The Real-Life Chess Matches That Inspired A Famous Cowboy Bebop Episode

Unlike the ill-fated live-action series, the original "Cowboy Bebop" remains a favorite among anime fans. One of the most popular episodes of the series features the crew of interstellar bounty hunters searching for an elusive mastermind known simply as "Chessmaster Hex." As his name would suggest, the guy really likes chess, and the entire episode, entitled "Bohemian Rhapsody," is rife with chess metaphors and references. In fact, the episode can be seen as an homage to one of the greatest American chess players in history, as it incorporates two of his most famous chess matches and aspects of his life into the story.

The Real Life Chessmaster Hex

The chess games featured in "Bohemian Rhapsody" are based on two real-life matches played by a chess master named Paul Morphy. Morphy was a chess prodigy who is considered one of the greatest of all time, and was known as "The Pride and Sorrow of Chess" in mid-1800s chess fandom due to his wildly successful but short-lived chess career. While the present-day perception of chess is that of an intellectual sport played by presumably respectable people, the classic strategic game was looked down upon during Murphy's day. In fact, professional and competitive chess players were viewed in the same unfavorable light as professional gamblers, making it difficult for the son of a wealthy, distinguished family to pursue it as a career without social stigma. This negative perception of the game and professional players is partially responsible for Morphy's early retirement from competitive chess, though he remained fond of the game throughout his life.

Like his anime counterpart, Morphy was regarded as a genius from an early age. He also suffered a severe decline in his mental health in the years leading up to his death. According to his friends and family, Morphy descended into a state of delusion and paranoia, believing that people were trying to poison him or otherwise conspire against him. Unlike Chessmaster Hex, he did not die peacefully after playing one final round of chess, but instead passed away from a stroke in his bathtub, surrounded by pairs of shoes that he'd inexplicably arranged around him — one of many eccentric habits he'd adopted as a result of his unstable psychological state, according to his friends and family.

The Games

The first chess game depicted in the episode is actually an exact recreation of the game Paul Morphy played with another chess master by the name of Adolf Andersson. Stored on the chess piece that is actually a memory cartridge, Ed reveals to the crew that the data displayed is a chess match between players named "Deep Blue" and "Chessmaster Hex." Deep Blue is also a reference to the chess-playing supercomputer of the same name, developed by tech company IBM in the 1980s. Deep Blue was the first machine to defeat a reigning chess champion without modifying the time control aspect of the game.

The second reference to one of Morphy's most well-known matches is featured in the game played between Ed and Hex. Like the "Deep Blue" game, this is also an accurate recreation of a game between Morphy and another opponent: John William Schulten. A shot of the board is identical — to the exact position of the pieces — to the real-life match that inspired this sequence.

Personally, as a former "gifted kid" who was forced to learn and play chess in third grade when I would have preferred to play Monopoly, I feel like chess is a game that's more fun in theory than in reality. That said, I can appreciate the fact that chess has inspired a wealth of pop culture references, literary metaphors, and of course, the 14th episode of "Cowboy Bebop."