Chess and Mental Illness



Morphy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the game of chess. Over the years I have enjoyed playing in tournaments and in informal games at chess clubs and other venues. Now I do not believe there is any necessary relationship between any particular game and mental illness. It does happen to be the case that in studying the history of the game, one finds a number of cases of brilliant players who became mentally ill. Paul Morphy, the great nineteenth century American player and unofficial world champion, is one classic example. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world champion and, since he became a United States citizen in 1888, the first U.S. world champion, sadly, became mentally ill in old age, allegedly offering God odds of pawn and move in a game. Akiba Rubenstein, a great player from the early twentieth century, also became mentally ill in his old age. The most famous contemporary example of mental illness in a chess player is Bobby Fischer, the first U.S.-born world champion. After he won his championship match with Boris Spassky, Fischer’s behavior became increasingly unstable, and his rabid antisemitism seemed to be a strange form of self-hatred given that his mother was Jewish, and recent evidence indicates his father may have been Jewish as well. Shortly before he died in 2008, I looked at Bobby Fischer’s personal website–it was clearly the work of a sick man–paranoid, raving, and incoherent. I disagreed with the U.S. Chess Federation’s throwing Mr. Fischer out after he supported the 9-11 attacks because those were not the statements of someone who was mentally “all there”. Why is the case that many chess geniuses suffer from mental illness?

Such problems are not unique to chessplayers–mathematical and musical geniuses sometimes have similar problems with mental illness. It is as if the brain is wired for one type of thinking and does that thing at a genius-level, but other forms of thinking are truncated. I am reminded of the extreme of savants, who can do one thing well, but are profoundly mentally handicapped in other areas.

I would venture a guess that more geniuses have high-functioning autism (which I do not consider to be a mental illness) than other people. It is well known that people on the autistic spectrum tend to focus on one (or only a few) special interests, and they tend to excel at those. In other areas of life, such as social ability, they do not do as well. I am not chess genius, but only an average tournament player of around the 1500-level, but I have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (now called high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder). When I go to chess tournaments, many of the players seem more socially inept than I am–that’s saying a lot. I have also noticed some players having interests upon which they focused almost exclusively–chess, of course, but also collecting fantasy action figures, Dungeons & Dragons, war games (board games), science fiction, science, and mathematics. This is not a bad thing–society needs people with talent in many areas who can channel their interests in a positive direction. If that tendency to be antisocial goes too far, however, to the point of debilitating autism or true mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, as well as personality disorders, then that results in players such as Mr. Morphy or Mr. Fischer.  These serious cases are sad, and such individuals require treatment which is all too hard to come by these days. Plus, the person or person’s family must take the initiative for the individual to get treatment. I do not believe chess itself will do them harm–it may do them much good in channeling their energies into one of the great strategy games of history and an intellectual contest par excellence.

I will continue to enjoy chess, and continue to enjoy playing over the games of the great players of history regardless of their mental difficulties. Morphy’s and Fischer’s games are masterpieces and are a great joy to go over. I believe that the contributions and beautiful games of chess these men offered more than make up for anything they may have said due to their illnesses. In the end, they have made the world a richer and more joyful place by creating objects of beauty.

A Culture of Cheating


Typical classroom in Br. Andrew Gonzales Hall

Image via Wikipedia

It is interesting to ask a college or university class what they believe about cheating on tests or papers. When I have asked this question in my undergraduate general ethics classes, there are few students who say that one should be honest, but most students admit that if they could get away with it they would cheat.

Another instance in which I have encountered cheating directly is online chess. Some chess servers have been hacked by “chess players” (and I use the term loosely) who manipulate the program so that their opponents cannot move their pieces where they would like. This usually happens when a player is about to make a winning move. The piece moves to the wrong place, the cheating player takes the piece and “wins” the game, and sometimes makes offensive comments such as “I won, [a string of expletives follows]. There is no sense of personal integrity in a cheater, but rather a childish believe that “I’m going to get what I want no matter what it takes.”

Some sports figures use illegal performance enhancing drugs. Such cheating has a cost in early onset heart disease and other complications of using steroids. “Whatever it takes to succeed” becomes the motto of professional (and often college and university) athletes, even if that ephemeral success comes at the cost of their health, life, and worst of all, their integrity.

More and more individuals are claiming fake credentials in their job applications, and the market for fake online degrees is growing. Sadly, this problem is a significant one for Christian ministers, especially in Fundamentalist groups, who somehow justify their fake degrees at degree mills as “deserved due to my life experience,” or “deserved because I did have to turn in a dissertation”–but a “dissertation” that will automatically be accepted if the price is right. “Whatever it takes…..”

However, “Whatever it takes….”, when it includes cheating, destroys what is most important in a person–character, integrity, honesty, trustworthiness. If a person is willing to lie on a job application, that person is more likely to lie on the job and hurt the business for which he works. Such an individual cannot be trusted in personal relationships since he sees life in strictly egoistic terms of self-absorption, “what is good for me.” Multiple generations of spoiled children, beginning with some of the baby boom generation, children left to fend for themselves, severely dysfunctional families, societal values that promote material success and “celebrities” over real achievement–all these have helped to spread “the cheating culture.”

I wish there was a magic bullet, something I could tell my students to encourage them to think through their values so that those who think cheating is morally acceptable can reconsider their position. If the attitude has been internalized at the level of a person’s character, that is difficult to change, although it is theoretically possible for all but sociopaths and psychopaths. The Founding Fathers of the United States feared that rabid individualism would ruin the character of the nation’s citizens–and to a large extent this has happened. Can this society survive when the dominant culture is a “cheating culture”?

Of Entitlement Culture and Chess Clocks


Digital chess clock

Image via Wikipedia

Americans have become notorious whiners, especially in this age of entitlement. Instead of working on their weaknesses in order to overcome them (something that builds character), many Americans try to get a break that costs them nothing. As a chess player and long time member of the United States Federation, I have seen such attitudes seep into participants in chess tournaments.

When I played in tournaments in the 1970s, the rounds would start on time–anyone who arrived late was penalized time off their clock, and therefore had less time in which to make all their moves in the game. They thus had a greater danger of losing. Now some tournaments routinely start ten, fifteen, or even thirty minutes late. Those who arrive on time end up staying later than they had planned due to delays in the later rounds. Those who arrive late are not punished for their late behavior. Now there are some tournament directors, such as Tennessee’s Harry Sabine, who do an excellent job of starting rounds on time. But they are becoming fewer by the day.

One of the worst developments, in my opinion, in the contemporary chess tournament is the five-second delay in many chess clocks. On this setting, a player’s clock does not start until five seconds after his opponent hits the button on the clock. Thus, a player may have one second left on his time, but if he moves within five seconds, he will have a potentially unlimited moves left.

Players who have good time management skills will not be harmed by the five-second delay. I have only lost one tournament game on time in thirty-three years of tournament play. But players who have not learned good time management skills benefit from the five-second delay. Instead of learning such skills, they now can move quickly and avoid losing on time. Most of these players are higher-rated players, and a lower-rated player would sometimes win on time. This greater chance of an upset added to the excitement of a tournament and was good for the morale of the lower-rated players. Now, since by the time a higher-rated player gets into time trouble, it is usually during the endgame, most of the time that player can easily make moves during the five second delay period. There are fewer upsets as a result.

The USCF default is to use the five-second delay setting. That is, if a player prefers that setting and the other player protests, that does not matter–the five-second delay is forced on the protesting player. Thus whiny players with poor time control skills have gotten their way with the five-second delay instead of taking the time and effort to improve their time management. The USCF has become a participant in the entitlement culture. How sad.