Movements to insanity

If there’s one name that’s synonymous with chess, it’s Bobby Fischer. Although he was an exceptional player, there were others who could have beat him if they’d been given the chance, but he refused to play them. Why then is Fisher so associated with chess? He’ll certainly be remembered for defeating the Soviets at a game they dominated for decades. However, he’ll also be remembered for the same reason the Titanic is associated with ocean liners and the Challenger with space shuttles: they were all disasters and we tend to remember disasters more than successes.

I recently read Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness. The title neatly summarizes the book: a fascinating but ultimately dismal story of a man who was brilliant at chess but little else.

Born in Chicago into a family of modest means and growing up in Brooklyn, Fischer had a troubled upbringing. Abandoned by his father, his mother often struggling to make ends meet, chess became a refuge for him as a child. He quickly rose through the chess ranks, reaching its pinnacle with his historic defeat of his nemesis Boris Spassky at the 1972 World Chess Champion in Reykjavík, Iceland.

With his remarkable success, Fischer instantly became a world-wide celebrity. However, his stubbornness and perfectionism led to his downfall. He rejected many endorsements that today would be worth almost $30 million U.S. Having achieved his dream to be world champion, he’d given no thought to what would happen afterwards. With no clear goal in life, he drifted aimlessly.

Living near poverty and surviving on the kindness of others, in 1992 he played a rematch against Spassky in the former Yugoslavia. The game brought about the wrath of the U.S. government who charged him with breaking the sanctions against Yugoslavia, in place due to the Bosnian War. He was briefly detained in Japan but eventually found refuge in Iceland, which took pity on him and allowed him to settle there.

Most likely schizophrenic, Fischer’s mind continued to deteriorate. His delusional and paranoid antisemitic railings and his joy over the September 11, 2001 attacks were further signs of his disturbed mind. Unfortunately for Fischer, paranoia, often a symptom of schizophrenia, is infused into chess. Each player has no way of knowing what their opponent intends to do. Paranoia is constructive in chess but destructive in the real world.

Other chess players who suffered from mental illness include:

  • Russian Soviet grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi: claimed he played a dead man
  • Polish chess grandmaster Akiba Rubinstein: suffered from schizophrenia; jumped out a window because he thought a fly was chasing him
  • Austrian Chess master Wilhelm Steinitz: claimed to have played God through a wireless connection, and won

Perhaps most similar to Fischer was U.S. chess champion Paul Morphy. Only a few years after winning the world championship in 1858 at age 21, he wandered the streets, aimlessly muttering to himself. Like Fischer, Morphy was probably schizophrenic; was a genius who stopped playing at height of his career; spent the rest of his life in obscurity, and died relatively young.

The obvious question is: does chess cause mental illness or attract those who have it? The answer may be both. Of course most chess players are mentally sound. However, some people who have difficulty relating to others and who are quirky, obstinate and somewhat autistic may be attracted to the game, viewing it as an escape from the real world.

Quirky individuals have also been attracted to the computer and software industries. Chess and computers have similar qualities: both are logical, abstract, systematic, unemotional entities that do not criticize or judge.

Chess, like computers, is binary. You either win or lose a tournament (although you can win, lose or draw a specific game.) The building blocks of chess (the squares) are black and white. The building blocks of computers are zeroes and ones. There are 64 squares on the chessboard, or 26. All computing storage is also measured in exponents of 2, for example, 1 megabyte equals 220 bytes.

Life, however, is non-binary; it is full of uncertainty and doubt. People who see the world in black and white (as Fischer did), are blind to the many shades of grey in between, and colour blind to all else.

Fischer’s downfall teaches us that technical skill alone is not enough to succeed. Many highly technical people fail because they don’t have the mental skills needed in the business world, including: empathy, social skills, personal communication, the ability to work with others, open-mindedness, positivity, listening ability, professionalism, dependability and flexibility.

These skills are called “soft skills”, in contrast to “hard skills”, the technical skills such as computer programming or accounting. The irony is that for many people, the “hard” skills are easy and the “soft” skills are hard. The way to improve soft skills is no different than improving the hard ones – practice and experience. A person who finds it difficult to interact with others must practice interacting with others. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s through discomfort that we grow.

Fisher died in 2008 from degenerative kidney failure, after earlier refusing medication and treatment. He was 64, one year for each square on the chess board.

It’s easy to see how chess can drive someone with an underlying mental condition like Fischer over the brink. The first two moves of a game have 400 possible combinations. That number grows exponentially after each move. The total number of possible moves (excluding those that wouldn’t make sense) is 1040, which looks like this:


This number is 10,000 trillion trillion trillion, about the number of atoms in the solar system.

To play chess is to play at the edge of black hole; to play with infinity; to play, as Wilhelm Steinitz claimed, with God almighty.