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  • Neil Eisenberg and Ira D Glick

Jewish Chess Masters, Religion, and Mental Health

Neil Eisenberg and Ira D. Glick

A common slander against Jews is that many of them engaged in predatory lending during the Middle Ages, especially since Christianity abhorred usury. In modern times, pundits, seeing the dominance of Jews in chess circles repeated the slanderous fallacy: because Jews were money lenders they were good at mathematics, and their mathematical skill made them good chess players.

In 2020 the Jewish museum in London put that historical canard to rest. In a landmark exhibition entitled "Jews, Money, and Myth," it was shown that the number of Jewish money lenders was miniscule throughout history. The Jewish chess playing fallacy went up in smoke, the premise having been destroyed. But the fact remains that Jews tend to be the top chess players, and it has very little to do with mathematics and much more to do with their religion, and playing chess may be a key factor in maintaining better mental health.

Chess is said to have been invented in Persia around 700 A.D. and it is claimed that the earliest known Jewish chess player was the son of rabbi Saul of Taberistan in the 9th century. In the 12th century, the famed rabbi and scholar, Maimonides declared that chess gambling was not allowed, but made no mention of prohibiting the game in general. In contrast with almost all athletics, which were prohibited, the permission to play chess, was important. By the end of the 13th Century, the Sefer Hassidim (The Book of the Pious) recommended chess, thus paving the way for the next seven centuries of Jewish ascendency.

Given the lack of prohibition by Maimonides and the outright recommendation by the Sefer Hassidim, chess spread like wildfire by the 13th century through all the Jewish communities of Europe. Ironically, it is not mentioned at all in the 16th century Shulkhan Aruch (code of Jewish law) demonstrating an odd ambiguity that actually fostered its acceptance. It was a simple case of giving a lad an inch and watching him take a mile. By the 16th century the rabbinic attitude was mostly positive and many rabbis, particularly in Spain, Italy and Germany played the game routinely, though some grumps said it was a waste of time. From a legal perspective it was a regulated sport; for example, some rabbis allowed it on the Sabbath and others did not. Men, women and children were allowed to play the game after prayer and work but not while gambling. And so it went.

After the introduction of printing into Europe by Guttenberg in 1439, Jews started to disseminate the rules of chess in the form of poetry. For example, the rules of chess were described in a poem by Bonsenior ib Yahha in 1557 and a poem by Judah di Modena in 1571. Almost simultaneously, a Jewish scholar, Joseph Karo, published the rules of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Aruch in 1563. Thus, as Jews became habituated to the rules of daily life at the same time they became habituated to the rules of playing chess. In a very important sense the two modes of thought became intricately intertwined. Chess is a game of logic, but knowing the rules is not enough. Creativity is an essential dynamic supplement to chess which fundamentally combines both logic and intuition within the framework of formal rules. Similarly, Jews have always lived according to the rules of Torah as explained by the Talmud, a masterpiece of spiritual intuition and logic. In the book, Judaic Logic, the philosopher Dr. Avi Sion has explained the similarities between Talmudic logic and scientific logic: "The two display a uniform mental response; the same array of methodological tools; inductive and deductive arguments used in various combinations and orders." In both Talmudic studies and the game of chess, rationality and creativity combine to light the spark of genius. Professor Sion calls this creative thinking "adductive logic," which he says is common to both Talmudic and scientific thought. He describes this as a process of "formulation and tailoring of postulates." As every chess player knows, this is exactly what the game of chess entails. For example, mathematicians have concluded that after each player has moved a piece 5 times each there are exactly 69,352,859,712,417 possible games that could have been played. It should be no surprise, therefore, that one of the greatest chess masters of all time was Emmanuel Lasker, a Jewish mathematician and the son of a cantor. If nothing else, Jews have embraced the game of chess in the same way they have embraced the Talmud. Both chess and Talmud are similar strains of their age-old heritage.

Thus by the end of the 19th century and the turn of the 20th century, it was no accident that religious Jews took center stage in the world of championship chess. For example, Willhelm Steinitz was a Jewish Talmudic student who grew up in the ghetto of Prague and became the first world champion in 1886. Emmanual Lasker, also the son of a cantor, dominated world chess but he was not the only one. It has been often said that the grandmaster who was most equal to Lasker was Akiva Rubenstein, a religious Jew who took up chess at the age of 23 instead of studying to be a rabbi.

Lasker was world champion from 1897 to 1921. Prior to World War I, Rubenstein was scheduled to play Lasker for the world championship, but the war intervened. Then in 1919 eight-year-old Sammy Reshevsky took the chess world by storm beating numerous grandmasters and establishing himself as the wunderkind of chess. By 1931 Reshevsky became the American National Champion a title he held until 1973. Reshevsky was not only a religious Jew; he was a devout follower of the renowned Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. So it is worth mentioning the words of Victor Keats, the noted chess authority, who said: "It was this society, emanating from the fertile minds of sons of Rabbis and generations of learning and of Eastern and Central European culture that gave birth to the immense Jewish contribution to the theory of chess."

As we connect playing chess and its value to mental health, it is worth noting that the father of psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, studied Talmud at an early age. According to Rainey, a biographer, Freud actually attended Jewish religious schools which offered intense religious education that included Hebrew language, the Bible and the Talmud. Freud himself was an honor student in these subjects. It is also not well known that Freud actually compared the game of chess to the formal rules of psychoanalysis. In his 1913 work, "Beginning Treatment" he wrote as follows: “Anyone who hopes to learn the noble game of chess from book[s] will soon discover that only the openings and the end-games admit of an exhaustive, systematic presentation and that the infinite variety of moves, which develop after the opening, defy any such description. This gap in instruction can only be filled by a diligent study of games fought by masters. The rules which can be laid down for the practice of psycho-analytic treatment” are subject to similar limitations.

Playing chess can be better understood with a metaphor, a battle of integrating the stimuli from a complex outer world and from a remarkably complex inner world (similar to psychotherapy, but in the case of chess the inner word is not only emotional, but physical organ functions). The computer is ‘central control.’ The aim of chess is to plan ahead using and integrating complex strategies to stay alive and function successfully. Chess also focuses on having a purpose, i.e. winning. And having a purpose in life is a “win” in that it has protective influences on mental health. By “mental health,” we mean the benefits to the brain and what we call the “mind.” It is well known that physical sports improve the “health” of the brain-mind and body with resultant better function and less disease over a lifetime. What is less well known is that a mental-mind game like chess, checkers, or probably even computer games can also be good for brain function. “Human experience depends on interactions within and around us that constantly affect our brains and minds at any moment.” In short, human beings need to know where they are to have an idea as to where they are going if they want to manage the trails life throws at them.

Unlike prohibitions emanating from Jewish culture and history on playing physical sports which can have negative effects on physical health, the ongoing playing of a mental game like chess, has increased mental health by developing complex life strategies. This has resulted in being better able to negotiate the ‘ups and downs’ of life from the time chess was conceived as a game. While playing chess, there are mental processes, which translate into biological processes, which can alter brain cells and brain systems via neurotransmitters that change behaviors. Genes, of course, contribute about two-thirds to later-life behavior and environmental factors (broadly defined) about one-third. Awareness of our internal signals such as how fast we are breathing, or how our hearts are beating, alters performance in games like chess or poker. (This process is called interoception.) By examining Jewish chess masters in the context of their religious upbringing, we saw how specific practices over time can shape the thinking processes of those who adhere to that particular religion. Jews, who for thousands of years have been required at least until the age of 13 to study a body of Jewish scripture, that it follows the lines of deductive, inductive and intuitive thinking have, not by coincidence, been attracted to the game of chess and have produced in disproportionate numbers virtuoso performers of that game.

Our work permits us to debunk some myths that have plagued the Jewish community throughout the ages. The first myth is basically that Jewish intellectuals are typically couch potatoes – sedentary oddballs with mind that live nowhere outside their books. The corollary is that people who thrive on books especially eschew sports. Since the middle of the 18th century, however, that particular canard was slowly put to rest. It started when Daniel Mendoza, a Portuguese Jew became the British national boxing champion and went straight through to the end of the 20th century when Mark Phelps became the world swimming champion joined by such superstars as Sandy Koufax and Allie Raisman. In fact, chess is a sport, recognized by both the Maccabiah games in Israel and the Olympics and world chess champions need enormous strength and stamina to sit straight on a chair at a chess table for as much as five hours a day and sometimes as much as seven days at a time. The present world champion, for example Ding Liren, plays basketball to warm up for chess tournaments.

Secondly, there is a current myth among academics that chess appeals primarily to scientific minds, who quite frequently are atheists, leading to the logical fallacy that the player is less likely to believe in God or have a spiritual outlook. The Jewish connection to chess can be used as a counterpoint. It is an absolute fact that many religious Jew excelled at chess and many were aptly described as chess geniuses. For example, Sammy Reshevsky, the American chess champion in 1949, attended a sermon by Rebbe Menachem Mendel Scheerson who described chess as follows: "The king is the most valuable piece on the chessboard. .... the same thing is true of all created reality. The king represents the king of the universe." But whether or not the Jewish faith has inspired Jewish chess masters is a topic yet to be explored in depth by religious scholars and beyond our present aims. While it is true that, as Dr. Glick has pointed out, playing chess is good for mental health, when it comes to matters of faith, perhaps it can suffice to speculate that when Sammy Reshevsky and a multitude of other Jewish chess champions watched their opponents make a fatal mistake on the chess board, they muttered under their breath, "Thank God."


Neil Eisenberg, JD is an attorney and has 54 years of practicing law.

Ira D. Glick, MD is an American psychiatrist known for his research into the psychopathology and treatment of schizophrenia. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford Medical School, and Director of the Schizophrenia Research Clinic at Stanford Hospital.

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