Thursday, April 19, 2007

Checking Out

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.


Anonymous said...

My biggest danger is if I were to replicate Tom's method of celebration after solving the previous puzzle. Jumping over my monitor in delight would shower me in glass followed by a long drop outside on to conrete.
Unlikely though, since I am not close to solving it...
Didn't GM Bagirov die at the board?

ejh said...

Deaths of chessplayers. Is this list reliable?

Tom Chivers said...

This got me thinking.

What's the most played move by white? Ie, your best bet if you really wanted to kill someone this way, and had one move with which to do it, and *didn't* know what opening your opponent played?

I reckon it's either Nf3, or d4.

The argument for Nf3 is that after 1.e4, it invariably goes there; and against 1.d4 it often does, although you see f3 fairly often too. If you were a murderer, though, you could play the Tarrasch as black I think, which I believe more or less obliges Nf3. Against Nf3 are certain English systems - although, these delay d4 potentially indefinitely too.

The argument for d4 is white typically starts 1.d4 or 1.e4, but on top of that, 1.e4 openings typically allow a follow up of d2-d4 within the opening stage, due to the Qd1. But not always - Closed Sicilian, some anti-Marshalls, KIAs v the French, Caro, and so forth.

My hunch is Nf3 just edges it...

Anonymous said...

It's very touching of Tom to try and get away from the morbid subject of the demise of chess players, whilst still keeping to the theme with oblique references to death. A true diplomat!
Anyway, who started the subject?

Robert Pearson said...

Looks like several died "at a chess tournament" but whether at the board is unclear.

In his excellent book Secrets of a Grandpatzer Dr. Kenneth Colby relates that he was at a club during a tournament game and a player slumped to the floor, dead of a heart attack and someone ran up yelling, "Stop the clock, stop the clock!"

Seems strangely fitting and poetic, no?

Anonymous said...

"He offers a draw", would be even better

Tom Chivers said...

jtf - not at all! I particularly appreciated the laconic phrasing of Capablanca's passing in ejh's link; it seemed rather fitting.

And my thoughts about d4 v Nf3 were based on: which would be a better bet for a murder?

Anonymous said...

You are right Tom. You were writing about chess but the death theme was well and truly there!
It gave the subject matter a chance to change course though didn't it?
Anyway, I am inclined to agree with you...Nf3 could well be the move that most often gets played.
Next time I play that move I think I'll drop it the last inch on to the square.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I like Wahrheit's "Stop the clock!". It's funny and has multiple meanings/interpretations.