Unlike Kasparov (“I don't use Aeroflot. I don't eat or drink when flying. It might sound like paranoia, but it's better to be paranoid than dead”) I’ve not put much thought into how I might die. However, I’m fairly sure that ‘while playing chess’ would not figure highly in any list of desirable options. I suspect going to heaven with a head brim full of variations, missed opportunities and self recrimination would be much like Douglas Adams’ expectations of travelling the same journey with a headache - “I’d be all cross and wouldn’t enjoy it”.
Happily the odds appear to be in my favour. Snuffing it at the board appears to be a very rare activity. To date I’ve only come across one account of a player actually dying during play, and that’s 80 years old.
Gilmour Wilson was a talented American player who had come to Europe to challenge the strongest players of his time. Not much is known about him so it’s hard to say quite how good he was. While it’s true he’d attracted descriptions such as “a second Capablanca”, even in those days such labels probably had more to do with impressing the reader than any objective truth.
Wilson’s opponent on that inauspicious day was Dr. Savaronoff, a Russian émigré who had once acted as a second to Lasker. After Savaronoff disappeared following the Russian revolution it was widely believed he’d been killed by the Bolsheviks but he resurfaced in London in the early 1920s. Apparently he’d experienced three years of extreme hardship in Siberia before being able to escape abroad.
Wilson repeatedly challenged Savaronoff who always carefully sidestepped any encounter. In truth the former Russian Champion was a broken man (a “semi-invalid” according to a contemporary source) and knew he hadn’t a chance against his upstart adversary. Fatefully, he agreed to a contest when newspapers began to draw attention to his “unsportsman-like refusal” to meet the American.
A description of the table on which they were to play - “The top of it was exquisite, inlaid with squares of silver and black to represent a chessboard” – survives but otherwise most details of the match are now lost in the mists of time. Virtually the only thing we know is that it was to be played at Savaronoff’s own home. Presumably Wilson agreed to this concession in the light of the older man’s physical health problems and his own desire to play the match in almost any circumstances.
On the day of the first game, in addition to Wilson, over a dozen spectators arrived at Savaronoff’s Westminster residence. Wilson had the White pieces and opened with 1. e4. The game continued…
1. e4 e5, 2. Nf3 Nc6, 3. Bb5
It was while playing his third move that Wilson suddenly collapsed and died of a suspected heart attack. One account even suggests he still had his King’s Bishop grasped tightly in his hand when he arrived at the mortuary.
Suspicions aroused by the unusual circumstances of Wilson’s demise were confirmed when a post-mortem revealed his heart, if not the rest of him, was in perfect health. Poisoning was also swiftly ruled out but the precise cause of death remained a mystery until a private detective from Belgium began to investigate as part of broader investigation into a world wide conspiracy.
Monsieur Poirot proved the American had indeed been murdered – by his host. The board, it seems, had been wired to the mains in such a way that when Wilson played 3. Bb5 he completed a circuit and electrocuted himself.
Murder most foul!
OK, time to confess the not particularly surprising truth. This is all fiction. Wilson, Savaronoff and of course Poirot are all figments of Agatha Christie’s imagination. This particular story is a sub-plot from her book, “The Big Four”.
Still, let it be a lesson to you. Sticking to a predictable opening repertoire can have fatal consequences.