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Notable Chess Lives Mourned In 2020
Did composer Ennio Morricone love chess as much as music? Fans in both worlds mourn his passing at age 91. Photo: FIDE.

Notable Chess Lives Mourned In 2020

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All deaths create losses—for families, friends, fans, and communities. In the chess world this year, several notable stars who died, some unexpectedly, will be particularly missed. Of those no longer with us, how well do you remember their lives?


Nikita Pearl Waligwa

The loss of a young person is particularly tragic. Nikita Pearl Waligwa, the Ugandan teenager who starred in the movie Queen of Katwe, died of brain cancer in February.

In the 2016 Disney movie about a chess prodigy, she played the role of Gloria, a younger friend of the main character, Phiona Mutesi, an uneducated girl who began playing chess in 2005. Overcoming overwhelming odds, Mutesi became the first female winner of Uganda’s junior chess championships and then began representing her country at international tournaments.

Nikita Pearl Waligwa
Nikita Pearl Waligwa, playing Gloria, explains the rules of chess in the movie Queen of Katwe. Photo: BBC via Disney.

Filmed in Katwe, a slum in Uganda’s capital of Kampala, the movie is based on an article by Tim Crothers that appears in the Jan. 10, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine. Crothers writes that Mutesi masters “a game so foreign that there's no word for it in Luganda, their native language.” She learns to play at a church that had just seven chessboards, “and chess pieces are so scarce that sometimes an orphan pawn must stand in for a king.”

Only 15 when she died, Waligwa was first diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2016. She recovered a year later, but another tumor was found in 2019. In the movie, she explains the rules of chess to Mutesi. One of Waligwa’s memorable lines is, “In chess, the small one can become the big one.”

In chess, the small one can become the big one.
—Nikita Pearl Waligwa in the movie Queen of Katwe

(For more on her life, see her obituary in The New York Times here.)

Arianne Caoili

Another tragic loss occurred in March with the passing of WIM Arianne Caoili, who had been injured in a car accident in Armenia and could not recover from the injuries she sustained even after several operations. A multitalented individual known for her achievements in dance, social work, consulting work as well as chess, she was awarded the woman FIDE master and woman international master titles in 2001.

The Filipino-Australian player completed in seven Women’s Chess Olympiads. Another significant tournament for her was the World Youth Chess Championships in 1996, where she met her future husband, now GM Levon Aronian, for the first time, although their friendship did not start to blossom until 2006. After becoming engaged in 2015, they were married in 2017.

Arianne Caoili with Levon Aronian
Caoili at the 6th Tal Memorial in 2011 in Moscow with Aronian, who finished second. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Among her many amazing exploits that fascinated the chess world was a 2,000-kilometer bike ride to raise funds for the Children of Armenia. Her interests in the arts such as music and dance (she competed on the TV show Dancing with the Stars in season five and finished in second place) were also well-known. She once said: “Without art, life can be miserable. This is also why I love playing chess.”

On her passing at age 33, Aronian wrote on Twitter: "I have no words to express my grief over my wife Arianne's death. She was an intelligent, hard-working, and joyous person that lived a beautiful life.”

Without art, life can be miserable. This is also why I love playing chess.
—Arianne Caoili

(For more on her life, see her obituary on Chess.com here.)

Dmitry Svetushkin

The victim of another tragic misfortune was GM Dmitry Svetushkin, who died in September at the age of 40. The Moldovan chess player had been awarded the grandmaster title in 2002. He died after falling from a sixth-floor window in Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, where he lived in an apartment with his mother.

Several close chess friends thought that his fall was induced by depression caused by the coronavirus pandemic. GM David Navara wrote that Svetushkin could have been “an indirect victim of the pandemic. The world somehow turned upside down and it was not easy for many to find their place in it.” Similarly, GM Ilia Smirin expressed this view: “The damn pandemic, which destroyed the usual rhythm of life and isolated people, meaning a vacuum of the tournaments that had kept him afloat, that unsettledness, loneliness—perhaps that’s why this terrible thing happened.”

Dmitry Svetushkin
Dmitry Svetushkin. Photo: FIDE via Twitter.

Svetushkin won the Moldovan Chess Championship in 2000. He played for the Moldovan national team in the Chess Olympiad as well as the European Team Chess Championship. A successful trainer, he was instrumental in teaching the strongest young players in his country. Svetushkin was very fond of sports, and the triathlon was his favorite. His diverse interests also included Russian literature and Jewish metaphysics.

(For more on his life, see his obituary on Chess-News.ru here.)

Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone, the Oscar-winning composer of more than 500 film scores and the creator of the “Sound of the American West” (such as the score to the movie The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), died in July at the age of 91. An avid chess fan, Morricone had begun playing chess as a child but was required to stop playing by his father—a trumpet player who taught his son to read music and play various instruments—because chess was interfering with his music studies.

Never playing again until he was an accomplished musician, Morricone took chess very seriously and even trained with IM Stefano Tatai, the 12-time Italian champion. About his chess-playing passions, Morricone said: "Had I not become a composer, I would have wanted to be a chess player, but a high-level one, someone competing for the world title."

Morricone directs an ensemble in Milan in 2018.
Morricone directs an ensemble in Milan in 2018. Photo: Luca Bruno/Associated Press.

He considered the peak of his chess-playing successes to be his draw in a game against GM Boris Spassky in a simul in Turin in 2000. Of Spassky, Morricone said that he was “a very laid back, easygoing person, but on the chessboard, he was fiercely determined." Morricone also had the opportunity to play against such chess greats as GMs Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Judit Polgar, and Peter Leko. When he died, Polgar tweeted: “I have always admired Ennio Morricone. I was fortunate to meet him; he challenged me in two rapid games in 2004 at the Hungarian Academy of Rome.”

Morricone completed several chess-related compositions. He composed “Chess Players’ Anthem” for the 2006 Chess Olympiad in Turin, Italy. His "Dance of the Chess Game" (Spotify link), from Secret of the Sahara, a TV miniseries in the 1980s, also combines his love of music with his love of the game.

Had I not become a composer, I would have wanted to be a chess player, but a high-level one, someone competing for the world title.
—Ennio Morricone

(For more on his life and interest in chess, see his obituary by FIDE here.)

Stanislav Bogdanovich

The chess world was shocked in March when it learned that GM Stanislav Bogdanovich was found dead in a Moscow apartment. He had remained in Moscow for several days after competing successfully in the B group of Aeroflot Open 2020 with 105 players in February. He had tied for first with 7/9 and placed third based on tiebreaks. Awarded the titles of international master in 2009 and grandmaster in 2017, the Ukrainian chess player who also competed for Russia was only 27 years old when he died.

Bogdanovich and his girlfriend, Nataliya Vernigora, a promising young chess player, were apparently the victims of accidental asphyxiation. Both were found dead with balloons used to inhale nitrous oxide (commonly known as laughing gas). Because it is linked to deaths by causing breathing difficulties and oxygen deprivation, the legality of its use varies from country to county; however, it is legal for recreational purposes in Russia.

Stanislav Bogdanovich and Nataliya Vernigora
Bogdanovich and his girlfriend died in a Moscow apartment. Photos: Facebook via BBC.

Among his achievements, Bogdanovich won the Ukrainian under-18 championship, even achieving a win in the championship after making 210 moves. He also won several international tournaments and was well-respected for his successes in rapid and blitz. However, he had caused an uproar in Ukraine by recently playing for Russia against his home nation in an online team bullet event.

(For more on his life and chess career, see his obituary on Chess.com here.)

Max von Sydow

Would you play chess with Death? Max von Sydow, the actor who did exactly that in the movie The Seventh Seal, died in March at age 90. An actor for 65 years, he was featured in many Hollywood blockbusters but prominently known for the movie released in 1957 in which he encounters Death over a chessboard.

In the movie, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, a man seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God as the Black Plague is sweeping through Sweden, his home country. Named Antonius Block, he is a knight returning with his squire after being away at war abroad for 10 years. As Block returns, he discovers deserted villages and encounters a widespread collapse of the social order caused by the pandemic. Then Death appears to the knight and tells him that his time “has come.”

Max von Sydow faces Death
In the movie The Seventh Seal, Max von Sydow faces Death, played by Bengt Ekerot. Photo: The Economist. 

Rather than accepting his fate, the knight challenges Death to a game of chess for his life and to forestall the expected outcome. During the game, the knight knocks over the pieces on the board and claims that he doesn’t remember their positions. However, Death claims to know and resets the pieces with Block’s king in check.

In diverting Death’s attention, the knight buys time so that his squire and the squire’s family can escape. However, they are the only survivors. Death’s victory in the game is inevitable, and the knight, his family, and his other companions are subdued by the plague. Classic lines in the movie include Block saying, “I met Death today. We are playing chess.” In addition, the following exchange is also memorable:

Antonius Block: You drew black.

Death: Appropriate, don't you think?

I met Death today. We are playing chess.
—Max von Sydow, playing the character Antonius Block

(For more on his career, see his obituary in The Guardian here.)

Wolfgang Uhlmann

Considered the best player in East German history and one of the top German players ever, Wolfgang Uhlmann died in August at age 85. Consistently among the top-30 players in the world, he earned the grandmaster title in 1959 when only about 100 players had received that designation from FIDE.

Growing up in Dresden, Germany, he learned at age six how to play chess from his father. The family was in that city during the devastating Allied carpet bombing of World War II in February 1945 but escaped serious injury, although more than 22,000 residents were killed.

Wolfgang Uhlmann
Uhlmann in 2015 in Dresden, Germany, where he had lived his entire life. Photo: Matthias Hiekel/Associated Press.

Uhlmann won the East German championship a record 11 times and also represented East Germany at the Chess Olympiad that many times. After becoming a chess professional, he was supported by the East German government, an unusual arrangement in his country, although it was common in the Soviet Union. When Germany was unified again, he continued to earn a living as a chess professional with income generated by books and instructional videos. Of his chess career, he once remarked: “I’ve been privileged.”

Uhlmann estimated this year that he had played about 15,000 games in serious competitions. On Uhlmann’s passing, the European Chess Union posted on social media: “His chess knowledge was widely recognized, and he was invited by World Champion Anatoly Karpov to be his second in his 70s. Uhlmann was extremely respected all over the chess world for his sportsmanship and goodwill.”

I’ve been privileged.
—Wolfgang Uhlmann about his chess career

(For more on his life and chess career, see his obituary on Chess.com here.)


Finally, other grandmasters and notable chess players who died in 2020 include Igor Yakovlevich Blekhtsin, Krzysztof Bulski, Gennady Kuzmin, Tatjana Lematschko, Don Schultz, Miron Sher, Markus Stangi, Michel Nguele Viang, and Arsen Yegiazarian.

What other chess personalities who died this year were important and meaningful for you? Please add how they inspired you in the comments section.