Similarities in chess and therapy.

Often I have been asked if I use my passion for chess in my work as a therapeutic doctor. And also added -mostly before I could answer- the encouragement to write something about it. Apparently many are convinced that I can analyze my patients the way a chess player analyzes his games. The latter is not true.

Nevertheless, the question remains interesting because there are certainly similarities between the activities of the chess player and those of the therapeutic doctor and the patient. It is also interesting to investigate these resemblances between chess and therapy because the comparison can clarify certain aspects of these two activities. It is the purpose of this blog to focus on the therapy but I hope that a look into the world of chess will prove to be exciting as well.


The encounter between two parties.

Throughout history, we have been confronted and fascinated by the spectacle of people or groups facing each other. Our culture produces countless configurations in which we create a symmetrical, static and exciting situation and then suddenly break through the tension and end up in dynamics and exchange. We only have to think of dramatic events such as a war to realize how deeply opposite each other is rooted in us.

The physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote: “The deepest root of all phenomena is the symmetry that defines the framework of everything that happens”. On the chessboard, this symmetry has been implemented to perfection, but as soon as one of the players has made his move, the symmetry is broken and dynamics and interaction arise.

Also in therapy, the tension of sitting opposite each other before the first revelation can be great. After the first words, there is a dynamic search for both the patient and the therapist. Apparently, both in a chess game and in a therapeutic setting, we are looking for the deep root of what is happening, both in the world and in ourselves.


Patterns, their creation and recognition.

From the first cognitive study on chess by Prof. Adriaan de Groot in 1946, recognizing patterns has become the keywords to understand the thinking of chess masters. If one opens the DSM scale (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a guideline for therapy one immediately sees the resemblance. In this guide, it is a simple form of pattern recognition of the arrangement of symptoms pointing to a particular diagnosis.

Our hegemony in chess, if one considers only the capacities to analyse and win, has been taken over by the computers. Now, yes we have done that ourselves, by programming computers in such a way that they recognize patterns at a greater and faster rate than us. And yet the end was not quite in sight. With Artificial Intelligence (AI), chess computers in turn have been surpassed. Artificial intelligence can do more than just recognize patterns.

It is also possible to achieve “more” in therapy. Recognizing patterns leads to a diagnosis which in turn prescribes a protocol. Thus, making a “diagnosis” has only a limited healing potential. By letting more factors play a role in a therapeutic encounter, more creative answers emerge. We will discuss below what that “more” can consist of by diving deeper into the world of chess. But I would be making an omission in this context if I did not mention that chess master Willie Hendriks has written the futuristic prize-winning chess book “Move First, Think Later“, encouraging chess players not to restrain the brain too much by thinking (in fixed patterns). Moreover, an ode to the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault should not be missing for the “freeing” of too rigid ideas about therapy.


The silence of focusing.

In the book Arc de Triomphe by E.M. Remarque, the protagonist who experiences a lot of misery only finds peace when he plays chess. It is true, that playing chess can completely immerse you, the outside world becomes dormant. Therapy is also a means of shutting out the surrounding world. Our inner self can then become as intriguing as a difficult chess game for a chess player. A chess player walking around will always stop for a moment at the sight of a chess game. In the same way, someone in therapy is also “open” to situations that evoke the feelings arising from the therapy. You learn from both chess and therapy where your strength to maximum concentration is hidden.


Challenging the tension.

Both a chess game and a consultation are characterised by a certain tension. When you, like a chess player, follow a match between top grandmasters, you get the feeling, after almost every move, that you wouldn’t know the answer to that. But after the answer, you get the same feeling, but now in favour of the other party. This swinging back and forth can last the whole game if you follow a grandmaster game. That is identical in a well-functioning therapy as well, it can be daunting for a spectator how patient and therapist develop a conversation in which both find deeply hidden answers again and again.


Long-lasting concentration.

Both after a chess game and after a therapy session you can be surprised how long you have been able to concentrate. Afterwards, there is actual physical fatigue although your body has not had much exercise. It is sometimes surprising that zooming in can be maintained for so long. Once in that concentration, it seems as if there is a brake on returning to a normal state. Both a chess player and a patient can stay in a certain concentration for days. It is this concentration that gives the brain the chance to create new structures. This phenomenon is called brain plasticity, the shaping power of our brains and it is good news that we now know that this is present as a potential in each of us until very old age.


When intuition speaks to you.

Although you can say that the chess players are concentrated throughout the game, it certainly isn’t a continuous state. There are fluctuations and significant differences in brain activity. Such as between the moment you can calculate a certainly forced variant more than ten moves ahead and your overall evaluation in a position where nothing concrete is going on and your feeling sends you to one of the many (equal) choices. It is striking that new approaches in such “silent” positions sometimes lead to new insights that can then often become a certain “fashion” for years.
Therapy has striking parallels… Sometimes one treats a concrete situation in which all kinds of details have to be looked at and it depends on a trifle whether the situation is well understood and processed. It is often about a once-wrong conclusion or a systematically constructed misunderstanding. Sometimes, however, there is nothing concrete and the patient silently searches his or her inner self for a foothold to go further, which usually becomes an intuitive choice. And just as in chess, in therapy, there are often certain approaches that emerge from such a moment that suddenly become fashionable in the world of therapy. Many great minds of the past built entire therapeutic constellations around the observations of a single patient.


Sensing Critical Moments.

One of the characteristics of a chess player is the sensing of the moments when an opportunity presents itself that a move may later be gone. It’s not about consciously understanding what it’s all about. It’s closer to intuition, but it’s just a little bit different; it’s almost animal-like alertness. Chess players who have that instinct at a young age often go a long way.

The same is known in therapy, there are golden moments when one can suddenly make progress. The more experienced (and not overtired!) the therapist is the more he learns to perceive these moments and to indicate that perhaps a certain subject needs to be looked at a little longer. The patient himself also learns to develop this “sixth sense”. Often patients already describe this as a physical experience, a kind of constriction or anxiety, they feel “close” to something.


The inevitable crisis.

Former world chess champion Boris Spassky once said that every game has a crisis. No matter how well it goes, no matter how perfectly one plays, no matter how much the opponent is oppressed, quite unexpectedly and suddenly nothing can be so clear anymore, problems can appear from all sides until one doesn’t know who’s in better shape anymore.

Everybody who does therapy knows that all too well. Sometimes everything seems to go smoothly, the improvements in emotions and thoughts are more noticeable week after week, and then suddenly there is chaos, and the sense of therapy is suddenly questioned. Fear may arise that the therapy is doing more harm than good. Fortunately, in hindsight, this often turns out to be the most instructive moment.


Cycles of success, failure and transformation.

In chess players, the love for the game goes with ups and downs and usually, it is related to the results. Coming back from too many defeats can become increasingly difficult. Yet it is also a sport where one often witnesses implausible comebacks. Making up for a major failure can be experienced as a highlight. The famous Dutch chess player Jan Timman once described how a win in a duel against the Russian Yoesoupov was a great moment in his career. Earlier he had gone down against the same opponent quite dramatically in a match that was under much greater public interest. The second meeting was less in the spotlight but the face-to-face victory was bigger.

In therapy sometimes subjects can be so painful that they leave a feeling of defeat for a long time. If at a later stage, there are breakthroughs in this feeling, through better understanding and more grip on the emotions, such a “victory” can also give lifelong joy.

Older chess players sometimes turn to a passion for chess problems or compositions. The “struggle” has then shifted to art. You often see that after therapy. People pick up an artistic activity in which they can express themselves and their experienced difficulties. Others can enjoy it and also learn something from it. It gives great satisfaction when out of great personal sadness something beautiful can be created for yourself and others.


Creating a “field”.

A characteristic aspect of chess and therapy is that bystanders can feel that the two participants are in their own space which no one else can reach. In group therapy and a chess tournament, this phenomenon is even more pronounced. If an outsider suddenly talks too loud there, everyone who respects the “field” will feel a little embarrassed and surprised that this person can be so insensitive. The influential philosopher Peter Sloterdijk describes this in his microspherology as an archaeology of the intimate, structures that allow couplings. Chess and therapy are wonderful examples of bubbles in which we allow couplings. It reflects our primal social structure. Studying in a library full of reading people can help you to concentrate on your subject when you meet people after in-depth therapy, good therapists and chess grandmasters you will notice that they are concentration enhancers.


The effect on loved ones.

.Living with a chess player is a special challenge. A group I would like to mention are the parents of chess children. When your child is playing soccer, as a parent you can see what is happening, and you can sigh or cheer along the line, in short, you live with them and can share the experience. In chess it is different, it is dead quiet for a couple of hours and you don’t know what is happening and on top of that, you have to be mute when you come close. When you return home, you can talk about the result, but the game itself, what happened there and why your child locks himself upon arrival at home, again behind that chessboard or the computer for many hours, remains a mystery. You can read the Survival Guide for Chess Parents, both a funny and informative book.

The situation of a partner or a child in therapy is very similar; the result can be discussed (to a limited extent) but the content and what happens in the consultation room remains a secret.


For the Community.

Although not in first appearance these activities also manifest social skills. Without the chess community, the chess player is condemned to solitude. Every game is material for other chess players to explore. Chess players help each other by coaching, teaching, and writing, nowadays they even express their secret thoughts while playing on social media. Chess attracts an audience, certain world championship matches became whole political intrigues. Chess inspires artists, writers and filmmakers.

Therapy is also a social activity, the quest of the individual is ultimately a social quest, it’s about the self in the world, with the others. Each therapy contributes to what therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists think, discuss and write. The acquired experiences become shareable knowledge. Patients often do not share the content of their therapy but become more accessible to others and often more helpful.


There are no easy prescriptions.

Though there are so many ideas on how to become a good chess player, the perfect formula has not yet been discovered. There are recommended openings, middle-game strategies, endgame science, and the psychology of sport and yet, in the end, only a handful of players will reach the top. There are more books on therapy than one can ever read. Many protocols on how to tackle a problem, evidence-based results and a lot of research and publications. And yet there are only a handful of people who became known for their ideas about therapy.

So herein lies a challenge. Of the countless number of anonymous chess lovers, each one has a moment of glory, a victory over the archrival, an insight or is in peace with his strength and enjoys it. Finally, each game is a moment when the chess player is reborn, it is reincarnation, and everything is possible again.

And herein lies also the secret of therapy. There are no prescriptions. Indeed, I described earlier how someone who does therapy can pick up something artistic later on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily work the other way around; drawing, painting, modelling…one sees it so often in the therapeutic approach, yet it’s not a sure formula for success. Recognizing a pattern is especially useful to organize therapy in healthcare politics or to create a DSM, but a certain patient may need something different and suffer more than benefit from a diagnosis. I now grant myself the luxury, as an older doctor, of seeing therapy primarily as an art in which all available approaches can be used but only when it transmits creativity, autonomy and often even aesthetics.


Images: Lewis Chessmen, British Museum, Walrus ivory pieces found on Ilse of Lewis, Scotland, second half XIIth century.

Er is een Nederlandse vertaling van dit artikel.