Sunday, October 19, 2008

Chess and Crime

Adrian Schwartz (extreme right) watching Moshe Czerniak play in the Israeli championship, 1965. Credit: Ad Ha'Ragli Ha'Acharon, by Yochanan Afek and Horacio Volman, p. 71. 

There are two cliches about chess players and crime: one, that they are devious and cunning, and therefore prone to commit complicated crimes nobody can solve. The fictional Sherlock Holmes famously tells Dr. Watson, 'Amberley excelled at chess -- one mark, Watson, of a scheming mind' (in The Adventure of the Retired Colourman). W. H. Wallace, as Edward Winter notes (check 'Chess and the Wallace Murder Case' in Winter's Chess Notes), was viewed with great suspicion for just this reason when his wife was murdered--despite the fact that he was a third-rate player. 

On the other hand, chess players are (for some reason) considered intelligent, so they are sometimes asked (or nominated themselves) to solve real-life murder mysteries. Hence Ray Keene claimed that he had helped solve a murder case using his deductive abilities to make sense of the widely-published clues (a map of some sort, presumably drawn by the perpetrator) in Mycroft Holmes-fashion. Like Sherlock's brother (in, e.g., The Bruce-Partington Plans), he allegedly solved the case sitting in his chair, using no more than his amazing powers of deduction. It should be added that Keene's claims were met with general skepticism. (See Chess Monthly, Nov. 1990, for his account.)

There are, however, exceptions. Sometimes chess players are criminal, and sometimes chess does help solve crimes in interesting ways. The case of Adrian Schwartz illustrates both. Schwartz, a promising young player, was eventually captured and convicted as a serial rapist a few years after this photo was taken. He is in prison to this day. [Update, 2012 -- he was recently released after serving his last sentence of 20 years.] 

Also, as Itzhak bar-Ziv told me, Schwartz, as a young man, went AWOL from the army. The army couldn't locate him for months, but Schwartz saw no reason why being a fugitive should bar him from playing in a tournament he qualified for. [Update, 2012: Avraham Kaldor notes it was an important local tournament, probably the national championship's quarter-final or the Lakser club's championship.] The army put two and two together, and sent two MPs to nab him as he was playing. They almost did: he evaded them at the last moment after (Kaldor says) giving them both an unexpected shove as they held him and escaping. He remained at large for a few more months.

So, for once, chess did actually help solve a crime, or at least (almost) capture a criminal. 

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