Chess for psychopaths

5/31/2003 – Rev. Earl Smith, the chaplain at San Quentin State Prison, is ready to make his move with chess pieces crafted from matchbooks. He looks into the dark, fiery eyes of his opponent and tries to read his mind. Which is impossible because it is demented. Here's some possibly vital information for you on chess, psychology and serial killers.

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Chess in San Quentin

Try the following psychological test. It is a story about a girl. While at the funeral of her own mother, she met a guy whom she did not know. She thought this guy was amazing, so much her dream guy she believed him to be, that she fell in love with him there and then...

A few days later, the girl killed her own sister.

Question: What is her motive in killing her sister?

That's it. Can you think of a reason why she should have killed her sister? Does it instantly spring to mind?

If it doesn't that's good news. It simply means that you are not predispositioned to be a homicidal maniac. A more detailled explanation follows below, embedded in the text. You may want to think for a while before you read on. Maybe you do have what it takes to become a Manson-type serial killer...

Which brings us to the current chess topic. Turns out that the Reverend was playing chess against Charles Manson, one of America's most notorious serial killers. Earl Smith has a genuine passion for sports and a deep compassion for people. Through sports and games, even something as quiet and deliberate as chess, Smith can communicate.

Smith plays chess with any prisoners who is allowed to participate outside of Death Row. Chess and checkers became popular games for inmates, especially ones in maximum security who were locked up the majority of the time. They can play each other by shouting their moves to their opponent or a third party in another cell.

It was a rewarding and enlightening experience for Smith and not because he was a master at chess. "Blacks. Whites. Mexicans. I learned early on that was the only time they could get along," Smith said. "They would all root against me."

You can read all about the chess and other sports activities in San Quentin State Prison in this long but readable article in the Marin Independent Journal.

And now back to our psychological test. Could you think of a reason for the girl killing her sister. Apparently normal everyday people have absolutely no idea, whereas one small segment of society answers immediately, after milliseconds of thought: "She was hoping that the guy would appear at the funeral again."

Finding the correct (or let us say the above) answer to this test indicates that you think like a psychopath. The test was devised by a famous American psychologist used to test if one has the same mentality as a killer. Many arrested serial killers took part in this test and answered it correctly. If you didn't answer correctly – good for you. If your friends hit the jackpot, you probably need to keep your distance.

We tried the test on numerous top players in the world of chess. We are glad to report that only two of the world's strongest GMs show a penchant for serial killings (no, it would be unfair for us to tell you which two did – why take the fun and excitement out of top level chess?).

Post scriptum: Before one spreads such stories (as we have done) it is advisable to pay a short visit to the excellent Urban Legend site snopes.com. There we learn that the psychological test is a silly canard that began its Internet life in May 2002. "There is no simple question where all the psychopaths would go one way and everybody else would go another," Snopes writes. "As a quick 'n' easy way to separate the sheep from the murderous goats, the test simply wouldn't work. The appeal of this one-question pop psych quiz lies in its implicit promise that by using it on your friends, you can locate the psychopaths lurking in your circle of acquaintance and thereby protect yourself from them, or perhaps in the process of your answering it you'll uncover some deep, dark secret you've been keeping from yourself. We like our world simplified whenever possible, and therefore anything that appears to be an easy-to-use tool will be quickly seized upon, even if it's flawed."

What a shame! But on the other hand we can resume association with the two top players, who are perfectly affable people – except for the possible psychopatic quirk, which of course we no longer have grounds to suspect.

Breaking news: It seems there are psychological tests that help spot psychopatic killers. This has been reported by Reuters and carried by many news outlets (CBC News, ABC News, etc.). We will be keeping an eye on those two 2600 GMs after all...


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