Physicists and Chess
Here is a list of some
famous physicists who played chess. Perhaps chess helped with their
analytical minds and their physics.
Zhores Alferov (1930 - ), won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics
for developing semiconductor heterostructures. He is an avid chess player
and a good friend of Boris Spassky.
William Bragg (1890-1971) won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics
for his work in x-rays. He was the secretary of his school’s chess club
at the University of Adelaide in Australia.
Percy Bridgman (1882-1961) won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physics
for his work on the physics of high pressure. He played on the Harvard
varsity chess team.
John Cockroft (1897-1967) won the 1951 Nobel Prize in Physics
for splitting the atomic nucleus. He was an avid chess player.
Paul Dirac (1902-1984) was a chess player, probably taught by
his father, who gave him a chess set for Christmas. In his biography, The
Strangest Man – The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, by Graham
Farmelo, it stated that Dirac worked all day long and took time off only for
his Sunday walk and to play chess. He beat most students in the college
chess club, sometimes several at the same time. He served for many years
as president of the chess club of St. John’s College, Cambridge. With his
stepson, he would go over chess problems that they found in newspapers.
He played chess with friends such as Peter Kapitza (1894-1984), a Russian
physicist, who taught Dirac how to play tennis. When he lectured, he
sometime linked subatomic particles to chess. In 1929, Dirac discussed
chess problems with Heisenberg on their tour to Japan. After his
return to Leipzig, Heisenberg wrote to Dirac: “You are wrong…in the question of
mating a King and a Knight with a King and Rook; this is not possible according
to the edition of 1926 of Dufresne’s handbook of chess (the best book about
theory of chess).”
Leroy Dubeck is a professor of physics at Temple University,
with a PhD in Physics from Rutgers. He was USCF president from 1969 to
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) played a little chess. He told
reporters that he played chess as a boy. He always had a chess set and
board set up at home on his coffee table. When he settled in Princeton,
New Jersey, he played chess with some of the neighbor boys. Einstein
wrote a preface to Hannak’s Emanuel Lasker, the Life of a Chess Master.
Einstein and Lasker were good friends. There is an alleged chess game of
his playing Robert Oppenheimer.
Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) was a chess player, but a poor one at
Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a chess player. In his
lectures, he would compare physics laws with chess analogies. He was a
member of his high school chess club.
Ivar Giaever (1929- ) won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physics for
his work on the tunneling phenomena in solids. He learned chess from his
father and used chess to illustrate the science of Nature.
Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) was probably taught chess by his
father. He spent his free time in the evenings playing chess, which he
always won. He often held chess matches under his desk at school and
could give Queen odds and still win. He would often play blindfold chess
with his father while hiking. He was able to reconstruct entire games
from memory. After he entered the university in Munich, his obsession
with chess became so obvious that Professor Arnold Sommerfeld (1868-1951)
finally had to forbid him to play, claiming it was a waste of his time and
talents. Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958) also told Heisenberg to give up chess
and save whatever intellectual effort he could muster for physics.
Heisenberg continued to play chess, however. During World War II,
Heisenberg was convinced Germany would lose the war. He once said,
“Hitler has a chess endgame with one rook less than the others, so he will lose
– it will take a year.” According to his wife, Heisenberg saw politics as
a “game of chess, in which the feelings and passions of people are subordinated
to the charted course of political events, just as the chess figures to the
rules of the game.”
Michio Kaku (1947- ) states that he played first board on his
high school chess team at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto.
Peter Kapitza (1894-1984) won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics
for his work in super fluidity. When he was living in Paris, he used to
make a living by playing chess in the small cafes for some wager. He
pretended to be a beginner and, in the end, he would usually win.
Willis Lamb (1913-2008) won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Physics for
his work on the hydrogen spectrum. He played in several chess tournaments
Grandmaster Vladimir Malakhov (1980- ), rated 2732, is a nuclear
Albert Michelson (1852-1931) won the 1907 Nobel Prize in Physics
for his measurement of the speed of light. He participated in several
chess tournaments in California.
Heike Onnes (1853-1926) won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Physics for
his work on low temperatures. He was an avid chess player.
Roger Penrose (1931- ) is the brother of honorary GM Jonathan
Penrose and is a physicist and chess player.
Max Planck (1858-1947) won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Physics for
his discovery of energy quanta. He played chess with Emanuel Lasker.
Isidor Rabi (1898-1988) won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics for
his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance. He was an avid chess player.
Abdus Salam (1926-1996) won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics for
his work on the electro-weak theory. He played chess in college and spent many
hours at the game before being reprimanded by his father for wasting valuable
Erwin Schroedinger (1887-1961) won the 1933 Nobel Prize in
Physics for his work in quantum mechanics. He once wrote “I do like
chess, but it has turned out to be not the appropriate relaxation from the work
I am doing.”
Julian Schwinger (1918-1994) won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics
for his work in quantum electrodynamics. He played chess while in
John Strutt (1842-1919), or Lord Rayleigh, won the 1904 Nobel
Prize in Physics for discovering argon. He was the president of the Essex
County Chess Association.
Edward Teller (1908-2003) was an avid chess player. He
learned chess from his father when he was six. He often hiked and played
chess with friends without a board. Teller played chess with Heisenberg,
but could not beat him at chess. He was able to beat him at table
tennis. During lunch breaks or after work, he played chess with other
physicists at Lawrence Livermore Labs.
Bill Wall (1951- ) B.S. in Physics (Astrophysics) with
assignments and work at Oak Ridge and Lawrence Livermore and Air Force Physics
Carl Wieman (1951- ) won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics for his
work on the Bose-Einstein condensate. He was a strong chess player in his