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Chess Chronicles of the Strange and Unusual

In my opinion, the universality of chess is one of its most appealing characteristics. Yet, there is a strangeness to the world of chess that creates and attracts some of the strangest personalities out there and unites some of the most unlikely of foes across the board. In this post, I will examine five unlikely chess players who have at least one game that has survived through time.

1. Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley was once dubbed by a British news service as the Most Wicked Man in the World and often referred to himself as The Beast. Crowley was a master magician and student of the occult. His penultimate work, The Toth Tarot has become one of the best selling tarot decks in history and it combines elements of ancient Egyptian mythology with later esoteric revelations. He makes #1 on this list not because of his chess playing abilities or prevalence of recorded games, but for his general strangeness and the significant quality of the only real piece of his chess legacy that I could find, which is one game recorded that ended in a draw with British chess master Joseph Henry Blackburne.

2. Che Guevara

The mere mention of Che Guevara conjures images of his cigar and famous red-starred beret. Che Guevara has become a pop icon synonymous with revolution, yet few outside the world of chess know the significant influence that he wielded over the game in post-revolution Cuba. In many ways, he was obsessed with the game and spent much of his time in Cuba’s new government finding ways to facilitate tournaments and to spread the game’s influence throughout the new regime. He also played a large role in Bobby Fischer’s teletype participation in the 1965 Capablanca Memorial. The following game features Che playing against a man whose name is now immortalized in a Sicilian variation: Miguel Najdorf.

3. Paul Morphy

Perhaps the most important thing to know about Paul Morphy is: do not believe everything that you hear. Urban legend has it that chess drove Paul Morphy insane and that he was discovered dead in his bathtub surrounded by women’s shoes. The reality of Paul Morphy is that he was a young chess prodigy and until the arrival of Bobby Fischer, was considered the greatest American chess player in history. Morphy beat most of Europe’s greatest players and endured a lifelong feud with chess legend Howard Staunton. His attempts to withdraw from the world of competitive chess resulted in a psychosis that took his life at a very early age. The following game has become one of the most prominent instructional games in history and is used by many chess teachers and coaches to demonstrate the importance of piece development.

4. Howard Stern

Howard Stern makes this list because public perception of him seems to be that he is the last person you would expect to be a thriving chess player. Although still rated in the amateur range, Howard Stern began taking chess lessons several years ago and playing anonymously on the Internet Chess Club. He has even brought his chess teacher on his show to discuss the game and to play exhibitions. Chess Life ran a wonderful commentary on some of his games in a 2010 article, which is available on the USCF website. The following game is taken from the PGN file of one of those games.

5. Napoleon Bonapart

For the final entry, I was tempted to post a picture of Napoleon from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but I decided to post a legitimate photo instead. However, the tendency of the French to paint Napoleon as an epic hero on and off the battlefield should be taken with a grain of salt. Although he was an unstoppable military commander, Napoleon was a terrible chess player. Legend has it that he would go into fits of rage after losing and that some of his military commanders would purposely lose games to avoid losing their heads! The following game is perhaps one of Napoleon’s most famous losses and it comes against the greatest chess hoax of all time: The Turk!