The Chilling Case Of The Russian Chessboard Killer Alexander Pichushkin

Chess has, over the centuries, come to be associated with many things. By and large, the cerebral sport seems, at least to those who don't play, to be the domain of nerds, Soviets, and the occasional, shall we say, colorful figure like Bobby Fischer. And over the past few months, thanks to Beth Harmon and The Queen's Gambit, it's also been associated with sex, drugs, and proto-feminism.

One thing the game has not been associated with, however, is murder. But, for a period of time between 1999 and 2006, a Russian outcast named Alexander Pichushkin tied chess and homicide together, earning the nickname "the Chessboard Killer" in the process.

After his seven-year killing spree, Pichushkin was convicted of murdering 48 people; some believe the he killed as many as 60, according to FocusTV (posted on YouTube). He started by killing elderly and homeless men, mostly in a Moscow park, and had moved on to killing his neighbors, before getting caught in 2006.

Pichushkin got the nickname Chessboard Killer from a piece of evidence

Serial killers are known to keep records of their crimes, sometimes in the form of "trophies," such as personal belongings or body parts, as Psychology Today notes. Pichushkin was no exception: according to GQ, he got his nickname because of a record of his crimes found in his apartment: a chessboard, on which he'd recorded each of his murders on one of the board's squares.

Stretching the chess metaphor even further, Pichushkin once claimed that his goal was to kill one person for each of the 64 squares on the chess board. However, as BBC News reported, he later recanted that statement, saying that he'd have continued well past those 64 had he not been caught first.

It wasn't just chess that informed Pichushkin's murder spree, however. According to Biography, he was motivated by something of a murderous rivalry with another prolific Russian serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, the "Rostov Ripper," who had murdered at least 53 people a decade earlier.

Pichushkin was actually not a half-bad chess player

For Alexander Pichushkin, chess wasn't just a metaphor for his murder spree: it was the thing that began it. Specifically, once chess stopped satisfying his aggressive urges, he turned to murder.

According to Absolute Crime, the future murderer suffered a head injury as a child, having fallen off of a swing, which then conked him in the back of the head on the return. For most children, this would be a mundane and minor event, but Pichushkin's family members would later speculate that the injury sparked a change in his demeanor, perhaps due to brain trauma. The previously smart and sociable child became aggressive and hostile.

Over the course of the rest of his childhood, Pichushkin would suffer bullying, ostracism, and personal tragedies. But the one thing in his life that he could control was chess: His underlying aggression made him a combative chess player, competing at a game at which he would come to dominate. He took particular interest in playing against homeless, elderly men at Moscow's Bitsa Park, drinking copious amounts of vodka along with his opponents.

However, as an adult, the urges that he once satisfied by manipulating pawns and queens were no longer quelled by friendly competition. By the age of 18 he had committed his first murder: that of childhood friend Mikhail Odichuk.

Pichushkin began by killing homeless old men, but moved on to younger victims

In the early years, Pichushkin's victims were almost exclusively homeless, elderly men.

Between chess and vodka, the young murderer was able to befriend the homeless men who populated Moscow's parks. According to the Herald Sun, he would lure the men into isolation with talk of drinking vodka together and/or mourning the loss of his dog. Once alone, he would kill the men simply by tossing them into the city's sewers. There, some drowned, their deaths possibly hastened by the vodka in their systems. Later on, Pichushkin killed others more directly.

His choice of victims kept him out of the eyes of the law, as they were men who had few, if any, living relatives or friends or other connections — men whom few would miss.

However, by 2005, killing old men by drowning them failed to satisfy the killer's murderous urges. He moved on to killing younger men, as well as women and children. Further, according to Russia Today, his approach became more direct: He would sneak up on his victims from behind, bash their heads in with a hammer, and then, in a "signature" move, would stuff a bottle of vodka into the holes in their skulls.

Pichushkin's last victim was a woman

In June 2006, according to The Independent, Moscow police found the body of 36-year-old Marina Moskalyova. Inside a pocket was a ticket for a ride on the city's metro system, and soon police were looking over security camera footage. There, among the pixels, Pichushkin could be seen walking along with the woman who would be his final victim — only the third woman he would kill, in addition to dozens of men.

Once apprehended, the murderer not only admitted to his crimes, according to the TV documentary Serial Killers, he boasted of his crimes and even re-enacted some of them for the police.

"In all cases I killed for only one reason. I killed in order to live, because when you kill, you want to live. For me, life without murder is like life without food for you. I felt like the father of all these people, since it was me who opened the door for them to another world," he said of his crimes, according to Time.

Pichushkin is serving life without parole in one of Russia's most brutal prisons

On October 24, 2007, according to The Chicago Tribune, Russia's second-worst serial killer was convicted of 48 murders and three attempted murders.

Just a few years earlier, such a prolific killer would have been sentenced to death. However, Russia had instituted a moratorium on capital punishment by that time, so Pichushkin was instead sentenced to life in prison without parole, with the first 15 years to be spent in solitary confinement. As that was less than 15 years ago, the Bitsa Park killer is still doing time in solitary as of this writing.

What's more, Pichushkin is doing his time in Siberia's Polyarnaya Sova ("Arctic Owl") facility, one of Russia's worst penitentiaries. He himself described it as a "concentration camp," according to The Sun.

Behind bars, the Moscow murderer is something of a celebrity. As The Siberian Times reported, at least 80 women have written to the facility's most famous resident. He even proposed marriage to one of them, though that relationship appears to have come to an end.