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It Isn't a Thin Line So Much As a Twisty Knight's Tour

June 20, 2011 at 11:06 pm

In my previous post, I alleged that the chess world abounds with stories of…Well, let's call them "eccentric personalities."

I realized that might have been tarring things with an awfully wide brush.  I don't have any concrete evidence that rates of mental illness are higher in the high-level chess playing population than in the general population.  There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that some elite chess players might be a bit bent.  But the plural of "anecdote" is not "data", as the saying goes.  I'm not the first person to wonder about a correspondence, so perhaps somebody really has found a correlation. 

In the meantime, I dug up some anecdotes about great chess players of the past.

We've already covered Bobby Fischer.  Whether he suffered true paranoid delusions of persecution or was just a flaming jerk, there's no doubting that he was pretty damn eccentric.

The documentary, Bobby Fischer Against the World, points out a sad parallel between Fischer and another great American chess player, Paul Morphy.  Morphy is generally considered to be the top player of his era, which was a time before formal World Championships.  And, like Fischer, he also abandoned chess at the height of his career.  His final days found him wandering the streets of New Orleans, talking to himself.  (There are also stories about his shoes.  But these are sometimes disputed as having been wildly exaggerated.)

Wilhelm Steinitz was the first official world champion.  He spent time in a Moscow insane asylum.  His behavior later in life was supposedly quite erratic; some folks think he may have suffered from syphilis.  According to some sources he died certified insane.  While in the asylum he allegedly believed that he played chess against God via "wireless" communication.  (This was in the 1890s.)  It's a very famous anecdote.  Some sources, however, dispute this.  (It's interesting that several of these famous anecdotes have either been debunked, cast into doubt, or shown to be gross exaggerations of the original incident.  I hadn't known this.  Maybe chess players are getting a bad rap!)

Carlos Torre Repetto's short career was, allegedly, a victim of mental illness.  Or maybe he was just an enthusiastic nudist—allegedly, he was one arrested for removing his clothes while riding the bus.

Alexander Alekhine used to play his matches while stinking drunk.  So stinking drunk that (again, allegedly) he was known to wet himself during a game.

Grandmaster Akiba Rubinstein's schizophrenic tendencies drove him out of tournament play in the early 1930s.  According to Wikipedia he spent the last three decades of his life in an out of hospitals.  He had a tendency to run away and hide between moves during tournament games.  One anecdote I heard many years ago claimed that at at least one tournament Rubinstein would make his move, hit the clock, then run across the street to hide in the lobby of another hotel while his opponent contemplated the next move.   

Viktor Korchnoi, who was a 10-time contender for the world championship, allegedly played a chess game against a dead guy in 1985.  The dead guy won.


Richard June 21, 2011 at 10:18 am
Alexander Alekhine wasn't crazy, he was a Russian. They do everything while stinking drunk. You don't conclude a business arrangement without a bottle of vodka and two glasses. Though that doesn't explain why he wet himself.
Melinda June 21, 2011 at 10:43 am
This is a great post. Thanks for posting all this. I could see a sort of Tim Powers book with chess masters being some kind of hinge to the universe, and it drives them slowly mad.
Tengland June 21, 2011 at 9:39 pm
Bishop to pawn shop. Knight to Queensryche. Queen to guillotine. Pawn to King's Landing. Crown the usurper's head. (Go ask Alice, I think she'll know.) Eccentricity, check. Basics of game, check. Dislike of most people, check. I'm ready. Or, as the Australians say, "Check, mate."
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