science fiction and chess

Chess is mentioned more than any other game in science fiction literature.  Here are some examples.  Add to the list if you find some more.

In 1959, Brian Aldiss (1925- ) wrote The Canopy of Time, previously known as Galaxies Like Grains of Sand.  War was fought between planets as stylized as chess.  War was being waged that was very complicated, like 3-D chess with obscure motivations and strict rules of chivalry.

In February 1954, Poul Anderson (1926-2001) published a short science fiction article, The Immortal Game.  It appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine.  The computerized chess pieces don't know they're merely acting out old moves, and develop various strange delusions involving free will, loyalty, melodrama, and purple prose.

Poul Anderson’s Circus of Hells, published in 1970, mentions chess.  Dominic Flandy plays chess with a computer.  The protagonists find themselves stranded on a planet where a bored computer has constructed machines in the shape of chess pieces, and spends its time playing out a gigantic game of chess on the surface of the planet. 

Chess is mentioned in The Fleet of Stars, written by Poul Anderson in 1997.   Kinna Ronay beat he father in two games out of three while on Mars.

Anderson’s Operation Luna, published in 1999, mentions chess a few times.  Balawahdiwa watches animated chess pieces fighting the game out on a chessboard.  One of the characters had a couple of bone chessmen from the Middle ages.

In 2006, Catherine Asaro wrote Alpha.  Alpha was a gorgeous, superintelligent android.  The novel mentions modern forms of the Turing test and references the Gary Kasparov vs. Deep Blue computer match that had occurred decades ago.

In 1941, Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) published Nightfall.  The story includes a piece about a chess game played on a multi-chess board with six players.  In 1968, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted Nightfall as the best science fiction short story ever written.  When the short story was expanded into a novel, multi-chess had been changed to stochastic chess.

In 1950, Isaac Asimov published Pebble in the Sky (Asimov’s first published novel), which mentioned chess.  The story mentions that chess has not changed except for the names of the pieces.  Schwartz and Grew play a 50 game chess match.  Other variations of chess are mention, such as 3-D chess and chess played with dice.

In 1956, Asimov published The Dead Past, first published in the April 1956 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.    Scientists were not expected to write or be grand masters of chess.  That’s what specialists were for.  Scholars were forbidden from working outside their narrow field of specialization.

In 1970, Asimov Waterclap, which appeard in the May 1970 issue of If magazine.  Demerest asks Bergen why he met so few people at Ocean-Deep.  Bergen replies that they are either asleep , watching films, or playing chess.

Asimov wrote The Winnowing, which was published in the February 1976 edition of Analog magazine.  Peter Affare, chairman of the World Food Organization, came frequently to Dr. Aaron Rodman’s laboratories for chess.  He wanted Rodman to add selective poisons to certain food shipments to over-populated areas to control the world population, which was suffering from acute famine.

In 1981, Asimov wrote a science fiction short story called The Perfect Fit. He referred to a 3-dimensional chess game which was a game with 8 chessboards stacked upon each other, making the playing area cubic rather than square.  

In 1988, Asimov published Man as the Ultimate Gadget.  It was later published as The Smile of the Chipper in the anthology Gold. Chippers were people whose natural mental abilities were augmented by computer chips.  He compared chippers to chess grandmasters.  Put them in the same room and they would automatically challenge each other.

In 2005, Paolo Bacigalupi published The Calorie Man in the October 2005 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Lalji of India plays chess in New Orleans.

In 2003, Stephen Baxter (1957- ) wrote Coalescent.  In old Britain, the children of Regina played a fast-moving game like chess played only with rooks that were made of colored glass counters.

In 1960, Peter Beagle (1939- ) wrote A Fine and Private Place.  It has dozens of chess references.  When Michael, a dead person (poisoned by his wife), wants to play a game of chess with Jonathan Rebeck in a mausoleum, Rebeck was surprised and thought Michael did not like to play chess.  Michael responded sarcastically, “I like chess.  I am very fond of chess.  I’m crazy about chess.  Let’s play chess.”  A talking raven had stolen some of the chess pieces from department stores to make up the chess set.

In 1992, Greg Bear wrote Anvil of Stars.   The Brothers or cords, worm-like creatures, discovered chess, and it became a release for them.  They would play chess all day on a space ship without eating or sleeping.  One of the cords died while playing chess.

In 1899, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913) wrote a short story called Moxon’s Master, which was first published in the San Francisco Examiner on April 16, 1899.   It describes a chess-playing robot automaton that strangles and murders its creator, Moxon, over a game of chess.  The story is one of the first description of a robot in English literature.

In 1990, Ray Bradbury (1920- ) published A Graveyard for Lunatics.  Roy asks himself what kind of game is this and the only way to find out is by countermoving the chesspieces.   He also published The Martian Chronicles in which humans left Earth to inhabit Mars.  Starlight glitter on the spires of a little Martian town, no bigger than a game of chess, in the blue hills.

In 1961, Frederic Brown (1906-1972) published Recessional, where the protagonists are chessmen.  The story portrays a battle that turns out to be a chess game.

In 1965, John Brunner (1934-1995) wrote the science fiction novel, The Squares of the City.  It was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1966.  The story takes place in South American and the city serves as a chess board and the characters are the various players in a game of living chess.  The chess game is from the 1892 match between Steinitz and Chigorin played in Havana.  All the people in the book are chess-mad.   Most of the characters are environmentally being manipulated as chess pieces.  When they are exchanged, they are killed or jailed.

In 1953, Jonathan Burke (John Frederick Burke) (1922- ) published Chessboard, which was his first science fiction story, published in New Worlds magazine.

In 1922, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) wrote The Chessmen of Mars.  It was first published in Argosy All-Story Weekly as a six-part serial in February-March, 1922.  It was later published as a complete novel in November, 1922.  On Mars, they play a modified version of Jetan, a popular Martian board game resembling chess, except played on a 10x10 board instead of an 8x8 board.  The living version uses people as the game pieces on a life-sized board, with each taking of a piece being a duel to the death.

In 2007, Michael Chabon (1963- ) wrote The Yidish Poliecemen’s Union, which features a plot settled around chess, murder of a chess prodigy named Emanuel Lasker, and the position on the chess board at the murder scene.  The novel won a number of science fiction awards: the Nebula Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and the Sidewise Award for Alternate History for Best Novel.

In 1949, Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) published Hide and Seek.   A man on Phobos was being sought for by guided missiles and the TV screen was compared to a chessboard, more men were on the chessboar now, and the game was a little deadlier.

In 1954, Arthur C. Clarke published Armanents Race.  The communist in the story peaceably studies a chess-board in the corner of a room.

In 1957, Arthur C. Clarke published The Other Side of the Sky.    On a space ship there was a microfilm library, a magnetic billiard table, lightweight chess sets, and other novelties for bored spacemen.

Arthur C. Clarke mentioned chess in his short story Quarantine, first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Spring 1977.  Earth had to be destroyed as they became totally obsessed with the six chess pieces – king, queen, rook, bishop, knight, and pawn.  If all these chess pieces were ever re-discovered, all rational computing would end.

In 2010, Benjamin Crowell published Petopia in the June 2010 issue of Asimovs.   Raphael ignores his chores and spends the day at a chessboard with a chess book full of diagrams.  He later plays chess with an artificial intelligence toy named Jelly, then with some others using a chess clock to play blitz chess.  He starts hustling other people for money.  Jelly was used as a paper-weight for the money on the chess table, but was Jelly helping Raphael cheat and win at chess?

In 1958, Charles De Vet (1911-1997) wrote the novelette Second Game, published in Astounding in March 1958.  The novel was reissued in 1962 with Katherine Maclean as Cosmic Checkmate, and reissued again in 1981 as Second Game.  An Earthman is sent to investigate a hostile planet  (Velda) whose inhabitants all play a chess-like game, played on a 13x13 chessboard.  Their social advancement depends on their proficiency in the game.  The earthling narrator, a chess champion, is equipped with an “annotator” which is an artificial intelligence addition to his brain.  He comes to Velda and challenges all comers saying that he can beat anyone in the second game.  He probe’s the weakness of his opponents in the first game, then is able to always win the second game.

In 1987, David Gerrold (1944- ) wrote Chess With a Dragon.  The title does not refer to an actual game.  Humans have to negotiate with an alien creature from a race called the Dragons.

In 1953, Charles Harness (1915-2005) wrote The Chessplayers.  It is a short story of a chess club that runs across a refugee professor who claims he has a chess-playing rat that he trained himself.  The story appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1953.

In 1969, Frank Herbert (1920-1986) wrote Whipping Star.  Miss Abnethe,a psychotic human female with immense power and wealth, is described as a person who castles in chess when she doesn’t have to.

In 1941, Robert Heinlein wrote Methuselah’s Children, which was serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in the July, August, and September 1941 issues.  Andrew Jackson Libby and Captain Rufus King play a game of chess, which starts out 1.e4 Nf6 (the novel uses descriptive notation).

Robert Heinlein wrote The Rolling Stones in 1952.  It was about a kid who played chess and could see what the other person was thinking.

In 1962, Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) wrote The 64-Square Madhouse.  It appeared in the May 1962 issue of If magazine.  It is about a chess-playing computer that wins the World Chess Championship.

In 1989, Brad Leithauser (1953- ) wrote Hence, in which a chess genius named Timothy and plays against an MIT computer (ANNDY) for the world chess championship.

In 2005, Jack McDevitt wrote Seeker.  At the Museum of Alien Life there is a Hall of Humans.  One of the displays was a chess game in progress.

In 1950, The Sack was published by William Morrison.  The Sack was a creature that could answer any questions.  The Sack found itself giving advice to bitter rivals, so that it seemed to be playing a game of Interplanetary Chess.

In 1946, Lewis Padgett (the husband and wife team Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore) wrote The Fairy Chessmen, first published in Astounding magazine in January and February, 1946.  The novel was later renamed Chessboard Planet and published by Gnome Press in 1951.  A mathematician whose research involves a type of chess played with variable rules (“fairy chess’) is the only one able to solve an equation from the future.

In 1974, Schwartz Between the Galaxies was published by Robert Silverberg.  Dr. Schwartz, an anthropologist, travels to Papua in a rocket.  He compares his chosen profession as empty, foolish, and useless as playing a game of chess.

In 1961, Cordwainer Smith published Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons, which appeared in Galaxy Magazine.  The Elders of the Guild of Thieves welcomed Benjacomin Bozart back to his planet comparing his work like the opening move in a brand new game of chess and that there had been a gambit like this before.

Chess is mentioned in Griffin’s Egg by Michael Swanwick (1950- ), published in 1992.  Gunther Weil works as a laborer on the moon and wants to play chess.  But nobody plays chess anymore.  It’s a game for computers.

In 1986, Ian Watson wrote Queenmagic, Kingmagic.  Two kingdoms have been locked in a war waged according to the strict rules of chess.  Two opposing pawns fall in love and seek a way out of their world before its inevitable end.

In 1972, Gene Wolfe published The Fifth Head of Cerberus.  He mentions holographic chessmen and the movement of a lady like an onyx chessman on a polished board that reminded the character of a Black Queen.

In 1963, Roger Zelazny (1937-1995) published A Rose for Eccleslasteswhich appeared in the November 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  It was nominated for the 1964 Hugo Award for Short Fiction.  The protagonist, a poet named Gallinger,  settled in Greenwich Village and learned to play chess before becoming the first human to learn the language of Martians.


  • 4 years ago


    Unicorn Variations by Roger Zelazny should be mentioned, though it is in part fantasy.

  • 4 years ago


    Remarkable post.  Thank you.

  • 5 years ago


    This is not science fiction but it was in the first harry potter book.

  • 5 years ago


    Code Geass - Lelouch of the Rebellion 


    ^ that show features chess quite heavily. The main character uses it as a metaphor for some battles and stuff, and they play several games. In multiple episodes lines revolving around putting other characters into check or checkmate come up.

  • 5 years ago


    Not science fiction, but agents Gideon and Read play chess quite frequently in the show Criminal Minds. Gideon beats Read every time except once.

  • 5 years ago


    @ sheardp

    I completely disagree with your opinion, especially the characterization of art. I dont think true art forms are static and its far from just "describing life as it actually is". Dali paiting isnt a description of life as it actually is, nor static, neither is Picasso's cubism, to give a few example. You also have many examples in architechture that contradict your statement, where a sort of movement and dynamic exists. If art essentially had a descriptive function of reality, it would be meaningless - it wouldnt bring nothing anew to human existence.

    I'm remembering a few sculptures by Bernini in Museo Borghese that actually depict urges, morals, movement.

    I actually believe that art has to have the power to change the world, the way we interpret, the surroundings (in architechture that actually happens)... that isnt static.

    For instance, the Guernica painting isnt a description of war, or essentially it isnt because of it that it is an example of "true art", but instead a criticism of war and especially of the way the spanish civil war was being fought.

    In literature the same thing happens. A Balzac novel, like Eugènie Grandet, doesnt gain its artistical value because its a description of french society in the 19th century, but because it criticizes (with much humour, by the way) greed, hipocrisy, especially of a certain type of social class.

    I'm a sucker for science fiction, and I would never call it non-literature. Its a genre, like any other - theres good, bad and even great science fiction. My favourite science fiction author is Isaac Asimov (no surprise there). Why do I like him so much, and science fiction in general? The dialogues. Thats what I adore about science fiction novels. I think thats what Asimov's novel have that makes them "true art" forms. The dialogues are beautifully writen and highly inteligent, you understand from them all the psycological nuances of the characters, and if you read them, you'll understand that Asimov's novels are made mostly of dialogues. The science part is secondary, such as "the description of life as we would like it to be". That definition doesnt even make sense, when we see that most of sciente fiction novels are distopias.

  • 5 years ago


    A Columbo episode called "The Deadly Match" (series 6?) features a world championship match, in which the challenger, played by Lawrence Harvey, murders the champion, "Dudek".  Excellent stuff, doing justice to chess - there is even a simultaneous display towards the end, during which Columbo finds more clues.  The whole episode is chess!

    Oh, and just one more thing ... he doesn't get away with it.

  • 5 years ago


    Stargate exhibits chess a few times in their episodes.

  • 5 years ago


    1. From Russia with Love, the James Bond novel/movie by Ian Fleming features a chess game between Kronstein and MacAdams, which is made in the movie to look exactly like the famous Spassky-Bronstein game in 1960.

    2. Blade Runner, featuing Harrison Ford, also includes a symbolic chess game between two characters, whose final moves echo Anderssen's immortal game.

  • 5 years ago


    Great list. Would you consider Midnight by the Morphy Watch by Fritz Leiber science fiction?


    "George R.R. martin has an amazing short story..."
    I've read only two books by Martin and that was many, many years ago: The Armageddon Rag and Fevre Dream, both quite excellent. 

  • 5 years ago


    (1) It isn't about chess, but Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, also known as Magister Ludi, has an intricate game central to it. (2) All literature invents nonexistent people, nonexistent places, nonexistent surroundings, nonexistent events; science fiction simply allows more flexibility in what is allowed to be invented, and fantasy allows still more. If you don't think that Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands" or Zenna Henderson's The People stories or George Orwell's 1984 or Daniel Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon" or even the Harry Potter series aren't literature, then what are they? All of them tell us important lessons about the way life is and about the way it could be, for better or ill. I grant that there is a difference between "high art" and simple entertainment, but I don't think the entire corpus of science fiction and fantasy belongs in the second class only.

  • 5 years ago


    Very interesting research.
     Sure, chess appears also in Russian literature and movies.
     Maybe, someone will get the challenge and will continue the research.

  • 5 years ago


    Maybe I missed it, but in Alice In Wonderland the White Queen's soldiers represent chess peices.

  • 5 years ago


    Heinlein also mentions (and has the protagonist time-travelling and playing with his grand-father) chess in Time Enough for Love. A computer in that is able to beat all other computers with rook odds, or something along those lines, and humans with queen odds.

  • 5 years ago


    If God wanted humans to play chess, he would have made us black or white.

  • 5 years ago


    Not to mention Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams), or The Eight (Katherine Neville).

  • 5 years ago


    I did not want to mention Star Trek or Blade Runner or 2001 or other movies, since I have touched on movies before.  I was concentrating on SF literature here.

    My movie list

    My general fiction literature list

  • 5 years ago


    Kirk and Spock played 3d chess in Star Trek.

  • 5 years ago



  • 5 years ago


    Awesome article!  Published in the BORG Collective for added exposure :-)


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