Friday, March 28, 2008

Fact: All Serial Killers Play Chess

Regular visitors to the S&BCC blog may recall that about six months ago we blogged a story about The Bitsevsky Maniac - a chessplaying serial killer in Moscow who may, or may not (reports vary) have counted his victims by placing coins on a chessboard.

It seems we now have another chess-loving serial killer on our hands. Earlier this week one Michel Fourniret went on trial in France after apparently confessing to the murder of seven women over a fifteen year period ending in 2001.

We learn from yesterday's Independent that Fourniret is "... a man who likes to play mind games with investigators". Perhaps not surprising, then, to find the Guardian reporting that like the aforementioned Mr. Maniac, Fourniret is a "keen chess player". You may prefer the Times' description of him as a "bespectacled chess player" but in any event, the link between chess and, as Sherlock Holmes would have it, a scheming mind, seems firmly established. Or maybe not.

I have my doubts about the significance of chess to this story. Fourniret, you see, does not have a FIDE rating. That doesn't mean much in itself, I don't have one either, but Justin* has discovered that there's not even any mention of him on the Federation Francaise Des Echecs list.

Justin has also unearthed an article by Bert Peeters, formerly of the University of Tasmania, who writes about the case. Unfortunately it's in French which is none too helpful for either of us but we managed to get it translated** and we now know that Fourniret,

  • taught several people to play chess including two young girls who lived near to him at the end of the 1980s;
  • has been a member of a chess club;
  • was allowed to have a chess computer in his cell when he was in prison in Belgium,

which tells us nothing whatsoever about how good a player he is of course. We don't for example, know how often Fourniret visited the chess club nor even what kind of organisation it was. Was it a club in the sense that S&B is a CC or was it something more casual? A chess cafe perhaps.

There are, I'm sure, many people in the world that consider themselves to have a strong interest in chess and yet don't have an official rating or even regularly attend a chess club. It would, however, be unlikely that, in those circumstances, they would be much good or that chess would play sufficiently large a part in their life as to make it reasonable to consider it crucial in understanding their psychological makeup.

In any event, Peeters considers the evidence of Fourniret's interest in chess then concludes,

“These details at first seem not very significant but they have been emphasised in the press on several occasions ... they have contributed to the stereotyping of the serial killer.”

So there we have it. The British press have just picked up on some crass analogies bandied about by their European counterparts (and, it seems, French prosecutors) and chosen to present the story in a way that sounds good. This kind of thing always seems strange to me but then I'm not a journalist and am therefore free of the convention that requires any old toss that happens to have been reported elsewhere to be presented as fact.

I do wonder, though, why the newspapers bother with this chess and murder stuff at all. Agatha Christie does it so much better.

* Many thanks to Justin for his assistance with today's post.
** Translator Mrs E.C. Bryant - thanks mum. :-)


ejh said...

While the issue may not appear to be all that serious, and indeed may not be all that serious, it did take me aback that prosecutors seem to think it appropriate to make a link between chess and the mind of a serial killer. That's a bit iffy if you ask me.

Morgan said...

Yes, quite. It reminds me of how Mr. Gilbert told court that Jessie was 'quite capable of planning ahead' and so could have made stuff up. A chess-playing mind is an evil one, eh.

Tom Chivers said...

It would be interesting to know what the most popular hobbies amongst serial killers actually are.

ejh said...

Serial killing probably among them...

...."chess isn't what makes people serial killers, it's what keeps serial killers from serial killing"...

Jonathan B said...

I suspect the hobbies of serial killers are probably similar to everybody else's.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how you can hope to be any good at chess if you don't have a scheming mind. The evil is what you scheme about.