Chess & Mental Differences

Nobody can deny the fact that chess players as a whole are a somewhat eccentric bunch. It needs a special kind of mind to devote vast swathes of time to a board game that is so intense and so abstract, most ‘normal’ people just don’t get it. I don’t know of any studies on the mental differences of the chess playing community but suspect we’re very well represented by people with Asperger traits.

Speaking for myself I come from a line of people with ‘non standard’ brains and count myself as fortunate that with me it skipped a generation! There again I never had a problem spending huge amounts of time going through chess games and codifying and studying openings. One of my earlier recollections is of being forced to go on a family walk on a sunny day rather than go through Bobby Fischer’s games, my parents were obviously concerned.

Nonetheless I haven’t had any episodes that gave me massive cause for concern apart from one which might have been down to more recent obsession with chi kung and tai chi. I woke up in the middle of the night convinced that I’d missed the school run and slept through until it was dark, and only found my son asleep in his room after phoning the police to ask what I should do. When I later mentioned this to my teacher he did advise me that there are possible side effects to these arts due to the changes that take place in the body, and that I shouldn’t worry about it. Fortunately there has been no recurrence.

Are there practical implications for chess players if you don’t have a standard brain? For those with Asperger’s and autism the chess scene can be something of a refuge as a lot of others will understand you! Traits such as ruthlessness, paranoia and a lack of social skills and compassion can be the rule rather than the exception and you can merrily discuss an obscure variation of the Sicilian Najdorf to an attentive audience. Anxiety and depression, which also seem quite common, are an altogether more difficult thing to deal with as even the treatment may play havoc with your game. Nonetheless it might be better to keep taking the tablets as this chess player’s harrowing tale indicates. Arbiters have a hard enough job with the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet without having to call the men in white coats.

So welcome to the chess world, a wacky den of ‘individuals’ that is a haven for those with different brains. But remember that not all of them will have exactly the same brain difference as your own (or the same meds for that matter) so it can be good to cut them a little slack.

Nigel Davies

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About NigelD

Nigel Davies is an International Chess Grandmaster living in Southport in the UK. The winner of 15 international tournaments he is also a former British U21 and British Open Quickplay Champion and has represented both England and Wales on several occasions. These days he teaches chess through his chess training web site, Tiger Chess, which has articles, recommendations, a monthly clinic, videos and courses. His students include his 14 year old son Sam who is making rapid progress with his game.