying during the night) or people getting up from something else than a bed (ex. a couch)?

As about a 25 year old having 1 micromort here in Central Europe, maybe the risk has increased since the inception of the concept with COVID and the war.
Frederic Frederic 6/6/2024 09:35
@Hoynck: thanks for the information on Alekhine's "death picture." It looked suspicious to me -- the victim of asphyxiation after fatally choking over a piece of meat should not be sitting relaxed in an armchair. I should have concluded that the scene (with the chess board) had been set up by the photographer, which I don't think would be done today. But the picture has been published thousands of times over so many decades, claiming to show the death scene. Thanks for clearing this up.

@arzi: "It would be interesting to know what the micromort value of regular chess players is." This is the subject of the follow-up sections of our article. It can only be roughly estimated, since the data on regular chess players dying during a game are relatively sparse. More is available for very strong players, and thus the micromort value for them can be better estimated.

The life expectancy of chess players is easier to statistically calculate. Questions to ponder: do chess players tend to live longer or shorter lives than the e1quivalent non-chess public? And what are the reasons for the longer or shorter average (if that is ascertained). The final section of our series will attempt to answer these questions.
Malatar Malatar 6/6/2024 08:19
Sam Gonotsky died in Hurley Hospital in Flint, Michigan on April 5, 1929, just after winning the Seventh American Checker Tournament in Chicago...
Hoynck Hoynck 6/6/2024 08:00
And José Raúl Capablanca collapsed at his chess club in Manhattan, in 1942 at the age of 53. Excellently described in detail by Miguel Sánchez in 'A Chess Bíography' (McFarland, 2015).
arzi arzi 6/6/2024 06:55
It would be interesting to know what the micromort value of regular chess players is. When I played tournament games as a younger player, my heart rate was high for a long time. During the game, I also drank a lot of coffee, which probably didn't lower my heart rate. It's a wonder that more players haven't died during the games. Chess is dangerous for both the pieces and the players themselves. Eat or be eaten but also listen your heart time to time.
Hoynck Hoynck 6/6/2024 06:09
(By the way, I later donated the UHER audio tape of my interview with Mr. Pinto (about the death of Alekhine) to the Royal Library in The Hague.)
Hoynck Hoynck 6/6/2024 06:03
The accompanying photo of Alexander Alekhine, taken in the hotel room on March 24, 1946 in Estoril, does not show how he was actually found by the chambermaid. The scene is arranged. This happened to have a press photo taken, while a hotel employee was on his motorcycle to Cascais to fetch a doctor who had to officially confirm Alekhine's death.In reality, Alekhine was found lying face down, half on the bed, with his knees on the floor. He was placed (recognizably) in the chair for a press photo. And his chessboard was displayed on the table in front of him at the photographer's request.

About 40 years ago I investigated the death of Alexander Alekhine in Estoril. I did that as a journalist and researcher making documentaries for Dutch television. In Estoril, Cascais and Lisbon, I visited many institutions (such as the French embassy). For three weeks long I spoke to many people, including the (old gentleman) Mr. Pinto who was the first person in charge of the hotel after Alekhine was found dead by the chambermaid. And moreover, at his request, I had a conversation with Raymond Keene in The Hague about my findings in Portugal.

Kind regards,
Frans M. Hoynck van Papendrecht
KandiRavi KandiRavi 6/6/2024 02:08
We have an example from Hyderabad, India. Mr. V.S.T. Sai, an International Rated Player and ardent Chess lover expired while playing a round in All India Rating Tournament in Hyderabad.
IStohl IStohl 6/6/2024 12:08 certainly also deserves to be mentioned...
Frederic Frederic 6/5/2024 11:30
@Knoeier: You may be right -- so I have replaced the picture with one that is 100% Purdy
Knoeier Knoeier 6/5/2024 09:40
The picture beside the text that tells us about Cecil Purdy's last words, is not Purdy I believe , but his rival Frank Arthur Crowl, nicknamed the Australian Nimzowitsch by Purdy. A player who believed it was advantageous to play with the black pieces until he concluded that 1.b4.. still gave White fair chances ;-)
PhishMaster PhishMaster 6/5/2024 08:26
Also, the skull and crossbones, is a bit uncalled for.
PhishMaster PhishMaster 6/5/2024 08:24
My old friend, IM Emory Tate, passed away during a tournament game.

Although he did not die famed chess author, IM Cyrus Lakdawala, also had a heart attack at the board, which forced him to give up tournament chess.