I know that this question may be for a more psychology-focus forum, and "great" is an understatement for players such as Fischer; yet, I want to know your opinion on this question. Is it intelligence? Is it pressure? Or is it the game itself? Whatever is the ultimate answer, I wonder if the grand gift or talent has a big backlash, or even at a lower level of play, does playing game become harmful then?

edit: Maybe I should rephrase my question a little bit. Why and how do some great chess players become mentally ill, and why and how do others stay mentally stable? I would like to hear more about the other side of the discussion.


6 Answers 6


I am a chess player and one of the many premier ones in my state. Clearly, I don't agree with the stated fact. There are a lot many chess players and that too people with gigantic chess conceptions who lead a normal (maybe slightly happier and proud than people not acquainted with the game) life. Any doubts check out on chess giants like Magnus Carlsen, Vishy Anand, Vladimir Kramnik, Peter Svidler, Levon Aronian and etc. The list can go on and on. These people are the elite among professionals and still they are humble, witty and very pleasant people to be with. Of course there is Fischer, Paul Morphy and the eccentrically behaving Ukranian genious Vassily Ivanchuk. But these people are an exception and not the rule. The misconception largely has to do with the popularity of the late Sir Robert James Fischer among the non chess playing people. Like any other generalization, this is also not true.


King's Gambit: A Son, A Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game is about this. The age-old question is:

Does chess make you mentally ill or are mentally ill people attracted to chess?

  • Chess has the highest suicide rate of any sport by a long-shot.
  • Many chess world champions were mentally ill.

There's a whole bunch of other supporting facts about chess being linked to insanity, but I'd have to re-read the book to recall all of them.

All the insanely brilliant people in my life have some form of mental illness. I consider myself extremely fortunate to know these people. They're genius about things I can't begin to understand. There's two bipolar geniuses and two Aspergers geniuses. I know three of the four love chess.

And then there's my 135 IQ friend who's bipolar, her boyfriend from back in the day who was a genius and schizophrenic, my straight A friend who's depressed and maybe a little autistic, my aspergers 130+ IQ friend, my nerdy (aka autistic/aspergers traits) friend with depression who's 138.

So basically every intelligent person I can name has some sort of "disorder." Remember that by definition, being intelligent isn't normal. Who's to say one is the correct or incorrect way to think? Just because the majority of people think at a normal intelligence doesn't necessarily mean that's the right way to think. That's just how almost everyone thinks, so they only diagnose the exceptional people. Maybe you could argue that having a normal level of intelligence should be its own mental disorder.

For example, normal people don't get intelligent questions. Look at some questions on here written by geniuses and you'll see they're immediately flagged and closed. People rationalize it after the fact. It's unfocused, or too specific, or not a real question, or misguided, or all over the place, or off topic, or whatever. The kind of thinking that seems obvious to the intelligent person needs to be justified to normal people. Remember that as a society we villainize intelligence. Nobody normal is interested in big ideas. That's weird. All they care about is whether or not this is going to make their life more comfortable. And I'm not really sure why we were put on this Earth, but I'm pretty darn sure it wasn't to make ourselves comfortable.

See where I'm going with this?

My Calc professor left his copy of that book on my desk the day I went in to take my final exam for his class. He loves chess and mathematics. I'd visit him in his office after my class ended to say hi. We'd talk about intellectual giants and infinity and chess. Sometimes you can get caught on a problem, and start thinking about it forever. And eventually it'll drive you crazy. That's what happened to a lot of these mathematicians. Maybe these chess guys just got too absorbed in their own world. But it takes a tremendous mind to be capable of creating a world.

See where I'm going with this?

  • Great answer. Especially the part about questions unnecessarily being closed!
    – Juan Velez
    Jul 9, 2017 at 17:21
  • I think you are religious (that is, christian). Are you religious, or maybe you are just crazy, ok, so the guys in BIBLE were pretty much crazy to believe the things they believed. But you seem to be on the right track to that sort of crazy, see where I'm going with this? Oct 13, 2017 at 6:17
  • 1
    "Chess has the highest suicide rate of any sport by a long-shot." Citation needed. Feb 24, 2022 at 22:50
  • 3
    This is an answer that sounds legit, but is total nonsense. It is not backed up by evidence and is totally unsubstantiated.
    – YiFan
    Feb 25, 2022 at 5:59
  • *King's Gambit does discuss the ideas around mental illness in chess players, but it covers a lot of other things. Mostly, it is the author's memoir of his chess playing in his youth, and then again when he resumed playing in the game in his 40's. I do recommend it.
    – GreenMatt
    Feb 26, 2022 at 23:39

Great talent and great psychological instability go well along in an altogether very unbalanced life.

I don't think the game in itself causes that, nor that being crazy¹ helps to play, only that concentrating the focus of a lifetime to a single thing can very wall harm one's sanity, especially as powerful minds are dedicated to it.

Cantor comes to mind, relatedly.

¹ In all it's fuzziness. Define “crazy” if you want answers to try and be objective.

  • 1
    Also, Fischer was batty and got worse as time went on. Raymond Weinstein went totally nuts. Nimzovich was nervous and twitchy.
    – Tony Ennis
    Dec 3, 2012 at 3:50
  • 2
    Gödel, Nietzsche… maybe there's a list of brilliant and crazy people on Wikipedia that would be worth investigating. Dec 3, 2012 at 4:23
  • 5
    I think a lot hinges on the definition of "crazy". Eccentricity doesn't necessarily mean some kind of medical condition; it may just be the result of an odd perspective or originality. I'd expect many great thinkers to have non-standard ways of looking at things, otherwise they might just be average.
    – Daniel B
    Dec 3, 2012 at 8:07

I do not agree with you describing Fischer as crazy. I'll do my best to explain this. Someone is called crazy when he can no longer control his thoughts or actions.

Simply because Fischer attacked the Americans' politics doesn't mean he's crazy. Maybe he had different political opinions than yours and you just have to accept this. Well, if anyone who doesn't like the American politics and the Israelis is called crazy, then more than 60% of the population will be crazy, since Russia, China, pretty much all Africa, the Arabic world and many other countries don't agree with the Americans.

Is Julian Assange or Edward Snowden or others crazy?

Even Bin Laden wasn't crazy. A murderer? No doubt about it. A hater? of course. A man with no conscience? True. But he wasn't crazy because he calculated his every move, he had goals, he knew his enemies, and he knew what he was doing.

Someone who calculates his moves is probably not crazy. He might be evil because he uses his intelligence for the wrong purposes, but not crazy.

I'm not gonna discuss the right and the wrong. Everyone judges it from his own perspective. I think there's no right and no wrong in politics. Politics is always dirty. The dirtiest hands usually wins. Ask the CIA, or any intelligence agency around the world. All are ready to do the bad actions for what they think is the greater good.

So what is crazy? John Nash was definitely crazy, at some point in his life, a schizophrenic who won Nobel prize in economics. See, Nash lost it, he couldn't control his thoughts. Fischer was just against the American politics; there's nothing wrong with that.

Let me ask you a question: is Kasparov crazy? He's against the Russian politics and been arrested for that reason, just like Fischer. So if you want to call Fischer crazy, you should do the same with Kasparov.

To answer the initial question, there's no doubt that someone who's intelligent might be crazy. He overthinks stuff and might become a conspiracy theorist. What you define as crazy is normal for him, or other people who think the same way. What's normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.

Al Mutanabbi once said

ذو العقل يشقى فى النعيم بعقله . . وأخو الجهالة فى الشقاوة ينعم

That with intellect suffers in bliss with his mind
And the ignorant in misery lives blissfully

So what he's trying to say is simple, ignorance is bliss.

  • Though Fischer was always eccentric, there is no doubt at all that he was insane at the end. You can see any number of videos of him that really back up that statement. I am a big fan of his chess game, I remember following his match with Spaskey in the newspaper, and hoping he would defeat the Russian. His chess brilliance was magnificent to behold. It is a shame that the lasting memory of anyone who saw him at the end will be that of an insane person.
    – user1800
    Oct 10, 2013 at 11:32
  • 1
    @user1800 what makes you think he's insane? simply because of his political opinions (he believed that usa belonged to the native americans - he hated israel) simply because of that or is there something i'm missing? i'd love to see one of these videos and the proof that he's crazy.
    – Lynob
    Oct 13, 2013 at 10:23

Unlike my fellow answerers, I am not a high ranking player yet, but I am well read in psychology.

Belief I believe the logical mindset of top class players mixed with the element of uncontrollable uncertainty at that level combined are two main contibuting factors of stress in high level chess players which ultimately leads to mental degredation.

Argument At it's highest level chess is a very volatile game, and any single mistake can cost you the game even with a fantastic strategy. In the Game of the Century the knight sacrifice was only possible due to a slight error on the part of Byrne. It is my belief that when you're at that level a certain degree of chance enters into it.

Playing in an entirely unique position in every game against a similarly skilled opponent surely introduces the possibility of chance intervening and giving your opponent the victory. I imagine for someone that's dedicated their carreer to the game having to succumb to the unknown uncontrollable element of chance, it would have to be pretty stressful.

I imagine it on a similar vein to top class poker players who for all their control in the game can't escape the occasional big loss by what is essentially luck. I believe that's why Fischer wanted the opponent to have at least 2 wins over him in the 1975 championship.

I used to know a guy that was very, very intelligent and a poker player, and he had great trouble dealing with hands he lost, despite the fact that losing occasionally is inevetable.

  • Just one example: Anand has described how Fischer tried to convince him that the Kasparov-Karpov world championship games were fixed. You could argue that I am not qualified to judge whether they were fixed or not, or be able to follow Fischer's arguments, but Anand certainly is and he remained unconvinced. Mar 25, 2015 at 15:36
  • @TheMathemagician: I'm certainly not good enough to judge the quality of the Karpov-Kasparov match games, but I find it hard to believe the matches were fixed ... because if they had, I would expect them to have been fixed in Karpov's favor, since he was the Soviet establishment's favored player.
    – GreenMatt
    Feb 26, 2022 at 23:45

I'm the biggest fan of Fischer as a chess player but toward the end he was unstable/crazy. Some examples: he thought he was black-listed by world jewery (quote), he thought every move of every game of the Kasparov-karpov matches was pre-arranged, he thought that the Russians might try to control his brain by sending signals through his tooth fillings (true?), he did not believe that the holocaust occurred, he did not shave for six months or so while in a Japanese jail, he did not defend his title (he was certainly justified in not playing under FIDE rules but why not independently?), he accused Jews of mutilating their children (quote) because they circumcised their children, he refused all offers after beating Spassky, he went into hiding for twenty years after winning the title. One or two of these might not be a big deal but collectively they signal something was wrong.

  • Unfortunately this does nothing to answer the question as asked, only to relate (in some points controversially) historical facts about one player who is considered by some/many to have gone crazy.
    – DTR
    Nov 20, 2014 at 6:32

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