Chess / Objectivity salvaged from Oedipus wrecks

Fifty years ago this week, Alexander Alekhine died. A venomously competitive individual and part-time drunkard, he was one of the more unpleasant characters to hold the world championship, but also undoubtedly one of the most brilliant. His feud with his predecessor, Jose Raul Capablanca, was the most vicious in chess history - after their title match in 1927 it was another nine years before they could be tempted to compete in the same event, and even then they would not sit together at the board - and his world title match with Dr Euwe in 1935 produced the only recorded instance of a reigning champion urinating on stage during a contest.

Writers from Benjamin Franklin onwards have stressed the benefits of chess in building a balanced and rational personality, but the lives of men such as Alekhine seem to suggest something different. For an up-to- date assessment of the true value of chess, we must turn to the Ovid PsycLIT database of psychological research which reveals 71 academic papers on psychological aspects of chess over the past dozen years.

"Algunas observaciones psicoanaliticas sobre el ajedrez," (a paper delivered by Bernardo A Schutt at the 37th Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association in Buenos Aires in 1991, takes the Freudian line of chess as a representation of oedipal conflict. "Topics addressed include the relevant role of the sublimation mechanisms that allow the expression (through play) of oral, sadistic, masturbatory, or homosexual fantasies." This paper supports the results reported in "Oedipal motives in adolescent chess players" (Journal of Adolescence, 1981) which showed that "chess players displayed significant more castration anxiety and jealousy regarding father's relationship with mother."

Alan Aycock, however, ("Finite reason: a construction of desperate play", Play and Culture, 1992) likens a chess tournament to a bureaucracy or factory. "The players, through ritual values constructed by the tournament, are ensnared in contradictory attitudes such as play-work, reason-feeling, public-private and freedom-domination, which are the basic oppositions of western culture."

Passing quickly by "The general intelligence and spatial abilities of gifted young Belgian chess players," (British Journal of Psychology 1992), we come to "learned helplessness in chess players: The importance of task similarity and the role of skill" (Psychological Research, 1992), which showed that players become depressed if set problems that have no solutions.

There is, however, one paper that confirms the idea that chess could be good for you. "Children and chess expertise: The role of calibration" by Dianne D Horgan (Psychological Research, 1992) reports on the ability of children and adults to predict their own performance at chess and other competitive activities. Better players generally made more accurate predictions, with skilled child players more accurate than skilled adults. Most interestingly, good chess players were better than weak chess players at predicting their performances in non-chess activities.

If nothing else, chess may at least teach us objectivity in confronting our limitations.