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It filleth and troubleth men's heads?

4/27/2005 – The recent Time Magazine essay by Charles Krauthammer, which searched for the connection between chess and madness, has brought a lot of feedback from our readers. Most disagree with the Pulitzer Prize winner's conclusions, while one authority, a 16th century monarch, seems to support him. Olimpiu Urcan reports.
 

Chess and madness

By Olimpiu G. Urcan

“As for chesse, I think it is over-fond, because it is over-wise and philosophicke a folly, for where such light plays are ordained to free men’s heads for a time from the fashious thoughts of their affairs, it, by the contrarie, filleth and troubleth men’s heads with as many fashious toyes of the play, as before it was filled with thoughts on his affaires”

King James I of England

“Chess players are no more liable to become demented than cricketers” James Mortimer

Charles Krauthammer’s article from TIME Magazine did little more than repeat the words of King James quoted above and applied them to a “Fischerian” context. But they do perpetuate the perception of chess as a path to madness, a subject authors and writers toyed with for decades. Using stereotyped and Luzhin-like historical images of chess genius and madness together, Krauthammer is worthy of a reply. But the answer is already there: James Mortimer (1832-1911), chess master, journalist, playwright, chess correspondent and an intimate of Napoleon III, published the following lines in American Chess Bulletin of January 1911.

(…) Chess is indeed, a game of many and exquisite allurements, but it is not, as its detractors have frequently asserted, an engrossing, all-absorbing obsession, causing insomnia and sometimes leading to insanity. Chess players are no more liable to become demented than cricketers. It is admitted that Paul Morphy died a lunatic, but he had entirely abandoned chess twenty years before his death, and his loss of reason was attributable to causes bearing no relation whatever to the game to whose splendor he had in his early youth added fresh lustre. At no period of his life was Morphy other than an amateur, playing chess for amusement and not as a means of earning a livelihood.

Pillsbury, the American champion of recent years, the victor of the great Hastings international tournament, in which he took precedence of Lasker, Tarrasch, Tchigorin, Steinitz, and other famous masters, died insane from a complication of physical and mental disorders to which his excessive labors as a professional chess player doubtless contributed; but Pillsbury had accustomed himself to playing frequently blindfold against as man as twenty opponents, and on one or two occasions even thirty, and such a strain upon the brain cannot be continually repeated without incurring the most serious risks.

In one other notable instance, that of late Mr Steinitz, it cannot be denied that the loss of the championship of the world, of which he was the undisputed possessor during more than a quarter of a century, his repeated defeats in international contests, in which he had been accustomed to figure among the principal prize-winners, and the pecuniary anxieties which haunted him in his declining years, were the causes which led directly to his mind becoming unhinged, and to his speedy death. Such cases, however, are extremely rare, and with all its gravity as an intellectual effort in competitions such as the Chess Congress, which was just come to a close, the game, as it is played in ordinary circumstances, is in reality a most harmless and exhilarating pastime, the delight of Lethe of all who turn to it as a relief from the cares and disappointments, and annoyances and tribulations of every day life.

No doubt, the most serious argument against chess is the extreme fascination it exercises over those who become its too faithful votaries, and who are tempted by its seductive charms to squander time which might be more profitably employed. May not the same reproach be applied to enthusiasts of cricket, football, bridge and other popular games, which lure their infatuated devotees from their legitimate pursuits and render them unfit for work?

King James I, was keenly sensible of the danger, for in his book, “Of a King’s Christian Duties”, addressed to his son, Prince Charles, he says [see quote above]: “As for chesse, I think it is over-fond, because it is over-wise and philosophicke a folly, for where such light plays (referring also to cards and dice) are ordained to free men’s heads for a time from the fashious thoughts of their affairs, it, by the contrarie, filleth and troubleth men’s heads with as many fashious toyes of the play, as before it was filled with thoughts on his affaires”

None can dispute the wisdom of this paternal advice, which also holds good today; but it appears to have little heeded by the Prince for whose edification it was intended. It is known that Charles I, was greatly attracted by chess and spent much time in playing the game with those of his courtiers who had penetrated some of its esoteric mysteries. Doubtless the unhappy King found in chess temporary oblivion of his cares. He had the magnificent set of chessmen which subsequently passed into the possession of Lord Barrington.

Despite the sapient views of James I, with regard to chess, it cannot be gain-said that it stimulates the intellect and brightens the monotonous existence of many to whom the uses of this world seems, indeed ‘dull, stale, flat, and unprofitable’. Harassed by the troubles of life, the chess player turns to relief to the magic pastime which diverts his thoughts from their furrowed channels and brings him forgetfulness to all his worldly worries and perplexities.

American Chess Bulletin, Vol. 8, No.1, January 1911, pages 16-18

In the February 1911 issue of the same journal a letter was received from a problem editor of another prestigious chess journal of the times – Chess Amateur - and a new word was coined:

Chess Playing and Insanity
The Editor American Chess Bulletin,

Sir, - In the article by my good friend, James Mortimer, a reference was made to chess players and insanity. We all know the inconsequent attitude taken by non-chess-players, whose favorite shibboleth is to say of chess and chess problems: “Ah! that way madness lies."

As a matter of fact this is a gross libel, as in one or two instances, though insanity has fallen to the lot of well-known chess experts, it has been either totally unconnected with chess or else it has ensued on flat and willful disregard of medical advice. Morphy’s case was in the former category and Pillsbury’s the latter. The marvelous chess genius played tricks with his gifts, ignoring the orders of his medical advisers, with deplorable consequences. A man with double pneumonia does not go out and sit in the park on a foggy evening in November. If he did, the foolhardy proceeding would kill him. That fact is that moderate pursuit of chess is no more harmful than any other pastime. For myself, I have composed close on 1000 chess problems, and solved at least ten times that number; but if I found myself dreaming of them, or was kept awake by involuntary visualizing positions, I should abandon my hobby at once; he who ignores Nature’s warning deserves the consequence. Mr. Mortimer is himself a splendid example of hale, vigorous and spirited old age, and all his life he has been the keenest of chess enthusiasts. The base calumny industriously spread by “chessophobes” (to coin a word) should be silent in face of these facts.

Yours sincerely,
Philip H. Williams
Problem Editor Chess Amateur


James Mortimer, born in 1832, was a chess player, journalist and playwright. At 22 he became part of the US diplomatic service, worked in Paris and then settled in England in 1870, where he bought and published a newspaper. He also produced more than 30 plays that were staged in London. The “splendid example of hale, vigorous and spirited old” Mortimer died of pneumonia in 1911, during the San Sebastian tournament. His message is to be remembered: “May not the same reproach be applied to enthusiasts of cricket, football, bridge and other popular games, which lure their infatuated devotees from their legitimate pursuits and render them unfit for work?” Here are two of his games.

Zukertort,J - Mortimer,J [C52] London, 1883
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 Bxb4 5.c3 Ba5 6.d4 exd4 7.0–0 dxc3 8.Qb3 Qf6 9.e5 Qg6 10.Nxc3 Nge7 11.Ba3 Rb8 12.Nd5 Nxd5 13.Bxd5 Nd8 14.Rad1 b5 15.Rd4 b4 16.Nh4 Qb6 17.Bb2 Ne6 18.Nf5 g6 19.Bxe6 fxe6 20.Ng7+ Kd8 21.Nxe6+ Ke7 22.Nf4 Bb7 23.Rxd7+ Kxd7 24.Qf7+ Kc8 25.e6 Ba6 26.Rc1 Rd8 27.e7 Kb7 28.exd8Q Rxd8 29.Ne6 Rd5 30.Bf6 Qc6 31.Ra1 Bc4 32.Qe7 Qd6 33.Qxd6 Rxd6 34.Nc5+ Kc6 35.Ne4 Re6 36.f3 Bb6+ 37.Kh1 Bd5 38.Rc1+ Kb5 39.Bg5 Bxe4 40.fxe4 Rxe4 41.h4 h6 42.Bd8 c5 0–1

Mortimer,J - Blackburne,J [B01] Ostende, 1907
1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6 3.Bb5+ c6 4.dxc6 bxc6 5.Be2 e5 6.d3 Bf5 7.Nf3 Bc5 8.Nc3 Nbd7 9.h3 0–0 10.0–0 Qc7 11.Nh4 Be6 12.Ne4 Nxe4 13.dxe4 Rad8 14.Bd3 g6 15.Bh6 Rfe8 16.Qe2 Rb8 17.b3 Nb6 18.Be3 Be7 19.Nf3 Rf8 20.g4 Kh8 21.Kh1 c5 22.c4 Bc8 23.Bc1 Bf6 24.Bb2 Bg7 25.Nh4 Bb7 26.Rae1 Rbd8 27.Bb1 Rd7 28.Rd1 f5 29.gxf5 gxf5 30.Qh5 fxe4 31.Ng6+ Kg8 32.Nxf8 e3+ 33.Kg1 e2 34.Nxd7 exf1Q+ 35.Kxf1 Nxd7 36.Bxh7+ Kf8 37.Qf5+ Ke7 38.Bg8 Kd8 39.Bxe5 Qc6 40.Qxd7+ Qxd7 41.Rxd7+ Kxd7 42.Bxg7 1–0

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