On Chess
Ramon y Cajal (Santiago)
Source: Carey (John) - The Faber Book of Science
Paper - Abstract

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  1. As a distraction for the reader, …, I should like to tell here how I freed myself from a tenacious and inveterate vice, the game of chess, which seriously menaced my evenings.
  2. Knowing my fondness for the noble game of Ruy Lopez y Philidor various members of the Casino Militar invited me to join it.
  3. I was weak enough to do so; I made my debut with varying success measuring myself against players of considerable skill; and soon my skill increased and with it the morbid eagerness to overcome my adversaries. In my foolish vanity, I reached the point of playing four games simultaneously, against separate combatants, besides numerous onlookers who discussed at length the consequences of every move. There was one game that lasted two or three days. In my desire to shine at all costs and my confidence in my rather good visual memory, I even played without looking at the board.
  4. Needless to say, I acquired as many books on the aristocratic pastime as I could lay my hands on and I even fell into the folly of sending solutions of problems to foreign illustrated papers. Carried away by the growing passion, I found my sleep broken by dreams and nightmares, in which pawns, knights, queens, and bishops were jumbled together in a frenzied dance. After being defeated the evening before in one or several games, it often happened that I wakened with a sudden start in the early hours of the morning, with my brain burning and in a whirl, breaking out in phrases of irritation and despair and exclaiming: ‘I am a fool! I had a checkmate at the fourth move and did not see it.’ In fact, putting the board on the table, I proved with sorrow the delayed clairvoyance of my unconscious mind. which had been working within me during the few hours of repose.
  5. This could not continue. The almost permanent fatigue and cerebral congestion weakened me. If one does not lose money in playing chess, one loses time and brain energy, which are worth infinitely more, and one’s will is turned aside and runs through the wrong channels. In my opinion, far from exercising the intelligence2, as many claim, chess warps it and wears it out. Conscious of the danger of my position, I trembled before the distressing prospect of becoming converted into of those amorphous types, sedentary and corpulent, who grow old unproductively and insensibly, seated at a card table or a chess table, .without arousing any sincere affection or exciting, when the inevitable apoplexy or the terrible uraemia comes, more than a feeling of cold formal commiseration. ‘Too bad about Perez! He was a good player! We shall have to look about for someone to take his place.’ – For the player at a club or casino is no more than a table leg, something like the common picture which occupies a place in the room imply to balance the others.
  6. But how was I to cure myself thoroughly? Feeling myself incapable of an inexorable, ‘I do not play any more,’ the possession of a will of iron; constantly excited by the eagerness for revenge, the evil genius of every player; the only supreme remedy which occurred to me was the similia similibus of the homeopathists: to study the works upon chess thoroughly and reproduce the most celebrated plays; and besides to discipline my rather sensitive nerves, augmenting the imaginative and reflex tension to the utmost. It was indispensable, also, to abandon my usual style of play, with consistently romantic and audacious attacks, stick to the rules of the most cautious prudence.
  7. In this way, expending my whole inhibitory capacity in the undertaking, I finally attained my desired end. This consisted, as the reader will have guessed, in flattering and lulling to sleep my insatiable self-love by defeating my skilful and cunning competitors for a whole week. Having demonstrated my superiority, eventually or by chance, the devil of pride smiled and was satisfied. Fearful of a relapse, I abandoned my place in the casino and did not move a pawn again for more than twenty-five years. Thanks to my psychological stratagem, I emancipated my modest intellect, which had been sequestrated by such stupid and sterile competitions, and was now able to devote it, fully and without distraction, to the noble worship of science.
  8. Source: Santiago Ramon y Cajal, Recollections of My Life, trans. E. Horne Craigie and Juan Cano, New York, American Philosophical Society, 1937.

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