Chess Criminals And The Games They Play
As a man that has many interests (UFOs, martial arts, philosophy, various forms of history [chess and non-chess], literature, art, film, music, and even criminology), I recently began reading an excellent book entitled "Shady Side: The Life and Crimes of Norman Tweed Whitaker, Chess Master." It is about a chess master who happened to be a criminal.
I had heard of Whitaker a long time ago, and although I’ve run afoul of players who cheated during play, or got into fist fights, or even stole chess clocks, I wasn't aware of many chess criminals. I wondered how common dangerous chess-playing criminals actually were.
I have to admit that, over the years, I have gotten dozens and dozens of letters from prisoners who love chess. The vast majority are murderers, but chess seems to soothe them and give them something to grasp onto. However, these aren’t the kind of criminals I’m going to write about here. I’m looking for killers and/or thieves that were very strong chess players before they started living a life of crime. Our first criminal played chess before he went bonkers.
Alexander Pichushkin (born 1974)
The Russian, Alexander Pichushkin, also known as the Chessboard Killer, was a very strong chess player and one of the world’s most “successful” serial killers. Like all good chess players, he needed an opponent. His was another serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo who had killed 53 persons.
Thus Pichushkin’s goal was 64 kills, which not only would put him ahead of Chikatilo, but also tie him back to his love of chess through the 64 squares of the chessboard.
Avoid This Lunatic Like the Plague!
I was left wondering what a chess criminal’s games would look like. Do chess killers attack? Do they grab space and try to control the whole board, do they quietly build up their position, leaving their opponent clueless as to the criminal's true intentions? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any of Pichushkin’s games. So, we’ll move on!
Claude Frizzel Bloodgood (1937-2001)
If you’re going to be a killer, the name “Bloodgood” is an excellent choice. It makes me think of a super villain (other crazed villain names are Doctor Doom, Darkseid, Dr. Death, Clayface, Red Skull, Scarecrow, Captain Nazi, Rag Doll, Mad Hatter, Solomon Grundy, Vandal Savage, Crime Doctor, Headshot, Killer Moth, Captain Cold, Gorilla Grodd, Molten Man-Thing, General Zod, Shadow Thief, Sinestro, Fin Fang Foom, Mole Man, Chronos, Destroyer, Gargoyle, The Skrulls, Baron Mordo, The Blob, Baron Zemo, The Vulture, Red Ghost, Executioner, Green Goblin, Kang the Conqueror, Kraven the Hunter, etc. etc.). Bloodgood fits right in there! As for the name “Frizzel,” it’s clear why he had so much animosity toward his mother. Frizzel’s as bad as a boy named Sue!
Bloodgood was active in the chess scene in the 1950s (probably a class “A” player, AKA 1800 to 1999). However, he cracked in the 1960s and became a full-time criminal. Burglary (which put him in jail for a while), forgery (stealing from his parents and accumulating more time in prison), and finally, in 1970, murder (he killed his mother nine days after he got out of jail). It’s clear that he and his family had a very loving relationship.
Though he was sentenced to death (which was commuted to life), his chess story starts with his life in prison. He played one game after another with his fellow inmates, day after day, year after year, and he always sent in his results to the USCF (United States Chess Federation) so that his games would be rated. Since he was playing in a “closed pool” (the same small group of people over and over), and since he won almost every game he played against them, his rating rose and rose until he was the second highest rated player in the United States. At his peak, he was rated 2702.
Bloodgood published three books on the game: "The Tactical Grob," "Nimzovich Attack: the Norfolk Gambits," and "The Blackburne-Hartlaub Gambit: 1.d4 e5 2.dxe5 d6!?."
After Bloodgood’s death (from lung cancer in 2001), an obituary appeared in The Week in Chess written by French journalist Pierre Barthélémy:
“On a personal note, I knew Claude for close to a decade and became good friends with him. I found him to have a brilliant mind, a great sense of humor, to be a loyal friend, and to be kind and generous with others. Even though he had only limited finances, for example, he was always quick to share what little he had with other inmates, particularly when it came to promoting prison chess ... The chess world will be less interesting without him. I will miss him very much.”
We will finish with a Bloodgood loss.
A Scene From Casablanca
For those that want to read about Bloodgood’s meeting with Humphrey Bogart, check out Tim Sawyer’s blog.
As you can see, Bloodgood’s games were frenetic. In life he attacked, and he did the same on the chessboard.
Norman Tweed Whitaker (1890 - 1975)
Unlike Bloodgood, who clearly had problems with his family, Whitaker was blessed with very nice, supportive parents. His father was a mathematics teacher. and his mother was a champion whist player. Norman had a good education; he earned a Bachelor’s degree in German literature (University of Pennsylvania) and a law degree from Georgetown University.
His father taught him to play chess when he was 14 years old, and he spent a lot of time watching Harry Nelson Pillsbury play in 1905.
After playing simultaneous exhibitions against some of the best players in the world (1907), he entered (during his stint at the University of Pennsylvania) intercollegiate team competitions (successfully), and… well… with both his education and chess going on the fast-track, a reader of a crystal ball would have predicted affluence in youth and adulthood. The sky, as they say, was the limit!
A Young Whitaker on the Right
By 1913, Whitaker was master strength, and he did well in the 1913 New York National round-robin tournament. He dominated everyone but top-notch players like Cabablanca, Marshall, Janowski, and Jaffe, and I have to say that he gave both Cabablanca and Marshall a scare! He continued to play in tournaments, getting stronger and stronger. For example, in 1916 he was wiped off the map in a seven-game match with the former U.S. Champion Showalter. However, when they played another match in 1918, Whitaker turned the tables and won 4-1 with 3 draws.
By 1921, Whitaker was International Master strength, doing well in very strong tournaments, and beating giants like Edward Lasker and Frank Marshall. It seemed the crystal ball was right, and his future was going to be nothing less than glorious. He was also practicing law by 1916, and he was working for the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Then, his world began to combust. For reasons beyond my comprehension, he convinced his brother and two sisters to join him in an insurance fraud scheme. This led to Whitaker spending two years in Leavenworth. He was disbarred in 1924.
Leavenworth State Penitentiary, a fine place to play chess.
When he was released from prison in 1927, he jumped back into chess, representing the U.S. in several international events. It seemed that he was back on track. He married in 1928, and he was doing well in his chess career. His friends were sure that the insurance fraud was nothing but a bizarre blip on his screen, and such madness would never happen to him again.
In March 1932, Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped and eventually murdered. The country went mad, calling it the “Crime of the Century.” H.L. Mencken (a brilliant satirist) called it, “the biggest story since the resurrection.” Whitaker, who obviously couldn’t resist “easy money,” jumped at on what he thought an opportunity. He joined forces with Gaston Means, a crooked man who had been an agent for the Department of Justice, and they did their best to swindle a wealthy lady named Evelyn Walsh McLean by saying they were in touch with the kidnappers and, for a huge amount of money, would make sure the baby would be safely returned.
Chaos ensued, it all went to hell, and both were arrested and sent to prison. Gaston Means got 15 years (dying in prison), while our chess anti-hero only got 18 months. After getting out, he continued his life of crime, scamming everyone and anyone he could, going back to jail, doing more crime, and going back to jail again. He even befriended Al Capone in Alcatraz!
Alcatraz, an even better place to play chess!
Whitaker played in various chess tournaments between incarcerations, and in 1965, he was given the International Master title by FIDE.
Like Bloodgood, Whitaker played aggressive, tactical chess.
Here’s a Whitaker loss. If you’re a tactician, you live by the sword, you die by the sword.
Okay, White got smashed. However, everyone has an off day, and the other games will convince you that Whitaker was a very strong player!
Okay, that was a simultaneous exhibition. He would get wiped off the board in a real tournament game, right? Well, check out the following tournament game.