Chess, Memory And Autism

An interesting postscript to Vishwanathan Anand’s recent lecture is this article describing some recent research on autistic traits and prodigies. The memory aspect certainly rings true, most Grandmasters have a phenomenal memory for chess games, for example Lev Psakhis once knew all of Bobby Fischer’s games by heart.

As far as the autism angle is concerned I think it would certainly be true that chess Grandmasters have a higher prevalence of autistic traits than the general population. A few have been officially diagnosed, many more will have shadow forms of this neurological variation.

To put this in perspective most of the World’s population have shadow forms of something or other, as described by John Ratey in his Shadow Syndromes book. I strongly suspect, for example, that constantly checking one’s mobile phone for text messages is an ADHD trait, as is the excessive enjoyment of shopping. Of course there’s a point on the scale at which these tendencies become pronounced enough to seriously affect someone’s ability to function in the World, and at this point we’re in ‘official diagnosis’ territory.

What does this mean for the chess improver? Basically that you have better chances of gaining competitive success if you prefer to avoid parties and stay in the kitchen if you end up at one. A strong working memory helps considerably (much more so than general ‘intelligence’), as does an obsession with the game. But there’s not much here that we didn’t already know.