International Master Jeremy Silman consulted on the chess challenge in Philosopher's Stone (see here for details).

Now Ron is a good player, but the board may be tested by a range of people with different abilities, from grandmasters to people who don't know how to play.

My questions are:

  1. Does the board adjust to the player's ability? E.g. play at grandmaster level for exceptional talent
  2. What happens if a challenger doesn't know how to play chess?
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    What happens if a challenger doesn't know how to play chess?, He/She doesn't get to pass the obstacle I presume
    – Aegon
    Aug 16, 2017 at 9:00
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    I always wondered why nobody replaced the King in the game. That's one you never have to exchange in any game.
    – Sulthan
    Aug 17, 2017 at 11:57
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    @Sulthan. Maybe Quirrell did exactly that. It might even have been a good back-up plan to be the king, trade off loads of pieces, then just fight the remaining pieces if it looks like you aren't going to win :-) Aug 17, 2017 at 12:02
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    @Sulthan Presumably checkmate involves killing the king, if the way other pieces are 'taken' is anything to go by.
    – Doddy
    Aug 18, 2017 at 16:21
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    Reading though the question - maybe the challange is not to win a chess game - the magic creates a perfect opponent and lets win only if commander sacrifice himself. McGonagall is from Gryffindor and self-sacrifice is a Gryffindor (beside V. would want to command himself so he would need to sacrifice himself which he wouldn't do). Aug 18, 2017 at 19:03

5 Answers 5


I think it is unlikely.

Remember, it was there as an obstacle to stop unauthorized personnel from accessing the stone. It wasn't there to facilitate them or to give them a fair shot.

The Chess challenge was designed by Professor McGonagall and it was supposed to be only she who could win it and get access to the next level. Well she or her colleagues like Snape and Dumbledore who were part of the security team (presumably).

So no it wouldn't be wise to make such a safety measure adjust to skills of the intruder.

And if the person doesn't know how to play chess, they are not supposed to be there, are they? That's the whole point of the chess challenge being there.

Otherwise why bother at all?

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    Follow up: Is the chess challenge the level of McGonagall? Can magic exceed your own skill level?
    – Thomas
    Aug 16, 2017 at 20:03
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    @RichS No idea about her personal skills. Not much of a fan of HP series so my apologies. But logical conclusion would be she is a good player, we know Snape chose his potions riddle because that's what he's good at. Makes sense that She chose what she was good at. She perhaps never envisioned someone sacrificing themselves like Ron did.
    – Aegon
    Aug 17, 2017 at 6:53
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    @Aegon Good point on Ron's sacrifice! He did get 50 points for his house for that move, which as Dumbledore pointed out, was a move worthy of a Gryffindor with real bravery.
    – RichS
    Aug 17, 2017 at 6:55
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    @RichS: (Spoilers!) Sacrifice is a key theme in HP. Overlooking that possibility led to Voldemort's first downfall. It also made it impossible to guess Snape's motives. It allowed R.A.B. to retrieve the locket. It also gave Harry protection and at the end allowed Harry to in turn give all his friends protection. It is also likely that Harry's sacrifice resulted in the elder wand not considering him defeated by Voldemort. Finally, the sacrifice ensured that Voldemort was the one to try to kill Harry, which Dumbledore told Snape was essential, presumably for the blood bond to protect him.
    – user21820
    Aug 17, 2017 at 11:25
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    pro life tip: don't use solvable problems to protect your stuff
    – Octopus
    Aug 17, 2017 at 21:56

I'm going to go for the easy answer, I am aware of that, but the longer I think about it and the more context I add to the issue, the more it is the only thing that makes sense.

The chess challenge doesn't adjust. It has been designed to be played by Ron, Harry and Hermione only, and took their relative skills and importance regarding the following challenges into account. You are overthinking it.

The whole existence of these challenges is flawed. Their purpose is to keep intruders/robbers away by testing the abilities of anybody is trying to reach the stone in various domains. It even bothered me when I first read it when I was 10 years old :

  • If you want to restrict access to weak persons, make it that only those who beat challenges can access.
  • If you want to keep any stranger away, keep the key(s) in your pocket.

In that case, the stone would have been perfectly safe if Dumbledore had kept the token necessary to access the stone in his pocket. One might argue that it would have been impossible for anyone else to access the stone if needed and if Dumbledore was unable to open the door/give that person the key.

For one, that situation is very unlikely to happen, and it still doesn't justify a process that requires for anyone, whatever his/her intentions are, to undergo life threatening challenges just to access the stone. It's the opposite of defense/protection since it puts the owners of the stone and those who would want to steal it in the same position: forced to use their skills to be deemed worthy of recovering or stealing the stone.

It's as if instead of protecting the stone, they'd put their brightest minds on designing the perfect way to put the Philosopher Stone back into the game, waiting as a reward for whoever completes the challenges. It puzzled me as a ten years old, and it still does. The only purpose of this protection process is to show a confrontation between Harry and his friends and Voldemort and his servant, but while respecting some requirements:

  • The confrontation cannot be direct, since the heroes are only 11 years old first years. They lack both experience, knowledge and skill and any direct confrontation would have been both quick and fatal, no entertainment there.
  • The confrontation must still involve some risk. It's the end of the first book's thread of action, right before the ending. It's the final boss and therefore must be challenging.
  • It must make the heroes rely on their specific skills in order to build in the mind of the reader the idea that the three of them are complementary and need each other in order to succeed.

The third point is the reason why there is a chess challenge. Harry Potter is emphasised throughout the whole seven books. He is the best at Quidditch, his childhood was a Roald Dahl novel, he is brave and skilled.

Hermione's forte is knowledge and logic. That's lucky, because there is never enough knowledge. That way, help can come to Harry in the form of knowledge at any time necessary, that's what Hermione is, a knowledge trump card.

Ron, in fact, is not needed, his purpose is to complete Harry's family. He brings his whole family into the story, that quickly adopts Harry, and is like a brother to him. Since he isn't needed in the confrontation, it had to integrate an element that would make his presence mandatory, so that Ron can shine once in the freaking book.

That's why chess. The author gave us hints at some point that Ron is a strong chess player and then you forget about it, believing it's trivia, because that's the first book of the saga and you aren't yet accustomed to that technique. And then, the only way to continue to hunt Voldemort is by winning a chess game against enchanted pieces, and moreover, you have to play as pieces yourself, which means that you can be killed. There is no other way around it, you need Ron.

By being strong enough at strategy to not only beat the magic board but doing so with the only loss not being fatal - I assume here that Ron doesn't die because the piece he's mounted on takes most of the blow and that it was the plan - Ron saves the day and gives a perfect reason for being of no use afterwards: he is knocked out because the price of victory was his own sacrifice, which he paid.

To answer your question, my best bet is that the game doesn't adjust.

  • It doesn't adjust in the story because it was designed so that one needs to be good enough at playing chess to be worthy of the Stone - I'm happy Ron's forte wasn't eating contests... - and therefore the magic pieces were strong enough to beat most opponents. A grandmaster would have won as well, but maybe without having to sacrifice himself or a friend.
  • It doesn't adjust in a meta perspective because it was designed while having in mind that particular group of three, including Ron and his ability at playing chess, which had been itself introduced before foreshadowing that challenge. That challenge was designed specifically for Ron and two more people that needed to keep going after it.

Please, keep in mind that I'm not claiming that JKR was lazy here - or that she wasn't. That's children literature, while that kind of novel perfectly can be subtle and everything, it doesn't have to. That's okay, and she got slightly better at this sort of schemes in the subsequent novels, anyway.

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    The way I read the question, it was asking from an in universe perspective. Your answer seems to be from a real world perspective. Aug 16, 2017 at 12:04
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    My answer actually focuses on the idea that there is no in-universe perspective, for reasons that have to do with real world perspectives.
    – Sarkouille
    Aug 16, 2017 at 12:14
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    If Voldemort sees a locked door, he'll blast it with magic until he gets through. If he sees a series of challenges, he'll delay himself solving them long enough to get caught. It's a clever strategy, really. (Obviously, if it were really possible to readily make a room that someone couldn't get into with magic, we'd see it used a lot more).
    – Adamant
    Aug 16, 2017 at 12:38
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    @MatthieuM. Having lots and lots of different locks means you have to be a ---lock-picker--- wand owner, competent chess player, a botanical expert, etc. all at once. (By the way, crackers crack passwords - hackers make cryptographic hash algorithms.)
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 16, 2017 at 14:20
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    The lock and key was there: The Mirror of Erised. You won't leave a high-security bank vault accessible from road just because only the people who know the combination can open it, would you? You'd have other security measures like security guards. Likewise, the Mirror was the real lock, which was protected by other enchantments. Aug 16, 2017 at 14:25

~Work in progess~
Citations and a larger explanation will be added soon.

My personal in universe theory is:

The challenges are designed to stall for time and alert the relevant personnel (Dumbledore).

At this point in the story, no one knew the person that wanted to steal the stone, so the objective was to capture the attempting thief (second to protecting the stone which was achieved by the mirror alone).

This also explains why the challenges could be dealt with by 11 year olds, as it could not be too deadly (besides the fact that most of the work was already done).

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    I think you have the making of an [at least partial] answer here, but it'd be nice if you had some citations to back up your theory. Aug 16, 2017 at 13:39
  • I actually think this is correct, and, let us say "obvious from the context and logic" even if not explicitly stated. How else could it be?
    – Fattie
    Aug 17, 2017 at 14:07

No it was not adaptive, Ron was just good. Dumbledore said so himself when dishing out the house points.

"First -- to Mr. Ronald Weasley..." Ron went purple in the face; he looked like a radish with a bad sunburn. "... for the best-played game of chess Hogwarts has seen in many years, I award Gryffindor house fifty points."

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    The question is was he that good at chess, ir at sacrificing the (knight) himself for the king?
    – user68762
    Aug 16, 2017 at 16:11
  • isn't the quote 'these many years" ?
    – Fattie
    Aug 17, 2017 at 14:05
  • Just checked and the book is same as my quote. Aug 17, 2017 at 14:08
  • @Nahiri I believe the challenge was made so that one of the players would have to sacrifice. (If we accept that the challenge makes any sense at all.)
    – yo'
    Aug 20, 2017 at 0:10

I'm going to improve upon ksjohn's answer :

The chess challenge doesn't adjust. It has been designed to be played by Ron, Harry and Hermione only, and took their relative skills and importance regarding the following challenges into account. You are overthinking it.

but rather than a mere plot device by Rowling, It's best understood by the fact that the maze was designed to be played by Harry, Ron and Hermione. Not by Rowling, but by Dumbledore.

Dumbledore has been grooming Harry (and indirectly his friends) for the battle against Voldemort. We see that Dumbledore himself gives Harry the cloak, sends Hagrid to pick up Harry the same day as going to the vault, and many other things during the course of Harry's schooling to train him, and let him try out his strengths

"We have protected him because it has been essential to teach him, to raise him, to let him try his strength," -Albus Dumbledore, Deathly Hallows

The set of puzzles were so designed to be a perfect match for the skills of Harry, Ron and Hermione, so that they may be able to pass through these puzzles as well.

EDIT: and here is Harry speculating as such:

'He's a funny man, Dumbledore. I think he sort of wanted to give me a chance. I think he knows more or less everything that goes on here, you know. I reckon he had a pretty good idea we were going to try, and instead of stopping us, he just taught us enough to help. I don't think it was an accident he let me find out how the Mirror worked. It's almost like he thought I had the right to face Voldemort if I could...'

and you can find some counterarguments here

  • This answer is contradicted by Dumbledore's quote in The Lost Prophecy, where he says that he didn't expect Harry to get the Stone in his first year and that Harry faced Voldemort much sooner than he ever imagined. Aug 28, 2017 at 7:07
  • that is indeed true, but there is a quote by Harry that I've been trying to find where he says something along the lines of "i think Dumbledore intentionally did so and so and that he wanted me to at least have a go first". will post that one when i find it
    – ColonD
    Aug 28, 2017 at 9:21
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    also remember that he taught harry about the mirror of Erised so that he "may be prepared the next time"
    – ColonD
    Aug 28, 2017 at 9:23
  • I know the quote you're talking about. That's just Harry's speculating, in my opinion. I've argued as much here. Aug 28, 2017 at 11:43

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