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The Psychology of the Chess Player

By Reuben Fine

Chess is a contest between two men in which there is considerable ego-involvement. In some way it certainly touches upon the conflicts surrounding aggression, homosexuality, masturbation and narcissism which become particularly prominent in the anal-phallic phases of development. From the standpoint of id psychology, Jones’ observations can therefore be confirmed, even enlarged upon. Genetically, chess is more often than not taught to the boy by his father, or a father-substitute, and thus becomes a means of working out the son-father rivalry.

The symbolism of chess lends itself to this rivalry in a most unusual way. Central to it is the figure of the King. [In chess literature it is customary to capitalize the names of the pieces, and I shall adhere to this practice.] The King occupies a crucial role in the game in all respects. It is the piece which gives the game its name; for, chess is derived from the Persian shah meaning King, and is more or less the same in all languages. In fact, the three universal words in chess are chess, check, and King, all of which derive from shah. All other pieces have varying designations in different languages. Thus, Queen in Russian is Fyerz, which has nothing to do with woman; Bishop is Fou or jester in French, Laufer or runner in German.

Except for the King chess is a simple logical construction on the board. There is one piece which moves along diagonals (the Bishop), one which moves along ranks and files (the Rook), one piece which moves only forward (the Pawn), and when it can no longer move forward turns into another piece which allows it mobility (promotion), one piece which moves any number of squares in any straight-line direction (the Queen), one piece which moves one square in any direction (the King), and a piece which combines the vertical-diagonal movement L-with the power to jump over other pieces (the Knight). It would be possible to devise new pieces, or to divide their powers, and this has been done from time to time; for example, a piece combining the movement of Knight and Queen has been suggested. Or one could have two kinds of Rooks, similar to the two kinds of Bishops, one that moves along ranks, and another that moves along files. All of these alterations would be direct extensions of the rules we now have; they would not alter the basic character of the game.

Board games essentially consist of placing the pieces on a board in such a way that one can capture the enemy’s men, as in checkers, or get one’s men to a predetermined position, as in Chinese checkers. Once this is accomplished the game is won. Here the unique feature of chess comes in: the goal is to checkmate the King. A completely new set of rules is drawn up, governing the manner in which this checkmate may or may not be effected, and these rules are the ones that give chess its distinctive cast. Of course, the capture of the enemy’s men is still there, but unlike other games one can capture almost all the enemy’s men and still lose.

The King is thus indispensable and all-important. It is also irreplaceable. Theoretically it is possible to have nine Queens, ten Rooks, ten Knights or ten Bishops, as a result of Pawn promotion, but only one King.

All these qualities of indispensability, all-importance and irreplaceability make one think of the supreme rulers of the Orient. Here, however, enters a vital difference: the King as a piece is weak. Its powers are greatly limited. Approximate equivalents can be set up for the other pieces; for example, three Pawns are worth a piece, two pieces are worth a Rook and a Pawn, etc. Because of the nature of the King it has no real equivalents. Roughly, however, the King is a little stronger than a Pawn, but not as strong as any of the pieces. As a result the King must hide (castling) during most of the game. He can sally forth only when many exchanges have take place, particularly when the Queens are gone. Despite the fact that he is all-important, the other pieces have to protect him not he the others.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, [endnote] no other board game has a piece which so radically alters its entire nature. In checkers, for example, the King is simply an extension of the powers of the men, and can be captured just like the others. It is the King which makes chess literally unique.

Consequently, the King becomes the central figure in the symbolism of the game. To recapitulate briefly: the King is indispensable, all-important, irreplaceable, yet weak and requiring protection. These qualities lead to the over-determination of its symbolic meaning. First of all, it stands for the boy’s penis in the phallic stage, and hence re-arouses the castration anxiety characteristic of that period. Second, it describes certain essential characteristics of a self-image, and hence would appeal to those men who have a picture of themselves as indispensable, all-important and irreplaceable. In this way it affords an additional opportunity for the player to work out conflicts centering around narcissism. Third, it is the father pulled down to the boy’s size. Unconsciously it gives the boy a chance to say to the father: To the outside world you maybe big and strong, but when we get right down to it you’re just as weak as I am and you need protection just as much as I do.

Games inherently involve a leveling-off process; on the track, on the baseball diamond, on the chessboard all men are equal. In chess, however, there is an additional factor which differentiates it from other games: there is a piece which is different in value from all the others and around which the game revolves. The existence of the King allows an identification process which goes far beyond that permitted in other games. [Dr. Theodor Reik has pointed out that the rules surrounding the chess King are strikingly similar to many of the special taboos surrounding primitive chieftains. See section (b) The Taboo of Rulers in Part II of S. Freud, Totem and Taboo.] In this way chess allows for a strong assertion of game individuality.

Rook, Bishop, Knight and Pawn also frequently symbolize the penis. In addition they may have other meanings. To one player the Bishop was libidinized as a superego figure-the name was taken literally. The Knight may symbolize a horse, which it is also sometimes called.

The Pawns symbolize children, particularly little boys. They can grow up (promote) when they reach the eighth rank, but it is again significant that they may not become “King.” Symbolically, this restriction on Pawn promotion means that the destructive aspect of the rivalry with the father is emphasized, while the constructive side, which would allow the boy to become like the father, is discouraged. We would, therefore, anticipate on the one hand a very critical attitude towards authority in the chess player, and on the other an inability or unwillingness to follow in the same direction as his father [It has been my observation that very few chess experts have sons who are also strong chess players; unconsciously the father does not permit the identification to take place.] The contrast between the mighty King and the lowly Pawn again comes to symbolize the ambivalence inherent in the chess player’s self-image, an ambivalence which is also apparent in the figure of the King himself.

The Queen will, as might be expected, stand for the woman, or the mother-figure. It was not until the introduction of chess into Europe in the thirteenth century that the Queen became the powerful figure she is today. This is evidently a direct reflection of the differing attitudes towards women in east and west. Jones comments that psychoanalysts will not be surprised to learn that in the attack on the King (father), the most powerful support is provided by the Queen.

Put together, the chess board as a whole may readily symbolize the family situation. This would explain the fascination of the game. Lost in thought, the player can work out in fantasy what he has never been able to do in reality.

If we turn now to the ego of the chess player, we note to begin with that he uses primarily intellectual defenses. In chess, thought replaces action. As contrasted with other sports such as boxing, there is no physical contact whatsoever. There is not even the intermediate form of contact found in tennis or handball, in which both men hit the same object. The chess player is permitted to touch his opponent’s pieces only for purposes of a capture, when, according to the rules, the piece must be removed from the board.

As the players become more expert, the taboo on touching becomes even stronger. In master chess the rule of “touchmove” is observed. If a player touches a piece he must move it. If he touches it by accident he must say “j’adoube”, which means “I adjust” in French. Those who play by the rules are required to say this in French.

In one form of the game, known as correspondence chess, the distance between the two men is carried even further, in that the opponents never see one another. The entire game is played by mail. Here it is permissible to touch the pieces, but of course the players never meet.

In view of the profuse phallic symbolism of the game, the taboo on touching has unconsciously two meanings, or, put another way, the ego wards off two threats. One is masturbation (do not touch your penis; do not touch your pieces, and if you do, have an excuse ready). The other threat is homosexuality, or bodily contact between the two men, especially mutual masturbation.

The Psychology of the Chess Player by Reuben Fine, Dover Pub. NY (1956)

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