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Chess Play and Obsession

Tags: chess fischer

The success and popularity of the Netflix "limited series" The Queen's Gambit reminds me of the surge in interest in the game which took place when Bobby Fischer won the world championship in 1972.  I was a high school team player at that time, and the interest of others in the game was a subject of some fascination to me.  The match between Fischer and Spassky was, incredibly, broadcast live courtesy of public television, with commentary by Shelby Lyman.  I watched that broadcast and, more significantly, others did as well.  The popularity of the match and the game which resulted astonished me.

Chess players--serious Chess players, in any case--have been and always are fascinated by the game; one might almost say addicted to it or obsessed with it.  It's necessary to devote a significant amount of time to it to play well, and the amount of time it's necessary to devote to it increases the more one plays and the better one gets, as does the quality of your opponent.  At the highest level, chess is life, as Fischer once said--for him it was in particular, it seems.  It's unclear he had any life apart from it.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I've never reached the highest or indeed the higher levels of play.  I played a great deal in high school, studied the game, and was successful particularly in the last year I participated in scholastic play.  Then I stopped playing, only to begin playing once more much later in life.  I'm now a club player, but haven't been in a tournament in many years.

The star of the Netflix series is addicted to drugs and alcohol, and the implication is her remarkable talent as a chess player is in some manner associated with those addictions and may itself be a kind of addiction.  I think there's something to that.  Chess has long been associated with intelligence.  One derives pleasure from being thought intelligent, and being thought more intelligent than those one defeats at chess.  Pleasure is also felt when winning, and winning at chess is thought to be the result of the fact the winner's intelligence is greater than that of the defeated.  The winner of a chess match is perceived as intellectually superior to his/her opponent.  Fischer used to say that he felt joy in crushing the will of his opponents, or something to that effect.  Such a feeling may well be sought eagerly and would be intense enough to give rise to something like addiction.  

Chess has also been associated with insanity.  Fischer, unfortunately, is a case in point.  The great 19th century player Paul Morphy apparently went mad.  G.K. Chesterton noted that reason, or excessive reasoning, can cause insanity, and pointed to chess players in support of this claim.   Chess has also been associated with evil geniuses.  Intellectual villains are sometime portrayed as being avid players of the game. There seems to be something of the game that attracts and repels us.  It's attractive as an exercise in skill, but we seem troubled by the display of great skill when it is confined to chess play.  We're moralists to an extent.  We think great ability of this kind should be applied to something more wholesome, and of greater benefit to people and the world.  There's something strange and dubious about great chess players.

I have no idea what it is about me that attracts me to the game.  But I think that to be a serious player one must at least have a fairly sizable ego, an ability to focus intensely and an ability to perceive combinations available in a position.  I have those characteristics, to a certain extent.  But a great player must have them to an extraordinary degree.  The ability to focus on the game alone, and nothing else, strikes me as especially important to success over the board.  Fischer, as I noted, said that chess is life, and the lead in the Netflix series says something similar.  I think it was that the chess board is itself a world, and most importantly one that she could control.  Being an orphan and subject to the whims of so many others, it's understandable she would seek out and master a world less cluttered and subject to strict rules. For a great chess player, chess is all-consuming.  Like an addiction to drugs and alcohol, I would think.

"A beautiful game, except for the players"  So says one of the characters in The Bishop Murder Case, one of the works of S.S. Van Dine involving the "detective" Philo Vance, when referring to chess.  The suspects in that book are a chess master and theoretical physicists, one of whom is disabled and fond of children's games.  Strange, unnatural, dangerous people, capable of atrocities. 

A beautiful game nonetheless, though. 

This post first appeared on I, Ciceronianus; Causidus, please read the originial post: here

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Chess Play and Obsession


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