The Player of Games
“Don’t play games with me. Don’t ever, ever think you’re capable of that.”
The 11th Doctor’s warning to River and Rory in The Impossible Astronaut is couched in a boast by no means idle. The errant Time Lord, ever more trickster than warrior, displays quite a knack for playing games – though perhaps he is not always as proficient in them as he believes himself to be.
Peter Davison’s sportive Fifth Doctor spent 69 episodes from 1982 to 1984 running around in impeccable cricket whites (until they were utterly ruined by a mud-burst at the end of The Caves of Androzani), and showed off his impressive grasp of the “gentleman’s game” in Black Orchid (1982).
Previous Doctors also hinted at sporting prowess – most frequently, the Fourth, who references cricket on numerous occasions, and reckoned himself a dab hand at Alpha-Centauran Table-Tennis, producing his honorary membership card as ID during the events of Robot (1974), with the flip aside “Very tricky opponents, those chaps. Six arms, and of course six bats. It really keeps you on your toes…”
Overall though, the Doctor seems to express a preference for pursuits of a more sedate nature. Let’s sort through some of the games the Doctor has played in the course of his travels throughout the multiverse.
The Doctor at Cards
MASTER: “You're bluffing on an empty hand, Doctor.”
DOCTOR: “I'm not bluffing and my hand, as you can see, is not empty.”
This exchange from Terror of the Autons (1971), when the two adversaries meet for the first time in a tense encounter at the UNIT laboratory, suggests that both the Third Doctor and Roger Delgado’s Master are somewhat conversant with the rules and language of the game of poker.
Given the Doctor’s predilection for deploying feints and bluffs against his opponents, it’s reasonable to assume he might appreciate an occasional round or two - and he certainly knows his way around a pack.
Poker currently enjoys worldwide domination over card games, but what many non-players don’t know is that there is a wide variety of poker variants with different rules, from Community Card type poker games, where part of the hand is shared by all players, to Draw type games, where you can exchange some of your cards for new ones, and everything in between.
It is, therefore, not that far-fetched to note that very frequently, Doctor Who plots mirror a strategic hand of poker, especially when he’s pitted against the quintessential antagonist that is the Master. Sometimes, the plot allows for an exchange of the Doctor’s hand, others he has to make better use of what’s available to get himself (and his companions, and entire planets) out of trouble.
The Fourth Doctor exhibits a flair for card-shuffling in Robot. Still dazed from his recent regeneration, he bounds onto stage to placate an audience of techno-cultists with an improvised conjuring routine before being dragged off into the wings.
Two seasons later, he’s at it again, this time in Robert Holmes’ Victorian pastiche, The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977). At London’s Palace Theatre, the Doctor expertly catches and handles a card pack thrown to him by the sinister magician Li H'sen Chang. By the advent of his seventh incarnation, the artful Doctor has a number of card-conjuring tricks to hand – or, most likely, up his sleeve.
With twelve+ poker faces to choose from, and forays beyond the realm of the small screen, he seems to be getting pretty good at the game.
In Lonely Days, a short story by Daniel Blythe for the anthology Decalog 2: Lost Property, the Fifth Doctor tells Nyssa that he once won a planet in a game of poker against a Draconian opponent.
Five Card Draw, the ninth story in the Short Trips: Zodiac collection, goes one better. Todd Green’s short story has multiple Doctors (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th & an unspecified “future self”) gather for a poker game at a besieged medieval castle to decide their collective fate.
The mischievous New Adventures companion Professor Bernice Summerfield cites poker as her one of her favourite pastimes and it’s easy to picture the redoubtable archaeologist and the Seventh Doctor playing together in some readily-fashioned game room somewhere deep within the TARDIS.
The Doctor at Backgammon
“Marco Polo has taken away my caravan and given it to you, sire. If I win, perhaps I could have my caravan back again?”
In a celebrated scene from 1964’s Marco Polo, the First Doctor plays a genteel game of Backgammon against the mighty Kublai Khan, in the luxury of his Peking palace. A very fitting choice, considering that the board game is estimated to be over 5,000 years old and played by many early cultures, such as the Ancient Greeks, Romans and of course, the Chinese.
At stake at this game of backgammon is his TARDIS, gifted somewhat presumptuously to the ageing Khan by the explorer Marco Polo.
Over hours of play, the Doctor accumulates a wealth of riches – he wins from Khan 35 elephants complete with ceremonial bridles, trappings, brocades and pavilions; also, 4,000 white stallions, 25 tigers, the entire commerce of Burma for one year, and the sacred tooth of Buddha.
Thankfully, at least for whoever tidies the TARDIS trophy room, the Doctor doesn’t keep any of his prizes, exchanging them all for the front-door key to his precious time/space craft.
The Doctor at Monopoly & Draughts
The Doctor has yet to play Monopoly in an on-screen story, but in The Romance of Crime, a 1995 novel penned by Gareth Roberts for the Missing Adventure series, the Fourth Doctor plays aboard the TARDIS with Romana II and K9.
K9, fittingly, uses the dog token, and the others must roll the dice and move on his behalf. Come to think of it, K9 does look a lot like the Monopoly dog, no? Let us not forget that there is an official, albeit limited, edition of Doctor Who Monopoly.
The One Doctor, a 2001 big finish audio play by Roberts and co-writer Clayton Hickman, features the Sixth Doctor winning a game against Mel - but his triumph is interrupted when the TARDIS drifts off-course, and the game is suspended, mid-gloat.
In The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the Doctor attempts to teach Leela another ancient board game: Draughts. Draughts board have been found in archaeological digs in the Middle East and are believed to date back to 3,000 BC. But in our case, the Doctor doesn’t appear to be getting very far; the scene ends with him leapfrogging across the board in one move to sweep all of her pieces. Leela isn’t happy.
Endgame - The Doctor at Chess
“You couldn’t resist it, could you? The game of traps…”
Chess, the ancient ever-shifting game of traps, has to be the game that most defines the Doctor’s temperament, and he is seen playing it on many occasions. It is also in many ways the quintessential strategy game. The amount of thought humankind has invested in finding the most effective ways to move the 16 pieces of each side to capture the opponent’s king is impressive and has even spawned AI research, with IBM’s Deep Blue computer famously beating global chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997.
Cell-bound in The Mind of Evil (1971), the Third Doctor and Jo Grant play chess together to while away the time. Jo captures the Doctor’s pieces, and he complains the game is just too simple for him to concentrate on, adding that he much prefers playing the three-dimensional version.
According to events in David Fisher’s The Androids of Tara (1978), the Fourth Doctor thought enough of standard chess to program K9 with a record of all world chess championship games since 1866.
As the TARDS makes landfall in pursuit of the Fourth Segment of the Key to Time, the Doctor plays K9 in the control room. With Romana looking on, the Doctor airily recalls watching a similar game between Capablanca and Alkhine in 1927, and seems rather taken aback when K9 (fittingly another AI, something the Doctor comments on) predicts mate in 11 moves. Initially, he refuses to believe he has lost, until Romana intervenes to confirm the outcome.
The story arc underpinning the sequence of Seventh Doctor/Ace episodes from Dragonfire (1987), to the finale of The Curse of Fenric (1989), concerns an unfinished chess game, abandoned long ago in some nameless desert.
The Eleventh Doctor claimed – possibly in jest - that the game was originally a Gallifreyan invention (2013’s Nightmare in Silver). It apparently endures until the 52nd Century in one form or another – live chess, anyone?
Evidently the Doctor has been gaming for almost as long as he has been a wanderer. Games appear over and again, in books and comics, audio plays and elsewhere in the DW universe - small wonder, when their subtleties of play and emphasis on stealth and ingenuity over brute force, so match the wily Doctor’s approach to dealing with his enemies.