Life Imbalances and Chess - My Story

Life Imbalances and Chess - My Story

Jan 12, 2017, 10:24 AM |

In the year and a half I've been playing chess on a serious level, I've heard a similar topic come up over internet forums, YouTube, and in chess clubs that I've visited.  The topic is phrased in different ways, but the fundamental questions seem to be these: 

1. Is chess addictive?

2. Is there a correlation between chess and the appearance of mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and others?


As a nicotine addict myself, I feel like the first question can be answered thusly - yes, chess is addictive if the person playing chess has addictive tendencies.  I am definitely a person who has these kinds of tendencies, as evident from my past addiction to cigarettes and video games (I'm not joking, I was actually addicted).  So for a person like myself, who has historically had problems regulating and moderating the things he likes to enjoy in life, chess, just like video games, can pose a certain danger.  However, in my specific case, chess has proven to be vastly more healthy than either video games or smoking.  You are in a sense learning a new language by the recognition of patterns, which is exactly what one has to do, to some extent, to become competent in a new language.  

There have been times where I didn't want to stop playing chess, but when I was away from a chess board, I felt no itching, desperate need to find a game as soon as possible in order to get my fix.  Chess is something a person can do at their own speed, and for me, part of the beauty in chess is that it's not something that requires a lot of rush in order to have fun with.  In Call of Duty, you have to make sure you stick around to the end of a match to get experience points, and you keep playing because you are grinding for new levels and new camos.  With smoking, your body lies to you and says that if you don't get a dose of nicotine, bad things are going to happen to you.  With chess, there is a pause button.  You can play one game, analyze it, leave it for a day or two, come back to it, and see things that you didn't notice before.  And those two days of inactivity don't make me feel like a raving, nicotine-deprived raccoon or threaten my online multiplayer subscription.  

The second question, in my opinion, is much harder to answer, but is much more interesting.  

I had a chess acquaintance in Russia, named Yuri.  Yuri was a great player in our little cadre of chess players at Yelets State University, but he was always a little odd.  In comparison with the other players, he wouldn't share with other people the results of his tournament games until the tournament was over, and only then, rarely.  I remember he once asked me if America was a continent or a country.  I replied that North and South America were continents, and that the United States of America was a country within North America. 

"So, North America is a country within the USA?" he would answer.  

"No," I replied.  "The USA is a country within North America."  (We were speaking in Russian, so I repeated just to make sure he knew that I understood him.)

"Ah, so USA is a continent.  Is South America a country?"

The conversation cartwheeled like this for about twenty minutes until a colleague 'saved' me.  But despite his oddness, Yuri was a nice guy.  He and I used to go for pirozhki (pirogi) and smoke outside together, discussing chess books.  

When I returned to Russia, several months later, Yuri was a completely different person.

He had quit chess entirely.  I found it understandable, but I asked him why.

"I had a religious rebirth," he said.  "I saw Saint George spearing the devil over there in the ravine the other day. God save me, Virgin Mary.  You know I deserve four good wills, I did four people good wills - my mother, twice.  She was sick.  My brother, and good friend.  That's four feats of good will."

I conversed with him numerous times. I always found him outside the bus stop, in the same clothes, always talking about the same subject - about how God would help him, and that Jesus walked the earth among us, even as we spoke.  What intrigued me here was not the religious rebirth - what bothered me most was that he was so absorbed in a single topic that he would hardly let me speak.  These conversations would continue for a half hour, almost always one-sided.  The topic would almost never change, and if it did, he would jump back into it, disjointedly, and with seemingly broken prosody.  There were signs in his speech, and in the way he constantly looked around him, as if someone were watching him, that hinted at paranoia.

"I've left chess.  It was very harmful for me," he said.

I can understand people quitting chess.  People do it for all kinds of reasons.  What arose in my mind was the obvious question - did chess cause the change in Yuri? Or was it there to begin with?  From my observations, Yuri probably was - or became - a schizophrenic.  I do believe that there are religiously touched figured in history, who have seen things that nobody else is capable of seeing.  But with Yuri, the changes were so drastic - living at a bus stop, talking in disjointed speech, overwhelming the listener with one-sided topics... the only question is, did chess cause that? 

We have all seen the Fischer-Morphy example, but I firmly believe that chess does not turn people into schizophrenics.  There are all kinds of people who play chess - the field is as diverse as people themselves.  Eccentrics, like myself, casual players, and those who suffer from mental disorders all play chess.  But I do not think that chess causes people to go insane.

This topic is very difficult to discuss in a politically correct way that won't offend anyone.  As someone on the Autism Spectrum myself, I can assure everyone reading this that I am in no way bashing anyone.  

In short, while all sorts of people play chess, and as much of an effect that chess has on the mental and memory capabilities of the human brain, I simply don't believe that it can significantly change a person's personality.  Yuri, in my opinion, was an interesting person before he quit chess, and is now a different interesting person now that he's quit chess forever.  We all must look at the game and see ourselves - and above all, not be afraid to be ourselves.