Alcoholic Chess

Jun 19, 2011, 6:22 PM |

Like many people I partake in a bit of alcoholic beverages now and then -  usually a glass of wine or a fine beer.  Last year I went to Louisville, Kentucky and brought home a fifth of good Kentucky bourbon from the Wild Turkey distillery. I finished it off, with help, only after about 6 or 8 months.  I've been drunk on a couple occasions and even suffered with alcohol poisoning once when I foolishly equated brandy's potency with that of wine. Inebriation and alcohol poisoning, I've learned, are both things to be avoided passionately.   Playing chess, even after just one beer, seems to affect my judgment, so I generally avoid drinking anything while playing.  It's a little harder to avoid playing while drinking, however.

Several notable chess players were known to have been heavy drinkers, possibly even alcoholics. Alexander Alekhine, Charles H. Stanley and James Mason come readily to mind.  Another player, Joseph H. Blackburne, is also often associated with alcohol, and was known to drink particulary during some of his simuls, though he was seldom associated with drunkeness.

Here is a little article published in the American Chess Magazine in 1898:

Blackburne Interviewed Again.

Mr. J. H. Blackburne, the British chess champion, was recently interviewed by a representative of the Licensing World, one of the anti-temperance journals of England. The champion is alleged to have advocated the cause of the "red-eyed monster" in terms most eulogistic. "I find that whiskey is a most useful stimulus to mental activity, especially when one is engaged in a stiff and prolongued sitruggle. All chess masters indulge moderately in wines or spirits. Speaking tor myself, alcohol clears my brain, and I always take a glass or two when playing."
Mr. Blackburne, with great frankness, proceeded to dilate further upon the joys of the bowl and the misery of its deprivation. This little speech of Mr. Blackburne seems to have created no small sensation among our English contemporaries, and their
columns have not failed to express their disapprobation of his sentiments and to comment rather severely upon his want of judgment In thus venting hie opinions through such a medium. The Pall Mall Gazette, it is evident, is not in sympathy with Mr. Blackburne's views upon the subject, and says: "Chess and alcohol are very antagonistic to each other; in fact, we might go further and say that they are mutually destructive; as chess players consume alcohol, so, in proportion, alcohol destroys chess players. There are few branches of intellectual activity which have to show a sadder record in this respect than chess. It may be, perhaps, that men given to outdoor exercise take less harm by the alcohol habit than those devoting themselves exclusively to a sedentary pastime. It is a well-known fact that out of about forty or fifty noted chess players who have arisen during the last thirty years those who have been drinkers of alcohol to any extent have, generally speaking, failed, whereas those who have achieved fame and success have, with very few exceptions, been very moderate drinkers. Lasker. Tarrasch, Steinitz, and Zukertort may be classed in the latter category. On the other hand, what a sad tale we could tell, if it were necessary to give particulars, of brilliantly gifted chess players who have gone to an ealy grave, and of others, equally talented, who have pined away in middle age, and a few more who might have done far greater justice to their abilities—all owing to the habit of taking too much alcohol. The testimony in this respect, as far as chess is concerned, is overwhelming.

In referring to the alcoholic interview with Mr. Blackburne recently the Hereford Times says:
                   Whiskey and chess, when taken together, agree with very few.
                We have never seen Lasker, or Pillsbury. or Tarrasch, or any other
                player of the very front rank sip whiskey when engaged on games
                 to which they attached any importance. Steinitz occasionally consumes
                a small quantity of brandy while playing a match game, but the quantity
                 of water which he consumes the while completely drowns the spirit,
                 so as to leave little else than the flavor. With most chess players the
                 imbibing of spirits during serious play would almost certainly be
                 productive of blundering. And even Mr. Blackburne himself seldom takes
               anything but coffee in the early stages of a match game, although he
               may take a little whiskey toward the finish. This, no doubt, is what
              Mr. Blackburne wished to convey, when he told his interviewer that
              whiskey sometimes clears his brain. It would be a grievous error to let
              it go forth to the world that chess playing encourages an appetite for
              strong drink. The majority of chess players, expert and amateur alike,
             and the great majority of them much prefer coffee or tea, while playing
              their favorite game, to alcohol. We are moreover convinced that in a
            contest for supremacy at chess all other things being equal, the coffee
           or tea drinking player has in the long run the advantage over the
             consumer of alcoholic stimulant.