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 1972.

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 that.

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 in California.

Grandmaster Vladimir Malakhov (1980- ), rated 2732, is a nuclear physicist.

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 study time.

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 college.

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 labs.

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 younger years.