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Chess is Bad for Your Mind

In a related essay I argued that Chess is Good for Your Mind.  However, for every coin there is a flip, and heads sometimes become tails.  Water is a healthy drink, but imbibe too much of it too fast and you can die of water intoxication.  Partake of chess in the right amount, and you will enjoy a more enriched life, but is it possible to pursue it too much?  Can your mind die from ‘chess intoxication’? 

There are many examples of chess masters who engaged in bizarre behavior to say the least.  In 2004 Grandmaster Azmaiparashvili, vice president of FIDE, was arrested for (allegedly, as they say) headbutting a policeman.

Now I would not claim that study of chess actually led to this incident, but I do tend to believe that the intense obsession with chess is what led to the well-publicized bizarre paranoia of Bobby Fischer, pictured here later in life.  I would like to point the reader to Fischer’s website for evidence, but following his recent death the site seems to have been taken down.  It was previously at http://home.att.ne.jp/moon/fischer/

As I just suggested, perhaps it is intense obsession with chess that is detrimental to one’s mental health, although Bill Hartston, former British chess champion, said that ‘Chess doesn’t drive people mad, it keeps mad people sane’.  

That other über-famous American Paul Morphy, referred to as “the pride and sorrow of chess”, was certainly obsessed with the game that he abandoned shortly after dominating the world’s best players in the mid-19th century.   Morphy’s niece wrote that he used to keep at least a dozen pairs of shoes arranged in a semi-circle in the center of his room. This is certainly odd, though not as odd as if the shoes had been women’s shoes, as the story is often told, though this is apparently false.  In keeping with Hartston’s thinking, perhaps the shoes would have been women’s shoes had it not been for the influence of chess. 

Another strange vignette regarding Morphy, also attributed to his niece, is that he used to pace the porch saying (in French), “He will plant the banner of the Castille on the walls of Madrid, screaming, ‘The city is conquered and the little King will have to go.’”

Carlos Torre-Repetto, the Mexican Grandmaster, apparently had a fondness for pineapple sundaes, consuming a dozen or so on a given day.  Torre was stricken down by mental illness early in life, although I would argue that it could have been the pineapple sundaes rather than the chess that did him in.

GM Akiba Rubenstein was another chess player who had mental problems.  He suffered general schizophrenia, as well as an abnormal fear of people and society.  These problems resulted in his departure from competitive chess in 1932, and his mental condition is reported to have actually saved his life.  When the Nazis arrived at his asylum to lead him to the death camps his condition was such that they decided to leave him to his fate.

In 1905, Pillsbury apparently attempted suicide from a 4th floor hospital window in Philadelphia, as was widely reported in newspapers of the day.  Some of the stories elaborated on this event, suggesting that he too had been driven mad by chess.  The Washington Times’ story of this incident goes so far as to say, “The tremendous mental strain which [chess masters] undergo in the great tournaments, aided and abetted by excessive use of stimulants to keep them keyed to the proper pitch, is too much for the human brain, no matter how abnormally brilliant.’

Poor Pillsbury was actually suffering from the ill effects of syphilis, rather than chess.  The disease went on to kill him.

 


Comments


  • 40 hours ago

    DoubleExclam

    There is a beautiful old novella by the Austrian author Stefan Zweig entitled "Die Schachnovelle" (I don't recall the title of the English translation) that deals with this topic. Fiction, true, but so enjoyable and well written.

  • 22 months ago

    leo5

    Excellent article, it's so true!

  • 2 years ago

    sirrichardburton

    I have read thebook by Nabokov's book (a very long time ago) as well as seeing the movie. I honestly don't remember if this is true in the book but in the movie it was the unsolveable problem of chosing between given up 1 obssesion (chess) or giving up his other obssession (the woman he loved) which drove him to suicide. This should serve as a warning to anyone who would have their partner abandon chess in order to stay with them.Smile

    btw i do remember that when i read the book i enjoyed it very much, as far as i can tell all of Nabokov's books deal with an obsession of one kind or another.

  • 2 years ago

    Justice_Scales

    This article reminds me of Nabokov's "The Defense" (it was also made into a film titled "the Luzhin Defense). In that work of fiction, the main character dies (presumably) of suicide, rather than disease. It's interesting how most chess players in real life died from the latter; one would think at least some of them would have committed suicide due to the intense mental strain.

  • 3 years ago

    Justice_Scales

    [COMMENT DELETED]
  • 3 years ago

    Conflagration_Planet

    Pawnchovilla is right.

  • 3 years ago

    glsmith

    I've read that chess is being used to treat Alzheimer's and depression! School studies have demonstrated chess increase math and reading scores . Chess teaches creative thinking and rewards good ideas and punishes poor ideas. Chess helps young people with social anxiety and self-esteem.

    Chess is medicine for the mind use,but don't abuse! 

  • 3 years ago

    Pawnchovilla

    i do not believe that chess led to the aforementioned persons insanity or mental illnesses. rather that they already had these mental illnesses and just so happened to play chess. As chess can be an escape from society.

  • 4 years ago

    dancd

    Well, anything too much can cause problems, we have to have a limit for everything.

  • 5 years ago

    anon166

    gm-larry-evans-has-written-that-the-further-fischer-got-from-chess-the-less-sane-he-got.i-agree.when-you-play-chess-you-must-maintain-some-connection-to-reality-in-order-to-be-successful,tournament-chess-is-a-harsh-reality.amatzia-avni,IM+psychologist,has-written-that-you-have-to-be-somewhat-paranoid-to-play-successful-chess.you-must-be-on-highest-alert-on-every-move,like-an-air-traffic-controller.i-believe-chess-attracts-some-crazy-people.but-the-seeds-of-craziness-were-there-before-chess.chess-forces-focus.but-i-have-been-in-the-chess-world-for-44-years,and-the-vast-majority-of-chessplayers-are-sane.

  • 6 years ago

    Hakuoh

    In Australia GM Ian Rogers had to retire from chess permantly because he had health problems. He probably studied to hard or something so he had to quit.
  • 7 years ago

    CuzImTNT

    yeah im with Feldmm1... its distracting from homework.
  • 7 years ago

    exiledcanuck

    Firstly, I really enjoy reading your articles (you have been tracked... as soon as I figure out how to vote in those trophy awards I will)

    I do have to say though, that in comparison with your other posts this one was a bit lacking.  It didn't have the same artistic flair as your other posts I've read.  I imagine this is because like many of the people who replied you are too passionate about chess to really delve into the potential darker side.

    I did enjoy reading this... but I just felt it was missing that special something that I have seen in all your other posts.  This is not meant as pointless critisim and I hope it is not taken as such.

     


  • 7 years ago

    Feldmm1

    Sure, chess has a bad side. You get addicted and then neglect to finish your homework on time.
  • 7 years ago

    oginschile

    Thank you Kurt for once again posting something interesting. You can always tell a very interesting post by the responses.. when the responses are interesting to read by themselves, you know it was an inspired post.

    I enjoy reading your blog very much.

    Og


  • 7 years ago

    ClaypOT

    First, thank you kurtgodden for the interesting article... 

    The term "mad" was used quite liberally in early medicine, much the same way the term dermatitis is used in modern medicine. Both terms are very general but really don't say a lot about the actual condition. (Dermatitis literally means "inflammation of the skin" but that doesn't explain the actual cause...)

    "Mad" could have described a large number of possible mental conditions. Though we are still in need of further understanding of the complexity of the mind and its associated diseases, it is understood that such phenomena as autism have very peculiar characteristics. These characteristics include (but are certainly not limited to) dementia, confusion, paranoia and peculiar behavior. It is also understood that some people with a form of mental disease have amazing artistic, mathematical and other types of "giftings."

    I'm not here to suggest that any of the chess players attributed with some form of "madness" had such a condition as autism, but I wonder what their diagnosis would have been with today's understanding of the human mind?

    Is it possible that some of the "mad geniuses" of chess actually were able to see and calculate possibilities and patterns in their minds that 99.99% could never conceive of, but, as a consequence, lacked the ability to conform to the the world's standard of normalcy? Fischer certainly seemed to fit this profile, as well as some of the others listed in the article.

    Again, I don't know. But it is interesting to consider. (At least it's interesting to this possibly bizarre mind...)

    Oh, and in no way am I suggesting that all chess geniuses have some form of "mental disease." Kasparov is a clear example of a man who is indeed a chess prodigy but has the ability to reason and live in society. (At least it appears he does...) Apparently he was given the gifting without having to "pay the price," so to speak. Others appear to have been less (?) fortunate...


  • 7 years ago

    seaeagle

    It's a shame the commentators can't keep their tongues planted as firmly in their collective cheeks as Dr. Godden can...

     I found this entry enjoyable and witty, as most all of Kurt's blogs are.


  • 7 years ago

    Decoy321

    Some of those names stated are well in their 80's and also lived in a time where diseases like cancer were a lot less treatable. That list doesn't prove anything.

     

    I don't believe chess can kill anyone. If so, then too mutch of anything would kill you. I would've died from playing online games a long time agoTongue out. Besides, people work 40-50 hours a week, shouldn't they get mentally ill for the very same hypothesis you formulated?

     

    There are like million masters in chess all over the world, and you give a few examples of someone hitting a policeman and an other suffering from schitzofrenia? Maybe he had his reasons to headbut that cop. I'm sure there are other factors that are left out of the picture here. For example any child experiences that Azmaiparashvili suffered from. Also, living in Georgia might mean having totally different norms and values. Expessing violence might be one of them.


  • 7 years ago

    DarthMaster

    Actually I think the statement "Chess can intoxicate your mind" as the most stupid thing I had ever heard. In fact it might be more true that their madness led them to chess not the other way around...
  • 7 years ago

    batgirl

    I feel I have to make three corrections concerning Morphy.

    First is that it's abundantly clear that Morphy was relatively, even particularly, un-obsessed with chess. Few, if any, chess players of master level, ever devoted less time to chess than Morphy. Morphy even preached against taking the game too seriously.  Second, Morphy didn't abandon chess shortly after dominating the world's best players, but rather abandoned competive, or public, chess, to honor his mother's wishes. According to Charles Maurian (chess editor, pres. of the N.O. Chess club and friend of Morphy) Morphy continued to play chess in private at least until a few years before his death (i.e. at least until 1879).

    Third is the reference to Morphy "screaming." Morphy would never have screamed anything.

    The exact quote from Mrs. R. Morphy-Voitier (whose testimony is questionable at best anyway) goes:

    "Another mania which lasted a while, was walking up and down the long verandah of his home, his hands behind his back and muttering these words in a low voice: "II plantera la banniere de Castille sur les murs de Madrid au cri de Ville gagnee, et le petit Roi s'en ira tout penaud." (He will plant the banner of Castille upon the walls of Madrid to the cry of victorious city, and the little King will go away looking very sheepish). He did not know that he was being overheard, nor was it ever known what he meant by these words."


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