ON THE CASE OF A FEEBLE-MINDED CHESS PLAYER
On The Case Of A Feeble-minded Chess Player.
During the course of this study several cases of chess playing among the feeble-minded have been reported to the writer, but it has been impossible to secure definite data except in one case. It is said that in some instances a very high degree of chess skill was possessed by men of very low mentality. An inmate of the Wisconsin Institution for the Feeble-minded, is reported to have been able to cope successfully with very strong players. Very likely the strength of these players has been very much overestimated, but the evidence is sufficient to warrant us in saying that in chess as in other kinds of mental activity a peculiar power is not incompatible with a very low average of general mental ability.
The writer has been able to study at first hand one case of chess playing by a man of low grade intelligence who is an inmate of the department for the feeble-minded and criminally insane at the Massachusetts State Farm. In the asylum records he is classed as a congenital idiot who has suffered degeneration since coming to the institution in 1891. Previous to that time he had been an inmate of other institutions for the insane. He has had and still has, though less frequently than formerly, outbursts of rage, at which times he beats his head against the wall. He says he does this because he loves his mother. He is a sexual pervert and some of his outbursts followed his separation from other inmates of the institution whom he designates as "friends." He is fifty-four years of age but looks much younger, is filthy in his personal habits, and presents a very peculiar appearance. He stoops considerably and walks with the shuffling gait characteristic of the feeble-minded. In one of the older asylum records some one has noted the fact that he resembles an anthropoid ape in appearance. His forehead is very low and receding, his maxillaries are very protruding and the posterior portions of his head are so prominent that his head resembles that of the African negro.
The term idiot is used to coyer such a wide range of mental deficiency that it conveys no very definite meaning, so that it will be necessary to give a brief account of his attempts at mental work in order to convey some idea of his general intelligence. His memory for some things is fairly good, though it is not of special excellence. He remembers faces quite well and for a considerable time. He also has a fairly good memory for places, remembering, for instance, the town in which he was brought up, the different institutions he has been in, and the town in which some of his relatives live, and remembers all these by name. He has no idea of time, but holds a few dates in mind. For example, he said he came to the asylum in 1891, which was correct. He knows the names of most of the months of the year, but has no idea of their order. In January he was asked what month it was and replied that he didn't know. He was then asked if it were June and replied that it was the month before June. When asked what month that was, replied: "That is the month of October." He has had practically no schooling and can neither read nor write. When asked why he didn't go to school when he was a boy he replied that he was too thick-headed to learn. He repeated this on several occasions.
The following questions were asked him: If you bad two apples and I gave you two more how many would you have then? How many are five times five? If you worked for me five days and I gave you a dollar for every day you worked, how many dollars would you have, To all these and to other questions he gave the same answer: " Don't know." Questions in regard to his name, the names of others his age, and other simple questions he answers intelligently orwith his indifferent "Don't know." In this regard he may be compared to a young child. There is this difference, however: he does not show the curiosity of a child, and displays very little mental initiative. He is like a child, however, in another respect: he is very fond of toys, picture books, and especially of neckties. He asks for them repeatedly, but only apparently when he notices them. He enjoyed playing with my watch and with my ring and asked for the latter several times. When told he could not have a thing or promised it later he always replied "Thank you." He is unable to tell time by the clock or watch, but almost always knows the hour of the day, which he is no doubt able to determine from the regularity of the institution life. In reply to a question he said that he is twenty-one years old and that he had been that age for-a long time.
In regard to his chess playing I should say at the outset that he is not a strong player, and that an average player of a year's experience could probably play as well or better. It should be remembered, however, that he has never studied the game at all, has never played regularly, and has not played with many different players. There was no way of determining how long he had known the game, except from his own statements and these are, of course, not very certain. He said he learned about three years ago, that no one had taught him the moves, but that he learned them by watching others play. He has played checkers for many years, but there is no trace in his game at present of interference of association from this source. As is to be expected from the circumstances under which he learned, and played, his play shows very little variety, although there was some improvement in this regard as well as in general chess ability during the time I had him under observation. He has considerable familiarity with certain situations and can be relied on to meet them in certain ways. He usually meets a threat, for example, at once and by dislodging the threatening piece if possible. An analysis of his games shows a number of oft recurring moves such as Kt-R3, Q-B3, P-Q3, and advancing a pawn one square to serve as a guard for a piece or a pawn to be advanced at the next move. Attacking a piece with a pawn, and "forking" two pieces are favorite methods of attack with him. He makes his moves very rapidly and apparently with little or no time for consideration, but usually waits very patiently for his opponent to reply. If the effect of a move of his opponent is not very remote, he notes it almost immediately. For instance, on one occasion when a bishop attacked both of his rooks he announced at once that one of them was lost, and on another occasion when his queen was attacked by a knight, he announced at once that she was lost, a fact which his opponent had not yet appreciated. It may be, of course, that he had anticipated the dangerous move.
He had a great deal of difficulty with a set of chessmen of a pattern different from those he had been using. In the new set the king was larger than the queen, while in the old set the reverse was the case. He was utterly unable to use them until, at his request, a piece of colored cloth, which had been tied around the old queen, was fastened to the new one. After that he had little difficulty with the new set.
At times he seemed to see a situation very quickly, but to be unable to retain it in mind when he attempted to meet it. For instance, when trying to get put of check, he moved his king back into check several times, that is, he would find a move impossible, recall it and then a little later attempt it again.
On the whole it is not too much to say that his game compares quite favorably with those of players whose advantages in the way of instruction, study, and practice have been much greater than his, and there is no reason to doubt that with more practice and instruction he would be able to improve his game considerably.
Our conclusions from the study of this case must be, it seems to me, that chess skill is not an index of general intelligence, that the reasoning involved in chess playing is reasoning within very narrow limits, and that a considerable degree of chess skill is possible to one who is mentally deficient in almost every other line.
The following records of games played by this player will indicate to those who are familiar with the game something of his chess ability. The games are chosen as fairly representative of his play during the time he was studied, which extended a little over two months, with an interruption of three weeks between the last observation and the one just preceding it.
Alfred A Cleveland was born in Oregon in 1876.He acquired the Ph.D. in psychology from Clark University in 1906 and was the Dean of Washington State University's College of Education, from 1918-1940
*This is just a small portion of a paper entitled THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CHESS AND OF LEARNING TO PLAY IT.
Any similarities between the feeble minded player and any known person are absolutely coincidental.