Saturday, November 20, 2004

Chess, Personality and Madness

I found two items today that might get you thinking about the interrelationship of chess, personality and madness.

The first is an article from The Guardian, "Chess: the new rook'n'roll?". While primarily a puff piece about the role celebrities might be playing in a resurgence of interest in chess, the article also includes this intriguing quote:
As former British champion Bill Hartston said: "Chess is not something that drives people mad; it is something that keeps mad people sane."
To a certain extent this sentiment does resonate with me. this way lies madnessFor example, I returned to tournament chess in the mid-90's during a period when I was less than enthusiastic about my job/work life (come to think of it, when am I not less than enthusiastic about my job/work life?). I remember telling my wife that I needed that one night of chess per week to avoid going nuts.

This brings me to the second item -- an essay by Mr. Femi Oyekan of New Orleans reprinted in full on a weblog titled "Chess Underground". Mr. Oyekan takes the position that playing chess at a serious level actually leads one to develop off-center personality traits. Here are a couple excerpts:
Those of us on "my side" (read: serious chess players) may be a little more ... roundabout in the way we do things, ... at ease with unconventional thought patterns and ideas, ... comfortable with things that are "iffy". We often like to come at things from the side, rather than head on. ... you might also find that "my side" doesn't exactly dominate the top of the "kindness" and "easy to get along with" lists. Not to say that we are out and out assholes but we may have less of a tendency to be accommodating. We are slightly more difficult cases.

For starters, since you are playing by yourself for yourself, you must trust yourself. A habit of constantly scrutinizing the ideas of others (hopefully fairly) is inevitably formed. In extreme instances, this can even lead to a "my way or the highway" approach, although that doesn't tend to sit too well with people. More regularly, a major distrust of pop culture and even society as a whole is often generated.
This is fairly provocative stuff. While I think that Mr. Oyekan does a good job of describing characteristics commonly seen in chessplayers, I would like to suggest an alternative hypothesis: Playing chess doesn't turn one into a "difficult case", but rather "difficult cases" are more likely to be attracted to chess. What do you think?

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