Did a Chess Player Once Die From Complications From Playing Chess Blindfolded?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to board games and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of all board game urban legends so far.

BOARD GAME URBAN LEGEND: Harry Nelson Pillsbury died due to the ill effects of playing chess blindfolded.

Harry Nelson Pillsbury was one of the most successful chess players of the late 19th/early 20th century, holding the United States Chess Championship title for almost a decade (a title he lost only upon dying).

Pillsbury mastered a unique type of chess playing to make a little extra money while playing chess. Pillsbury was a master at “blindfold chess,” which is where a player plays a game of chess strictly by memorizing where the pieces are on the board.

Here are some players doing a game of modern blindfold chess (the computer tracks the pieces for them)…

As you might imagine, following an entire chess game just in your memory is quite difficult.

In 1902, just four years before his death at the age of 33, Pillsbury played 22 simultaneous blindfold games of chess!!

Playing that many games in your head can be pretty difficult, and there are those that say it all takes quite a hit on your nervous system.

In fact, due to health concerns, Russia has banned blindfold chess since 1930!

So when Pillsbury suddenly became sick in his early 30s and died in 1906 at just 33, people were looking for an explanation for his death, as he did not seek any treatment for his disease.

So as the story goes, it was the blindfold chess that was killing him.

Is that true?

Another prominent chess player of the day, Emanuel Lasker, said that Pillsbury had “died from an illness contracted through overexertion of the memory cells.”

Well, if you switch “genitalia” for “memory cells,” Lasker may be right, because Pillsbury ACTUALLY died of syphilis. At the time, in the circles of society Pillsbury was traveling in, people tended not even to ADMIT to having a sexually transmitted disease. So instead, Pillsbury just seemed to slowly deteriorate until his death in 1906 – of syphilis, not “memory over-exertion.”

That mumbo jumbo about “memory over-exertion” was appropriate enough back then, but the idea that Russia has it STILL banned now, almost eighty years after the fact, well, that’s surprising and a little bit sad.

The legend is…


Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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