Madness and Chess

    Keywords: Culture & History

Quite many chess players --- take Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz or Bobby Fischer --- are known to be or become insane (or just nuts). There was even a recent [ext] article in Time (April 26 2005) where it was postulated that there are some specific reasons why such phenomenon occurs. Some points:

  • "Chess is a monomania. You study it intensively day and night from childhood if you are going to rise to the ranks of the greats, and that kind of singular focus constricts your reality and makes you more vulnerable to distortions of it."
  • "It lacks connections to the real world outside."
  • "It is not just monomaniacal and abstract, but its arena is a playing field on which the other guy really is after you. The essence of the game is constant struggle against an adversary who, by whatever means of deception and disguise, is entirely, relentlessly, unfailingly dedicated to your destruction. It is only a board, but it is a field of dreams for paranoia."

Now, none of these aspects is specific to chess, they should also apply to Go. By some reason, however, there is no "Bob Fischer of go". Is it because of he does not exist or because we (in the West) do not know? Is it because of the cultural differences?

Any feedback welcome!


tderz Not yet having read above article:

The fact that in 150 years of chess history, 3 top players developed - or always had (R.J.F.) - mental a/o social problems, does not prove the alleged point to be analyzed.

What is the alleged point BTW?

  • e.g. all chess players can become insane (or develop social problems etc.) OR
  • the chance to become insane etc. is higher among chess players than among the population with/of another activity OR
  • Chess is the cause of the characteristics OR
  • People with latent mental or social problems are more likely to take up board games
  • fill-in yourself here.

Well, we all could have an opinion on above statements.

My personal theory is that -as long as you do something (sport, hobby, activity) moderate, it does not change you much in above aspects. -some gifted persons, having a special talent for some activity get more positive motivation from it (feedback) and will do it more often, more intense. What could this talent be for Chess? Besides several cognitive factors, the ability to concentrate seems important to me.
People can be autististic by some degree. Autisticity can have "island intelligence" (term encountered in "Der Spiegel") as a co-characteristic. This means (100%) autistic persons can excel by far on one aspect (mathematics, piano, ...Chess, Go?) and be first of all very a-social (R.J.F. ?).

To get the circle round, autistic people attracted to Chess or Go would excel there (and not become less autistic). My hen-or-egg question: did then the activity (Chess) make them that way they are, or just provided for a higher percentage of selection? What is the cause?

I used the characteristic "autistic" instead of "insanity" here. My arguments/questions still remains the same:

  • is the selection process the cause of seeing more insanity (if any?) among top of the top chess players;
  • do we have a case at all here? What do 3 people prove?

(that 99.9999999% of all chess players are dead-normal persons?)

  • did 100 cm2 of column space had to be filled by friday 14:00? etc.

(the 3rd point in the introduction above reads like a Freudian revival. - wasn't there an anniversary?)

Alex: It isn't specific to Go or chess or games of strategy in general. Great minds in any field are prone to varying degrees of eccentricity. Also to drug and alcohol problems.

Helger: I know all this. My main interest is if there are any such nutty Go champions and if there is any conceivable difference between Chess and Go in this aspect. I think not...

Velobici: The major difference between Chess and Go may have ramifications in this area as well. The major difference being that Chess is tactical, that is calculation (broader than a definition that limits one to arithmetic) combined with memory of openings. Go begins strategic (intuition and judgement based upon certain known heuristics in the opening) and becomes purely tactical by the endgame. Some of the most exciting plays in Go are those that change the strategic position rather late in the game. Chess does not have this combination of requirements. Hence one can assert that Go exercises a broader range of human faculties than does Chess. That broader range may serve to "incoculate" the players against insanity. Then again this may be just so much humbug.

kokiri - one is reminded of the famous Bill Hartson (UK chess player/commentator) quote, "It's not that chess drives sane people mad, I think it keeps mad people sane.'

ilan: I agree with this last statement most of all. Otherwise, I feel that the big difference between Go and Chess, at the elite level, is that Go has had a history of professionalism, with pretty much constant support for top players for the last 400 years. On the other hand, such professionalism did not exist in chess until the rise of the Soviet School after World War II. Therefore, until then, and for many years later in the West, top chess players were much like amateur Go players are now, with most of them having separate careers (which was even true for many Soviet players). So, many chess players who did not have other careers had a very rough time financially with a number dying of poverty. You can add to this a lack of recognition for their capabilities, which can be even more discouraging, leading to mental problems. In my own experience, after two years of playing chess, I managed a good tournament result by finishing tied for 2-3 in the 1974 Montreal Open and won about $180. At the time, I estimated that I had spent about four times that amount in chess books. In any case, I was doing well enough to consider playing chess professionally at some later point. A year later, I entered university and started making $50 a week for correcting homework assignments, which took me about two hours a week. On the other hand, my chess results, which were earning me at most $1000 a year, were based on about 12 hours a day of work. It was clear that playing chess is a very hard way to make a living. As was later explained to me by Kevin Spraggett, things were hard for him financially until he became a grandmaster, and then everything started going smoothly. However, I talked to another grandmaster five years ago, and it seems that times have gotten tougher now. Finally, I should add my own opinion (which may of course be wrong) but I believe that the concept of teaching game, which doesn't exist in chess, was made up so that Go professionals could justify their salary by playing "easy" games against amateurs. Oh, and this is really the end: that Time article is just another tired bit that convinces one that magazines are outdated, since it is just a rant that would get justifibly flamed on a newsgroup.

Helger: Velobici, you bring in an interesting aspect. It would be really interesting to know if this aspect actually is relevant or not. May be some of the go players with corresponding educational/professional background can comment on it.

kokiri and ilanpi: I don't like this by article by Charles Krauthammer. It is a rant, and a very subjective one.

My interest, as I already mentioned, is in understanding if anything like that has happened with go players. Ilanpi has a very good point that I also noticed myself: most of the "chess nuts" had financial problems (Steinitz in his later life, Pillsbury) or felt they were unrecognized (Fischer). Other tops (Kasparov, e.g.) got a much better general education I think. More over, notice that Morphy/Pillsbury/Fischer are all from the US where it was not easy to be a professional chess player, while say Kasparov originates from the background that provided all means for a chess professional. In go, as far as I know, ALL the great players come from a background that supports go --- i.e., from East Asia.

Morphy/Steinitz/Fischer are among the createst chess geniuses, and at least Fischer seems to be a kind of an idiot savant who was really dedicated to chess. So may be it was necessary to be a monomani(c)al nut to succeed in these circumstances?

ilan: I don't see how you can qualify Fischer as an idiot savant, though it is true that he did have less cultural knowledge than most of his European counterparts. There is an amusing scene in a Yugoslavian TV show (which I believe is shown here [ext] ) in which the intense interviewer asks him who his favourite author is (expecting Dostoyevski or something like that), and he responds that he mostly reads magazines and stuff. If that is being an idiot, then it implies that most human beings are idiots. As far as I know, the closest example in chess of idiot savant was Akiba Rubinstein, who was arguably the strongest player in the world in 1911. He later went genuinely nuts and ended up catatonic and dying in 1960, after being saved from death camps by a chess playing Nazi. He is believed to be the inspiration for Stefan Zweig's chess champion in his novel The Royal Game.

Tomas: I think Fisher is often referred to as "gone mad" because of his strong anti-semitism, and conspiry-theories. In an interview jan 14, 1999 he claimed "There is no Holocaust. The Jews are liars. it's time we took off the kid gloves with these parasites." and "I intend to do what I'm doing right now which is to expose the Jews for the criminals they are, the parasites they are, the liars they are, the thieves they are, the ni_ggers they are." among other horrible things that do not seem to come from the mouth of the intellectual he used to be.

hk: If conspiracy theories makes one nuts (and don't they?) then Kasparov is nuts. He endorses "New Chronology", a really bizarre theory that reinassance scholars falsified all history prior to their time, and invented the middle ages - not the idea, the actual years in the chronology.

So, does it mean that there is no "Go no Fischer"?

ilan: My guess is that with the advent of Internet go servers, there is finally a good chance of having top level players who never study in Japan, Korea, or China, i.e., a Fischer equivalent in Go.

zinger: Well, this is an interesting topic indeed! I am glad to see that some people have advanced other examples to rebut the “three players only” argument. Alekhine also had some problems, which may or may not be entirely due to alcoholism. Also, the advance of the post World War II Soviet chess machine did not entirely end this business. Consider the bizarre events during the Karpov-Korchnoi match, where among other things, the players and their managers hired witches to cast hexes on each other, and made accusations of receiving coded messages via yogurt. While this strange behavior is not of the same category as Fischer’s, it is still really weird.

As an aside, I disagree with the description of Paul Morphy as “great chess genius,” and I do not think he belongs in company with Steinitz and Fisher. Virtually all of his surviving game records are tactical crushes against vastly inferior opponents. There is little or nothing to show what he did when confronted with good moves. For tactical brilliancy achieved against top players, check out Mikhail Tal.

ilan: I basically don't believe in the terminology "genius", but Morphy must be regarded as one of the greatest players of all time for being the first to understand the principles of open games (e4-e5). It is true that many of his games were tactical crushes, but the point is that they were sound tactical crushes based on superior strategical decisions. I believe that it is difficult for people to believe that chess was basically unsound until Morphy came along. This might also be surprising to Go players, since this was exactly at the period of Shusaku.

Steinitz followed with most of the rest of strategic principles. Compared to this, Fischer wasn't as much of an innovator, but almost all the general principles were understood by then.

zinger: Yes, I think it is fair to say that Morphy pioneered some new ideas, which were important for the development of the game. However, that still doesn't make him one of the greatest players, IMO. His true strength is undetermined. In today's standards, he might be world champion level; but then again, he might be no better than a run of the mill FIDE master struggling to gain his IM norms.

Go is different in this respect. A pro can comment Shusaku's games without pausing every few moves to note that the opponent's play stinks. This isn't the case with chess, prior to Steinitz or perhaps even Capablanca.

ilan: How wrong you are! With many players becoming grandmasters before age 20, you got to figure that Morphy would have come up to speed very quickly, if he only had the opportunity to play stronger players. This is based on the fact that he discovered a new way to look at chess strategy on his own. Note also that players of that era did have the same endgame skills as today, e.g., the studies of Philidor, Kling and Horwitz, etc. For example, in the book Secrets of Pawnless endgames, John Nunn evaluates 19th century analysis of Rook and Bishop vs. Rook, by computer (that is The Absolute Truth) and concludes: "In summary, 19th century analysis did an excellent job of laying the groundwork for this ending. Much of the old analysis is very accurate, sometimes astonishingly so." In particular, is a correct 1843 study by Zytogorsky which is mutual zugwang, with weaker side to move losing in 45 moves (90 Go moves).

zinger: Certainly, the opportunity to play better competition would make Morphy a better player than he was. But how much better – who can tell? I still say Misha would paste him :)

Also, practice and competition will give a competitor the opportunity to excel, be it at chess, soccer, billiards, or whatever. But I do believe that there is such a thing as innate talent, without which there is a limit to what can be achieved by any amount of training. For example, Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes ever, couldn’t reach the professional level at baseball – he just didn’t have that particular talent. Likewise in chess. Did Morphy have it? Maybe. But maybe not. Likewise, I suspect, in Go: something beyond time investment and training separates Shusaku, Go Seigen, Lee Chango, etc. from the average pro.

Madness and Chess last edited by on January 11, 2009 - 10:55
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