(NB. This is a sample chapter (article) of a never published book about chess psychology. If you liked it and want more information as a potential publisher, please, contact Lovass Laszlo)

Dr Ervin Nagy
Psychiatrist of the Central Military Hospital
Justiciary mental specialist
International Master

Our Psyche In Chessck


Surely, in a philosophical mood, all of us have already thought about what chess actually is. It has been called a game, a kind of entertainment, a kind of sports, fight, struggle, science, etc., and everybody can choose a category to his/her taste. Let us not go into the meaning of these concepts now, as there has been an awful lot written about them anyway. They are all true from a certain point of view.

Writings on the psychology of chess and chess-players, as a rule, aim at discovering a way to victory, and are devoted to modelling the competitors' thinking in the first place, as well as (to a lesser extent) to making use of the opponent's psychological weaknesses.

This psychological strategy is very nice, true and useful - but the picture is far from being complete yet, as only one end is considered, namely, that the game must be won. However, it may well be the case that the invincible psychological force is not the urge to win the game, but some inner voice saying 'You must play chess.'

A multitude of other questions arise here. First of all - why 'must' you play chess?

As far as I am concerned, I feel that chess involves a certain essential experience which we all share, and by which we are all 'possessed' for a lifetime, and it is talent, other fields of interest, or simply pure accident that decides who will become professional players, and who are to stay 'by the sidelines' as kibitzers.

'Gens una sumus!' - we say, and this slogan also carries the meaning that we have made an alliance to unveil a mystery (although we are not even sure about its existence). We are moved by the desire to experience 'deja vu', to face something that makes us exclaim: 'This is just what I meant, it could have just as well been discovered by me!'

We have this kind of experience after every move. 'Why did he move there?' - 'Oh yes, I know!' Of course we do not think it over like this, and that is the good part of it. We simply see the opponent's move, and find an answer to it. If everything turns out well, a coherent combination, strategic plan, or manoeuvre comes out. The psychological profit, the experience, lies exactly in this 'short-circuit' state of mind between two moves.

Sounds pretty complicated, does not it? It will perhaps become more understandable if we think it over (after Sigmund Freud) why we appreciate a good joke. It is because we 'get the idea', that is, we realize the connection between the introduction and the point of the joke in no time, needing no interpretation. Chess moves hit us like jokes, and if someone understands them only after a long explanation, he will also know what it is about, but it will spoil the fun - he does not belong to our 'gens'.

So much about the sunny side for now. Let us see the problems...
- time trouble,
- blunders,
- fear of defeat,
- opponents we can not play against,
- the burden of playing for a team,
- is black really such a 'dark' colour? (we believe it is not)
- adjourned games,
- selection of the suitable opening,
- how to draw if you need half a point,
- what to do if you must win,
- the opponent's unpleasant behaviour,
- superstitions,
- how to handle defeats,
- offering a draw.

This is just a sample, anybody could list further examples. All these problems will be dealt with, first of all from the point of view of the (fallible) human being.

Overheard Conversation

'Will you play with white or black tomorrow?'
'Unfortunately, black again!'
'Why is it a problem?'
'Can you play chess?'
'I know only the most essential things.'
'Then it will be difficult for you to understand.'
'Have a try, maybe you can explain.'
'It won't be easy, because you, as an amateur, don't know what a big difference it makes at a higher level.'
'Maybe, but I know one thing: there is a certain psychological advantage in most difficult situations.'
'Well,that makes me curious. What do you mean, Doc?'
'I would like to hear your arguments for white first.'
'OK, here is a list:'
- white starts the game, he has an extra tempo, he determines the character of the position;
- white can choose an opening he is familiar with, and avoid the ones I usually play. For example, he can choose between e4 or d4 (or some other closed opening) already at the very beginning;
- white can kill the tension of the game, if he wants, and it leads to an inevitable draw;
- if he wants to win, he can play aggressively, and, having an extra tempo, he always 'gets there first' in case of a mutual attack;
- and I could tell you a lot more,
but I am sure you also know the statistics: white wins more games than black.'
'This is all very nice, but the game does not take place only on the 64 squares. Lasker used to say about it that a chess game is played by flesh-and-blood people, not by the pieces!'
'It was easier to play chess in his time.'
'It's true, but nevertheless there are numerous other factors supporting black's case.'
'Tell me a few!'
'There is the above-mentioned statistics, for one. It says that black can also win, if not as often as white.'
'You are speaking for me now, Doc.'
'I did not say it was a serious argument; I just mentioned it as a well-known fact.'
'OK, what else is there?'
'I can accept that white has an advantage on the board, but I dare say that all the other factors are in black's favour.'
'Black is OK, huh?'
'Something like that - but I really mean it.'
'Then I would like to hear meaningful arguments!'
'All right. Here is the disadvantage of the statistics, for one.'
'What kind of disadvantage?'
'Well, it's the pressure coming from the expectations. If white is theoretically supposed to win, it is a failure for him not to win.'
'You are not serious now.'
'I am!'
'But you are the only one to say this.'
'I am not! I have already heard it from you that it is declared at the tactical meetings at the Olympics and the European Championships. The slogan is: win with white, draw with black! But it can be the same at individual tournaments, too. If someone makes a plan in advance, when to play for a win and when to be happy with a draw, he/she will most probably try to win with white.'
'You have a point there. But he is not influenced by this during the game.'
'That is not at all sure. The responsibility of the two players is different.'
'If white does not want to win, I can not do anything with black.'
'But he usually does want to win! When is someone supposed to win, if not with white!?'
'And if he still does not want to?'
'Then it will be a draw in the worst case. But - if there is no great difference between the skills of the two players - it is quite likely that white's escalatory behaviour...'
'Hey! What on earth does that mean?'
'Sorry. We speak about escalatory behaviour in psychology (and elsewhere) if the elements of a behaviour chain seem to follow from each other, but the intention is not the same at the beginning and the end of the line.'
'It's not quite clear.'
'OK, let me try to bring up some examples. Have you ever had a real row with someone?'
'Of course I have!'
'Did you offend each other badly?'
'Well, that happened, too.'
'Did you hurt the other one's feelings?'
'Most probably I did.'
'Deliberately? '
'How did it happen then?'
'We just kept speaking out our opinions, and finally it came out quite differently from what we wanted to say.'
'That's what I am talking about! In a fierce debate, everybody gets closer to an extremist point of view. The utterances of the debate follow from each other, but they are far from reflecting the original intention. The ultimate goal will be to win the debate, not to convince the opponent. In politics, it can lead to, say, bombing civilian targets, like in Vietnam. It is the 'It was just a return blow on my part'-syndrome.'
'But we are talking about chess now.'
'That is also a type of battle.'
'Yes, so what?'
'Escalatory behaviour is a kind of self-justification. In our case it appears in the following way: the intention of our moves is there, but we get carried away from our original ideas, as well as from the inner nature of the position.'
'I can't really follow you.'
'For example, I do not realize that 'the tide has turned', the opponent has beaten off my attack, but I am still playing for a win, just because I have made attacking moves so far, I have sort of committed myself to attack, although I should already defend myself, rather than create further weak points in my position, hoping for an extra tempo;
- I have been on the defensive so far, but now the opponent's initiative is over, maybe I stand even better, but - under the influence of the period of pressure - I do not think of winning the game, and agree on a draw;
- in short, I forget that my original goal was to get the best result possible. The influence of the previous moves has proved to be stronger than the objective consideration of the present position.'
'You mean that you can beat yourself like this?'
'This is put too simple! Losing your objectivity has certainly got something to do with it. Just think of the simple fact that it is far from being all the same when exactly you offer a draw. You can save a game if you sense when 'the tide turns'. You make your offer when the opponent is to get an edge soon, but he is still influenced by the previous (worse) position, and he accepts the offer because he has not been able to 'switch over' to the new situation psychologically. It follows from the tension of the game that a certain part of the events can be in his 'blind spot'. Besides that, there is another factor.'
'Consciousness of guilt!'
'This is already too much! You psychiatrists always come up with this kind of nonsense! First that 'escalatory behaviour', and now this 'consciousness of guilt'! I have not killed anyone, taken anyone's purse, or stepped on anyone's foot, I have not even wished anyone anything bad (well, maybe sometimes, but never aloud). Why should I have 'consciousness of guilt', just because I play with white?'
'It is not because of that.'
'I have also read Freud! This must be something neurotic. You are not saying all chess-players are ill, are you Sir?!'
'Not by any means! But we can approach a phenomenon of life with psychological concepts, even if it has nothing to do with being ill.'
'What do you mean?'
'Of course I am not saying that chess-players are ill from any point of view - the more so as I consider myself to be one of them. What about declaring that neurosis is not an illness but a way of life. This may make the statistics about the high percentage of neurotic people understandable.'
'OK, why not.'
'I will go on if you listen to me. Let us make the concept of 'consciousness of guilt' a little broader. It can not only mean that I have committed some 'crime', but also that I am not like I am supposed to be, in other words, I do not satisfy the expectations.'
'What kind of expectations do you exactly mean?'
'I mean it in the broadest sense. In our case the expectation to be satisfied is 'you must win with white', because white has so many advantages on the board.' 'Whose expectation is it?'
'The expectation of the public mind. Everyone knows about white's advantageous position, therefore everyone believes in it, too. White's psychological handicap lies in the following: he feels that the public mind knows that he has the upper hand at the moment of sitting down to the board. Therefore, it is his moral obligation to win the game, or he does not satisfy the expectations - that's what brings about his 'consciousness of guilt'.'
'So white's handicap is that he is expected to win.'
'Not exactly. Probably nobody on earth cares about him, but he does not know about it.'
'What does he know about then?'
'Most people think that they are the centre of the world, and everybody is occupied with them. Of course people in limelight get more attention than others, but not as much more as they think.'
'If the others don't really care - of which I am not totally convinced - , where is the conflict?'
'It's inside. I mean inside white's soul. For him everything he presupposes about the public mind is reality, and he wants to fulfil the expectations, or if he does not succeed in doing so, he will experience 'consciousness of guilt'. So you can trust him that he will venture to win the game.'
'Why is it good for me?'
'Because of his inner struggle! He wants to achieve something, fearing failure at the same time. It is like running in a sack.'
'You are exaggerating.'
'Of course I am. I just wanted to give you an idea of white's tortures.'
'There is something in what you are saying, but it is not completely true. Besides that, not everybody is 'neurotic'.'
'I meant all this to be normal psychical remarks. But I have one more argument. Let me remind you what an enormous psychological burden it is when this imaginary expectation is openly declared, say, at the Olympics: draw with black, win with white!'
'That's true. I have already had enough of it... But tomorrow I am black again, and my opponent is quite strong... A draw is OK!'
'You have not accepted anything from what I said.'
'Speculation is one thing, and sitting down to the chessboard is another. Sorry'
'You are right. These two are really different. And the more professional one is, the less important the other factors are. However, these factors apply to even the greatest players to some extent. I don't want to bring up examples here, you could probably tell me more.'
'Well, a word of praise at last! Now I know why it is bad for white - but what is good for me?'
'You are Fortune's darling.'
'Come on! Don't be silly!'
'I am serious - well, almost serious. You will have an opponent who is under the pressure of an enormous responsibility, whereas you...'
'What about me...?'
'For you it will be easy, at least with the off-board factors.'
'In what sense?'
'No burden will rest on your shoulders, all the responsibility belongs to your opponent! Everybody will know how hard it is for you, and they will sympathize with you.'
'At least those who sympathize with me anyway.'
'Great people have great enemies. You know - aquila non captat muscas! ( An eagle does not catch flies.)'
'Stop it, will you!'
'OK, let us confine to the technical part. All malevolent people claim to know that it is more difficult to play with black; it is only you who already knows it isn't. Therefore they will be indulgent to you, and have nothing against a draw, as everybody is worried about his professional reputation, and in this case they are the public mind, not players.'
'So everybody will take the draw as an acceptable result.'
'Sure, but maybe there is something more in it. Maybe he wants to beat you.'
'And? That's what I am afraid of.'
'But your advantage lies exactly in this. You can play for a win without moral responsibility - and unobserved!'
'What do you mean by 'unobserved'?'
'One must take risks in order to win, and this will be done by your opponent. The psychological situation will be the following: you are a peaceful person, and the opponent wants to beat you. You are the attacked party, the one in an unfavourable situation, and the people's sympathy is yours. There is always something heroical about your struggle, even if you get carried away and do something you regret later. So you are the only one who can profit from this business. If you happen to lose the game...so what? It could be foretold by all odds. Any other result is unfavourable for your opponent.'
'Yes, it sounds convincing, I really feel like 'facing my destiny'.'
'Now all you have to do is make it a bit more conscious, so that the opponent did not even realize that you intend to win.'
'You must know it better than me, it is a purely professional task. For example, you can prepare for your opponent's favourite 'winning' openings, and find something new in them. Let him believe that he is the one to play for a win, and let him ignore the fact that he has one more opponent.'
'Who is that?'
'The one I have talked about so far. Himself!

Budapest, April 3, 1992