Sunday, December 05, 2004

More on Chess and Madness

point2point posted a piece by G. K. Chesterton arguing that reason and logic, not imagination and creativity, lead to mental instability. Madness is not the destination of the poet, but of the chess player:
There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man's mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination....

To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
Chess history does have its examples of great players who have succumbed to mental illness. Morphy and Fischer come immediately to mind. But are chess players really statistically more likely to develop mental problems? I doubt anyone has actually studied this question (though I recall that a study was done showing that chess players are less likely to develop Alzheimer's; perhaps this is the poet's curse).

I would argue that chess can be played using both logic and imagination. Are the hard core calculators, e.g., Tal or Kasparov, more susceptible to mental instability than intuitive positional players like Karpov? Perhaps Tal is not even a good example to choose -- was his bold sacrificial attacking play drawn from calculation, imagination or both?

See also "Chess, Personality and Madness"

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