Amaurosis Scacchistica

Amaurosis Scacchistica

Sep 12, 2010, 9:01 PM |

The horror show begins….

In a recent game, this position was reached after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.Be2 Nf6 6.Bf4 Nc6 7.O-O Qb6 8.b3 Bxf3 9.Bxf3 Qxd4. Really, an unremarkable position. My best response was obvious:

Right? I mean, there just isn’t any other response.

But that didn’t stop me from trying! QxQ was too pedestrian, I thought. Oh no, let’s be clever about this! So, instead of having the above position clearly focused in my mind, I was probably thinking about something more along the lines of this:

…which resulted in this:


…and, of course, subsequently this:


Argh!!!!! What the heck was I thinking! Well, I guess I’ve already established what I was thinking, but come on! This was so obvious that I can’t believe I missed it! How is such an error possible?!?

This embarrassing moment is an example of what doctors like to call “Amaurosis scacchistica”, better known as “chess blindness”. It afflicts a large number of chess players and, alas, there is no cure.

As a long time gamer, let me assure you that a blunder due to chess blindness is the most painful experience in all the world’s gaming. You can’t blame fog of war or bad dice rolls; you can’t blame unclear rules or buggy software. The only thing responsible is Y-O-U! Even though you had perfect information, somehow - quite inexplicably, really – you made a ridiculous move!

But it gets worse.

Not only did you make a ridiculous move, but now you will have to suffer through the entirety of the game, being punished each step of the way for your foolish blindness. It is something I find very much akin to having salt rubbed in an open wound. It burns with unbelievable intensity, dimming even your initial face-reddening sense of shame. Of course, the pain only increases as your opponent continues to capitalize on your misstep, usually to the eventual doom of your King. Suddenly you feel complicit in regicide and rightfully condemned to Antenora in the Ninth Circle of Hell!

The horror...the horror.

All in all, it is an infuriating experience. So infuriating, that H. G. Wells felt compelled to write a condemnation of chess because of the psychological damage that could result from a case of “chess blindness”:

"And now and again a suicide would come to hand with the pathetic inscription pinned to his chest: ‘I checked with my Queen too soon. I cannot bear the thought of it.’ There is no remorse like the remorse of chess.

"It is a curse upon a man. There is no happiness in chess….No chess-player sleeps well. After the painful strategy of the day one fights one's battles over again. You see with more than daylight clearness that it was the Rook you should have moved, and not the Knight. No! It is impossible! No common sinner innocent of chess knows these lower deeps of remorse."

Old H.G. and the right of it.

But he wasn’t the only one. Famed author Vladimir Nabokov wrote something remarkably similar:

"And, once again, it is almost useless to seek to convey to a non-addict the desolation of defeat. As in no other game, or even mode of combat, defeat at chess tracks the ego to its final lair. Defeat can, by definition, spring solely from one's own error. There is a mode of chess problems called self-mate: it consists of discovering the unique sequence of moves that forces the opponent, whether he will or not, to checkmate one's own king. Mirror is made to kill mirror. Though baroque, this device dramatizes the essentially suicidal, self-destructive meaning of every lost game. The aftermath is abjection, a corrosive humiliation that drags over one whenever the position is recalled and reanalyzed. Hours after play has ended, one wakes to find the    night buzzing with jeering forms. The right move was so terribly near, so glaring in its urgent obviousness. Every kibitzer and blind tyro in the room must have seen it. Now it claws at one's skull. But no defeat can be repaired. Time makes every howler, every farcical blunder immutable. Better die than sit down again in front of those torturing squares, than feel again, spiraling up one's bent back and damp neck, the sour burn of defeat"

How right he is.

Another view of defeat in chess comes from Italian author, Paolo Maurensig:

"There is no harsher or more implacable defeat. The players bear lifelong scars, neither body nor soul ever recovering fully. Anything that might reawaken memory of the mutilation is violently repulsed."

GM Jan Hein Donner had this to say about defeat in Chess:

"A chess player’s path on earth is often strewn with trouble and grief. The joy of victory is transitory and brief, while it is in the midst of our happiness that we are bound to be struck by horror….

"The chess player who has lost his game - who will describe him? I have seen him unable to move. The public was long gone, the lights were out, and still he sat rigidly in his chair staring at the emptied board, because he had overlooked Bg2. I have heard him begging for punishment in blasphemous language.

"He had forgotten Nh5, and in his dismay he called down annihilation upon himself. Derisively, he rejected our words of solace, demanding insults and chastisement… because he had played Qf6 instead of Qb6. What is remorse compared to this? What self-reproach? This is the hell of hells. Gehenna. The vale of Kai Hinnom…"

Isn’t it amazing how similar these sentiments are across the Chess-playing ages? This is why Irving Chernev remarked that “Chess is not for the timid.” It really isn’t. No other game can so ruin your entire day, week...or month.

Sane men would not play chess after being so burned on the board, but Nabokov understood such a thing is just not possible:

"But morning comes, and in the first light the pieces wait, magnetic with the treacherous promise of a better day. 'For what else exists in the world but chess?'"

Pity the chess player, for we are a doomed lot - doomed by our own hand, no less.