Chess: The benefits of paranoia

Click to follow
AMATZIA AVNI's book, Danger in Chess, which we mentioned earlier this week, contains an interesting section on paranoia.

After quoting several authors who had speculated on the benefits of paranoia to a chess player, he continues with an observation by Valery Salov.

'Probably this Soviet habit of always looking for enemies, this persecution mania, is not so bad when you are playing chess . . . Maybe this was one of the special features that helped the Soviets to play better chess.'

While these theories appear very plausible to anyone who has studied recent world championships, or even seen certain grandmasters peering suspiciously around the board, I had not realised that they have been supported by some hard research into the personalities of chess players in which Avni himself took part.

The findings were published in 1987 in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences in a paper entitled 'Personality and Leisure Activities: An Illustration with Chessplayers' (by A Avni, D A Kipper and S Fox). Strong, weak, and non-players were all tested on a standard personality questionnaire, with the results showing that the highest scores on the paranoia scale were made by the strong group. As Avni puts it: 'They emerged as more suspicious persons, with greater mistrust and more guardedness.'

Before reading on, try this position. It is Black to play and lose. Avni gives the reader the choice: 1 . . . Rc4, 1 . . . Rc3+, 1 . . . b5, 1 . . . a6, 1 . . . Ka6 or 1 . . . Bg2. Which one loses?

The position, from Wachtel-Musiol, Poland 1953, is a perfect example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It is Black to play, he is two pawns up in an endgame and, disregarding one-move idiocies such as Re5 or Rc8, it is hard to see how what can go wrong. Yet Black lost instantly.

One technique advocated by Avni for the player not naturally gifted with paranoia is the 'worst case scenario'. Instead of looking for the best move, take some time off to consider the most terrible things that can happen to your position. Instead of asking 'How do I win this position?', ask yourself 'What can happen that would make me lose it?'

The answer in this case is that Black gets mated. He played 1 . . . a6?? (Did you find this splendid blunder?) and after 2. Re5] Black was lost. The threat is 3. Rxc5+ bxc5 4. Bc7 mate, and 2 . . . Rxe5 3. Bxe5 b5 (otherwise 4. Bc3 is mate) again lets the bishop checkmate from c7.

Such a disaster could easily give a player a persecution complex. So it must remain an open question whether grandmasterly paranoia is a necessary qualification for excellence at the game, or just an occupational hazard.

(Graphic omitted)