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The Chess Problem is a short story by Agatha Christie which was first published in issue 1620 of The Sketch on 13 February 1924. It was the seventh of a series of connected stories to be published in the magazine under the series title "The Man who was Number Four: Further Adventures of M. Poirot".

In January 1927, the stories in the series were woven together with minor changes and some additional connecting paragraphs and then published in novel form as The Big Four. For background as to the circumstances of this, see The Big Four. The short story formed the basis for chapter 11 of The Big Four (with the slightly different title of "A Chess Problem"). This version includes additional linking text to make the story transition smoothly as part of the whole novel.

Later the same year, in August 1927, the story was published in The Blue Book Magazine. The text in this latter case was the same (with minor abridgements) as in the novelisation and so this can be considered a serialization of the novel rather than a republication of the original short story text as carried in The Sketch.

The original text of the story as found in The Sketch was therefore quite rare until 2016. In that year, HarperCollins published The Big Four (Detective Club Edition), a collection of the "Big Four" short stories as they first appeared in The Sketch.

In the Sketch series, this story is preceded by The Yellow Jasmine Mystery and followed by The Baited Trap.

In 1946, the story was included in the collection Sporting Blood: The Great Detective Stories edited by Ellery Queen. All references to "The Big Four" were removed to allow the story to be understood as a stand-alone narrative.[1] The Chess Problem free of "Big Four" references continued to appear in various anthologies in subsequent years as a stand-alone story.


A month after the events in The Yellow Jasmine Mystery, Japp tries to interest Poirot in a strange case of a chess master who dies in the middle of a chess game. Japp means it as a diversion from Poirot's obsession with the Big Four but it turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Plot summary[]

(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)

A month after the case, Japp informs Poirot of another mysterious death- the chess grandmasters Gilmour Wilson and Doctor Savaronoff were playing chess when shortly into the game Gilmour Wilson collapsed dead due to heart failure. Japp suspects he was poisoned, and Poirot is called in. Japp suspects that the poison was intended for Savaronoff, a former Revolutionist in Russia who just escaped from the Bolsheviks. He refused several times to play a game of chess with Wilson but eventually gave in. The match took place in Savaronoff's flat, with at least a dozen people watching the game. Wilson's body had a small burn mark on his left hand and was also clutching a white bishop when he died, part of Savaronoff's set.

As Poirot and Hastings enter the Doctor's flat, Poirot notices that the antique Persian rug has had a nail driven through it. After the proceedings in the flat, Poirot and Hastings return home and Poirot takes out a second white bishop. He weighed the one he took with the one Wilson was holding and discovered that the one he was holding was heavier. He explains that the bishop has a metal rod inside it, so that the current passing through the recently refurbished flat below is powered through the nail, into the also tampered table and into the bishop. The bishop was chosen because of Wilson's predictable first few moves, and Poirot suspects the servant of the flat and Savaronoff's niece of working for the Big Four. However, when they arrive at the flat Savaronoff's niece is gagged and unconscious and Ivan and the Doctor are nowhere to be seen. Poirot explains that Savaronoff did die in Russia and that number Four impersonated him as a cover. He killed Wilson because if Savaronoff was the second greatest chess master in the world, people would soon realise that number Four was nothing like the chess player Savaronoff was. With Number Four gone, the two are back to square one again.


Research notes[]

Comparison between the various versions[]

  • The text of chapter 11 in the novel is the same as that of the original story except for a few additional paragraphs at the end. In them, Hastings tells Poirot that he finds it difficult to believe that Number Four would kill a man "just to sustain a role". There were easier ways. And why would he take a risk he could so easily avoid? In answer, Poirot explains that it was a matter of psychology. Number Four did not see that avoiding a killing was simpler. It probably appealed to his mind to be able to foresee events and plan the operation so that Wilson ended up as his own executioner.
  • The 1946 Sporting Blood version removed all references to "The Big Four" or "Number Four" to allow the story to function as a stand-alone narrative. Other versions in anthologies followed the same approach.


Film, TV, or theatrical versions[]

Agatha Christie's Poirot[]

Publication history[]

Original short story text[]

As part of novelisation[]

  • 1927: The Big Four, William Collins and Sons (London), 27 January 1927, Hardcover, 282 pp
  • 1927: The Big Four, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1927, Hardcover, 276 pp
  • 1927: The Blue Book Magazine, Vol. 45 No. 5 (Chicago), September 1927.[2]

Standalone text[]

  • 1941: 101 Years’ Entertainment, ed. Ellery Queen, Little Brown, 1941
  • 1942: Sporting Blood: The Great Sports Detective Stories, Ellery Queen, Little Brown (Boston), 1942
  • 1946: Sporting Blood: The Great Sports Detective Stories, Ellery Queen, Blue Ribbon Books (New York), 1946
  • 1946: Sporting Detective Stories, ed. Ellery Queen, Faber and Faber, 1946
  • 1947: The Great Detectives, Hennel Locke Ltd., 1947.
  • 1968: Modern Short Story Classics of Suspense, Reader’s Digest, 1968.
  • 1972: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, vol. 60 no. 2, whole no. 345, Aug 1972.
  • 1991: Sinister Gambits ed. Richard Peyton, Souvenir Press, 1991

The text in Sporting Blood, Modern Short Story Classics of Suspense and Sinister Gambits had all references to "The Big Four" removed so that the story can exist as a standalone narrative. It is likely that a standalone text was used for The Great Detectives and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine also.


  1. David Morris, "ANTHOLOGY INSIGHT: Poirot's Three Chess Problems!" Collecting (blog), 25 Aug 2023. URL
  2. See this listing at Galactic Central