The  Chess  Player's  Mind

The Chess Player's Mind

May 25, 2011, 1:45 PM |

The  Chess  Player's  Mind

By Harry Nelson Pillsbury,
Chess Champion Of America

PERHAPS the mental quality most useful to the chess player who wishes to rise to distinction in the game is  concentration—the ability to isolate himself from the whole world and live for the events of the board while a match  is proceeding.

And yet "concentration" does not quite suit me as expressing the quality I refer to, for concentration implies  narrowing, and 1 am satisfied that the influence of chess broadens the mind. All the leading chess masters take  such an interest in events outside their own particular world as would be expected of lawyers, for instance. Some  of them take up specialties for pleasure and become experts in them. Steinitz, for instance, is deeply learned in  matters pertaining to the rise, progress and history of the Hebrew race, and that, in spite of the fact that he gave  his life to chess. That he has become insane is no reflection upon the game. He has had illness and trouble for a  long time. The same may be said of Morphy's insanity. It was not due to chess.

Tschigorin is a valued employee of the Russian Government; Lasker is now a professor of mathematics, having  just received his degree from a German university. Tarrasch is a practicing physician, Maroczy is Assistant City  Engineer of Buda Pesth, and so it goes. I believe that the influence of chess, itself, is beneficial in so training the  mind that its entire power can be wielded and controlled instantly for the accomplishment of a certain purpose. It  is the mistaken notion of some of the opponents of the game that it has an effect upon the mind similar to the  effect which the blacksmith's constant hammering has upon the muscles of his arm. He becomes muscle bound.  He is strong, but can only use his strength in a certain manner. So far as my observation goes nothing at all  similar happens to the mind of the chess player.

I frequently play sixteen games blindfolded, and tho the strain at the time is very severe, the whole matter is cast off my mind five minutes after the  match is over. If you then asked me to name the opening on Board No. 9, for instance, I would have to stop and  think about it.

After such a match as I have described, where blindfolded I encounter sixteen opponents at once, I find it  necessary to devote an hour or two to some other subject that will take my mind off chess—some mental work  that is sufficiently engrossing. Otherwise I would be unable to sleep.

The largest number of games ever played simultaneously by one man was seventeen,* [ * Since this was written Mr. Pillsbury played in Philadelphia, May 5th, twenty simultaneous games without seeing  any of the boards He won fourteen of the games, drew five and lost one —editor.and that by myself. That is  the record, and much astonishment is expressed at times at the formidable nature of the feat. But, as a matter of  fact, I believe that such feats of memory in other forms are quite common in the business world. For instance, the  stockbroker carries in his head all the fluctuations which have happened in a long line of stocks during ten days.  He does not need to stop to think. All the details are ready for instant use. Just so it is with the blindfold chess  player.

I don't know how it is with the others, but I make matters easier for myself by systematizing the games when I am  playing blindfold on sixteen boards at once.

I mentally arrange the boards in four groups like this:

I.—  Board Nos.     1    5    9  13.
II.— Board Nos.    2   6   10  14.
III.—Board Nos.   3   7   11  15.
IV.—Board Nos.   4   8   12  16.

On the boards in System III I open by playing pQ4, and on all the other boards pK4 followed by KKt-Kb3. In almost  all these blindfold games I have the. move, and can generally force my opponent into my system. If he makes an  eccentric move that takes him out of the system I make a mental note of it.

When I am blindfolded all that is communicated to me is the move of my opponent at each board. All else I am  forced to remember, but this is not so difficult as it would appear. By the time twenty moves have been made  there has been some clearing of the board and a definite objective has. been developed. When I turn to a new  board, I say: " Ah! No. 9, this is the board on which we have exchanged Queens," and the whole play comes back  to me. Occasionally I overlook something, but not often, in a blindfold match. 1 keep account of the number of  pieces on each board. I know if I have a knight and bishop, or two bishops, and what my opponent has, and  whether or not I am a pawn ahead.

Each board and the position on it is remembered by me not as a picture, but as a record. Each game has scores  of possibilities for each move, until most of the pieces are cleared off. After making my move I must totally  dismiss the board on which it was made from my mind and take up the next, which, also, has its scores of  possibilities, and I must follow each possible variation out mentally for several moves ahead.

That is where the blindfold player suffers the greatest disadvantage. He cannot see so far ahead as if he were  looking at the board. For him to see clearly three moves ahead is difficult, while the expert with the board in front  of him can explore all possible paths for five moves. I play much better sometimes than at others. In the game  where I, blindfold, played against seventeen opponents, I lost three of the games. Often with sixteen opponents I  capture all the games.

To play, simultaneously, a number of games of chess blindfold is not so hard as at first it might appear. A man  begins by playing one game in that manner. Of course, before he comes to that he has already mastered the  game. After much practice with the single blindfold game he essays to play two at once and gradually extends his  operations. As he progresses his mind expands. His mentality gains strength by exercise, just as the body gains  strength from exercise. There is nothing so very wonderful in this blindfold play, but it is useful because it gives a  striking illustration of what the mind may become with training.

The truth of the matter is that such feats seem very wonderful because most men are what you might call mental  day laborers. Only one out of ten really thinks.

Besides the quality which we have, for want of a better name, called concentration, there are others that are  essential to the good chess player. One of these is patience, or ability to wait. We have players who are known as  plungers, who see an opening and drive ahead into it without studying out all that it leads to. Such men can never  become good players. The chess master must have full control of himself at all times. He must not be impatient,  he must be content to mark time, as it were, till he sees the result of his opponent's attack, and he must be able to  resort to meaningless moves to kill time if there is no other way of holding fast to-the fortified position till the  danger is over. Not all men can do this. They want to rush out and attack and thereby they expose themselves and  lose the game.

Another most useful quality is accuracy, in which Lasker excels. His foresight has not so great a range as that of  Tschigorin, for instance, but so far as he sees he is infallible. Tschigorin may see five moves ahead and Lasker  only three, but the latter more than evens up matters by his deadly accuracy and thoroughness.

The game is not, necessarily, an injuriously sedentary one. During the great matches the players, after making  their moves, get up and walk about. Over on the other side you will see a group of them gather on the floor  between the moves. In addition to this one gets a good deal of exercise in traveling. I know that it is as much of a  physical strain as most gymnasium work to run with a heavy valise two miles across country to catch a train, as I  frequently have to do on my travels. Still to alternate the mental exercise with physical is a good thing for mind and  body.

One effect of the intense mental application which a great match compels is to suspend, partially, the vital  functions. When the brain is very busy it uses the blood that the other organs generally absorb, and they are  compelled to idleness. Thus there sometimes results trouble with the digestion. But I do not think that this evil is  greater than the lawyer suffers when he has an important case on hand, or the clerk or bookkeeper subjected to  unusual strain.

Stimulants have little effect on the chess player during a great match. They have even less effect when he is in a  condition of mental strain than when the strain is physical.

The progress of chess in this country of late has been most satisfactory to lovers of the game. The number of  players and the number of clubs are increasing fast. Americans have the proper stuff in them for chess,  apparently. The best players in the world at the present day are Americans, Slavs, Teutons and Hebrews. The  Latins have fallen behind in the game, somehow. I don't know anything of the Chinese or Turkish players, and tho  there is a chess club in Yokohama now, I believe that its members are Americans and Englishmen. The Slavs and Americans seem to be the  players of the future. The Slavs have been held back for a long time, but they are pressing ahead now in many  fields and over a chess board they are certainly formidable. This month I am going to Paris with Showalter,  perhaps. At any rate, I will go to take part in the grand international tournament. An endeavor will then be made to  bring off a match with Lasker for the championship of the world. I have beaten him in tournaments, but have never  had a match with him. We stand even on number of games lost and won out of those we have played together,  and there are many who desire to see us put to the supreme test.

-Philadelphia, Pa.