The Penrose Family: Scientists and Chess Players

by André Schulz
10/8/2020 – The Penrose family's passion for chess can be traced back to Lionel Penrose, a famous professor of genetics, whose legacy also includes a number of chess problems and studies. Of his four children, Jonathan Penrose showed the greatest talent for chess: he was ten-time British Champion, an International Master, a Grandmaster of Correspondence Chess, and in 1993 the FIDE made him an Honorary Grandmaster. On October 6, his brother Roger Penrose won the Nobel Prize in Physics. | Image: Pioneer Works (Screenshot)

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The members of the Penrose family have made great contributions to different fields of science. Mathematician, physicist and scientific philosopher Roger Penrose has now been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his research.

The prize, which comes with ten million Swedish crowns (roughly 950.000 Euros), was split up this year, with one half going to Roger Penrose, while German physicist Reinhard Genzel and US scientist Andrea Ghez received the other half. All three scientists are being honoured for their research on black holes.

Roger Penrose is one of four children of Lionel Penrose (1898-1972), a psychiatrist, geneticist and mathematician of great renown, whose work includes particularly significant contributions in the field of congenital diseases. Lionel Penrose was a Professor of eugenics at University College London's Galton Laboratory.

Lionel Penrose also loved chess, and his legacy includes a number of studies as well as problems, such as the following:


Lionel Penrose passed his passion for chess on to his children, and his third son Jonathan Penrose showed the greatest talent for it.

Jonathan Penrose

Jonathan Penrose, OBE (*1933) learned to play chess at the age of four and at the age of 13 he became British Junior Champion.

Jonathan Penrose at a Junior tournament | Photo: BCF

Between 1958 and 1969, he won the British Championships no less than ten times, and between 1952 and 1974 he played in nine Chess Olympiads for England. At the Chess Olympiads in Varna in 1962 and at the Chess Olympiad in Lugano 1968, Penrose won the silver medal for the second best result on board two.

Jonathan Penrose's most famous game is his win against Mihail Tal at the Chess Olympiad 1960 in Leipzig. Penrose had White and defeated the World Champion's Benoni Defence with a sacrifice that became known as "Penrose Sacrifice".

Tal and Penrose, Leipzig 1960

This made Jonathan Penrose the second British chess player to defeat a reigning world champion, after Blackburne's win against Lasker in 1899.


In 1961, the FIDE awarded Jonathan Penrose the title of an International Master. In 1993, he was awarded the title of Honorary Grandmaster.

In the mid-seventies, Jonathan Penrose stopped playing over-the-board chess because of his health and took up correspondence chess. At the 9th Correspondence Chess Olympiad he won gold with the British National Team, and in 1983 he a Correspondence Chess Grandmaster.

Jonathan Penrose has a PhD in psychology and used to be a lecturer at Enfield College of Technology. And he married a chess player, Margaret Wood, the daughter of Frank Wood, former chief secretary of the Oxfordshire Chess Association.

Oliver Penrose

His oldest brother, Oliver Penrose (*1929), was professor of mathematics at the Open University in Milton Keynes, and from 1986 until his retirement in 1994, professor at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Olliver Penrose's studies included the mathematical treatment of models employed in statistical mechanics and the theory behind phase transformations, including the kinetics of phase transformations in metals. Aside from his passion for music, Oliver Penrose loved chess, as well, and displayed a solid amount of skill in that regard. Together with his brother he took part in the British Championship 1948, and with 6 points he finished 13th on tiebreak. The 15-year-old Jonathan Penrose finished 21st with 5 points.

Sir Roger Penrose und Shirley Penrose-Hodgson

Just like his brother Oliver, Sir Roger Penrose (*1931), has conducted research in the field of mathematics and physics but also devoted himself to scientific philosophy. He is a professor emeritus of mathematics at Oxford University and a Fellow emeritus of Wadham College, Oxford. Roger Penrose made notable contributions to the theory of general relativity and cosmology, and has already received several awards for his work in those fields. Now, he has been awarded the Nobel Prize, as well.

Just like his brothers, Sir Roger Penrose loves and cherishes chess. In 2017, he published a chess problem in his Penrose Institute that no modern chess engine can crack, but that can be solved by humans.


The Penrose study...

Last but not least: The daughter of Sir Lionel Penrose, Shirley Victoria Hodgson (*1945, née. Penrose), is a successful scientist with experience working as a general practitioner and geneticist. In 2003, she became a professor for genetics of cancer at St. George´s University of London.

The Noble Prize committee announces the winners

Interview with Roger Penrose

Roger Penrose on black holes

Translation from German: Hugo Janz

André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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