The Killer Instinct

The chess player’s mind is not necessarily a criminal one – but two consummate players did turn out to be murderers

Chess

Chess has many benefits for the human mind, but I had not thought to include among them the rehabilitation of criminals. Yet in Brazil an organisation dedicated to “the recovery and social integration of those condemned to sentences without parole” has been doing exactly that; the Association for Protection and Assistance for the Condemned has, with the help of some of Brazil’s best chess players and trainers, organised therapeutic tournaments and lessons “on the inside”.

The driving force behind this project, Walter Ferreira, claims: “Our proposed goals have been largely achieved. Today we have proper chess books in our library, while our own pieces and boards are made by the convicts, with plastic and bottle caps.” According to Ferreira, an ex-state champion, chess is an “instrument for social inclusion [because] players, by studying chess, learn that study can be a pleasure; it forms a series of positive character traits such as humility, patience, perseverance and discipline.” 

All that may be so, but the idea of chess as a check to the criminal personality runs entirely counter to popular prejudice, which itself reflects the lamentable libels against our noble game perpetuated by novelists over the centuries, most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, Sherlock Holmes proves a man called Amberley to be the perpetrator of an especially cunning murder — which the killer, with nefarious cheek, had himself asked Holmes to investigate. When Watson asks Holmes how he spotted that the client was the guilty man, the detective says: “Amberley excelled at chess — one mark, Watson, of a scheming mind.”

Conan Doyle’s influence might even have played a part in the 1931 conviction of a chess club member called William Wallace for his wife’s murder. Relying purely on circumstantial evidence, and a mysterious telephone call to the Liverpool chess club to which Wallace belonged, the prosecution depended on painting him as an especially cunning and devious fellow — an assertion that appeared to have convinced the jury, whose guilty verdict startled the presiding judge. Wallace’s clubmates later pointed out that, while very enthusiastic, he was in fact a notably unimpressive player. Perhaps that assisted in his later acquittal, a legal landmark as the first overturning of an English murder conviction on the grounds that the verdict was “unreasonable, or cannot be supported, having regard to the evidence”.

In the real — as opposed to the fictional — world, chess players are not more than normally prone to criminal activities, still less murder. There are, however, two examples of murders by men obsessed with chess, both of them American. Claude Bloodgood (born Klaus Frizzel Bluttgutt III, if you please) killed his mother in 1969, apparently over a row involving money, nine days after he had been released from a stretch for forgery. According to the Virginian-Pilot, in its obituary of Bloodgood in 2001: “He beat her head with a screwdriver, strangled her with his hands, then smothered her with a pillow.” Thorough, these chess players.

Bloodgood was condemned to death but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Thus confined, he played many thousands of games by correspondence and also wrote several chess books, including The Tactical Grob, a monograph on his favourite opening. Then in 1996, he suddenly appeared on the US chess rankings list in second place, behind only Gata Kamsky,  suggesting that he had become a world-championship-standard player. It later transpired, much to the embarrassment of the US Chess Federation, that Bloodgood had found a way allegedly of fixing the ratings system to his own advantage by rigging countless games within the prison network.

Bloodgood was, in reality, not even of international master strength. That, however, was very much true of the other chess-playing murderer, Raymond Weinstein. An outstanding talent, Weinstein won the US junior championship in 1958, and two years later shared the gold medal for best individual performance in the world student team championship in Leningrad. In the 1960-61 US championships, Weinstein came third behind only Bobby Fischer and William Lombardy (later Fischer’s second in his 1972 world championship match against Boris Spassky). 

In 1964 the British Chess Magazine reported from that year’s US championship: “One of the players commented that, outside of Fischer, Weinstein was the one person in the tournament with real talent…there is nothing to stop him going right to the top if he wants to, for Weinstein has…a ruthless killer instinct.” This was an unfortunate turn of phrase. That championship was Weinstein’s final appearance over the chess board. Shortly afterwards-having already been diagnosed as schizophrenic-he slit the throat of an 83-year-old man. Unfit to stand trial,  he was remanded to the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Centre on Ward Island, Manhattan, where, now 70, he remains. 

The only further report on Weinstein’s welfare comes from the chess writer Sam Sloan, who had for years longed to meet his incarcerated idol. In 1996 he did so, and was much deflated: “He looked sluggish and dull. Nobody could have imagined the promise he once had. He did not say even one word while I was sitting with him. He stared blankly at me the whole time [even] when I recounted all the details of his chess career. [At] the end of visiting hour, he got up and went to the attendant and told her rather heatedly that he wanted to go back to his ward.”

Better by far to recall the Raymond Weinstein who was regarded by some as the most talented US player after Bobby Fischer. So here is a remarkable game from his final appearance in the US championship: victory with Black over the former world championship contender Samuel Reshevsky. 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 c6 3.Nf3 d5 4.e3 g6 5.d4 Bg7 6.Qb3 0-0 7.Be2 e6 8.0-0 Nbd7 9.Rd1 b6 10.Bd2 Bb7 11.cxd5 exd5 12.Be1 Rfe8 13.a4 a5 14.Qc2 Qe7 15.Na2 Bh6 16.Rab1 Bxe3 (This sacrifice of a Bishop for two pawns is objectively not best-but there is poison in it) 17.fxe3 Qxe3+ 18.Kf1 Ng4 19.h3?? (Reshevsky completely fails to see Weinstein’s idea. After 19.Bd3 White would be fine) Qxf3+!! 20.gxf3 Ne3+ 21.Kf2 Nxc2 22.Bc3 Nf6 23.Bd3 Ba6 24.Nc1 (If 24.Bxc2 Re2+ wins back the piece) Bxd3 25.Nxd3 Nd7 26.Ne5 Nxe5 27.dxe5 d4 28.Bxd4 Nxd4 29.Rxd4 Rxe5 30.Rc1 c5…and even Reshevsky could not hold this ending two pawns down, resigning 17 moves later.