Did Chess Make Him Crazy?
If you think video games are dangerous, consider the saga of Bobby Fischer
Charles Krauthammer, Time Magazine
Tuesday, Apr. 26, 2005
Bobby Fischer is back in Iceland, and that is as it should be. Fischer put Iceland on the map for the first time since the Vikings happened by. And Iceland put Fischer on the map, providing the venue for his greatest triumph, the 1972 world chess championship. That was before he fell off a psychic cliff.
Three decades later, the fugitive ex-champion, sought by U.S. authorities for violating U.N. sanctions on Yugoslavia (in 1992 he played a high-profile rematch with Boris Spassky in Belgrade), is whisked out of a Japanese jail where he was awaiting extradition and offered shelter in Reykjavík. No one is too upset about this arrangement because he's clearly a sick man. His insane rants about Jews and America, his choice of a squalid, furtive life by a man who could have lived in princely admiration, his paranoia--he had the fillings in his teeth removed because if "somebody took a filling out and put in an electronic device, he could influence your thinking"--evoke pity and puzzlement.
Fischer is the poster boy for the mad chess genius, a species with a pedigree going back at least to Paul Morphy, who after his triumphal 1858-59 tour of Europe returned to the U.S., abruptly quit the game and is said to have wandered the streets of New Orleans talking to himself. Others have verged more on the edge of eccentricity. The great Wilhelm Steinitz claimed to have played against God, given him an extra pawn and won. Neither player left a record of the game.
Why such proximity between genius and madness in chess? There are three possible explanations. One is that 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. "A chess genius," wrote George Steiner, "is a human being who focuses vast, little understood mental gifts and labors on an ultimately trivial human enterprise. Almost inevitably, this focus produces pathological symptoms of nervous stress and unreality." Plausible, perhaps, but there are lots of folks who are monomaniacal in other "trivial" spheres and who come out psychically intact. Tiger Woods was raised from infancy to be a great golfer and is not just intact but graceful and charming. The ranks of great golfers, swimmers and Dominican shortstops are not more noticeably skewed to the deranged than the general population.
Well, then, this must be monomania of a certain sort. Chess is a particularly enclosed, self-referential activity. It's not just that it lacks the fresh air of sport, but that it lacks connections to the real world outside--a tether to reality enjoyed by the monomaniacal students of other things, say, volcanic ash or the mating habits of the tsetse fly. As Stefan Zweig put it in his classic novella The Royal Game, chess is "thought that leads nowhere, mathematics that add up to nothing, art without an end product, architecture without substance."
But chess has a third--and unique--characteristic that is particularly fatal. 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 I'm not sure I like this line of reasoning because it means that I, who have spent countless hours in public parks, chess clubs and my library at home fighting for my (king's) life, would be stark raving mad by now. I suspect that I am not. I like to tell myself that I am in pretty sane company. The game certainly has its pantheon of upstanding citizens. While ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin preferred to eschew the Paris opera for chess at the Café de la Régence. (Excellent choice.) Napoleon played, although to judge by one of his games, a diagrammed and illustrated copy of which hangs in my office, he was a far better general. Nabokov was a fine player and renowned composer of chess problems. And the sanest man I know, Natan Sharansky, is a chess master who once played Garry Kasparov to a draw and defeats me with distressing ease.
But then there is Fischer, the fearsome counterexample, now pathetically sheltered in Iceland, the only place that appreciates his genius enough to take pity on his madness. So, Mama, should you let your baby grow up to be a chess champion? Tough question. In his novel The Defense, Nabokov, who loved the game as much as I do, has the hero, the chess master Luzhin, go mad when he is struck by the realization of the "full horror and abysmal depths of chess."
A bit melodramatic, perhaps. It won't happen to your boy playing blitz in Washington Square Park.
What do you think?