Taking therapy from the couch to the chessboard.
Therapy, like a boggart, comes in many forms. Psilocybin mushrooms have been used to treat depression. Puppet shows can help overcome social anxiety. And chess, apparently, can be used to encourage a deeper psychological bond between therapist and client.
The first instance of chess-as-therapy dates back to the ninth century. Persian physician and all-around smart guy Rhazes is credited with using chess configurations as metaphors for his patients’ real-life problems. Most modern clients use chess as Rhazes suggested, harnessing the game as a vehicle to understand their real-world problems writ small.
Sound quacky? It’s not: In their book “Chess Therapy,” Jose A. Fadul and Reynaldo Nuelito Q. Canlas write, “Chess games are often viewed as a sublimation of the client’s aggression or displacements of desires and aspirations in real life.” In other words, we can do things on the chess board we’re precluded from doing in real life.
Think of chess as a workout that trains a specific set of mental muscles. The game requires immense focus, visualization of consequences, analysis, abstract thinking, planning and execution. The stronger these muscles get in the context of playing chess, the easier it is to translate that skill set to daily life.
The first (and perhaps most famous) documentation of chess therapy at work came in a 1945 paper by Norman Reider called “Observations on the Use of Chess in the Therapy of an Adolescent Boy.” In his report, Reider details the use of chess to treat a boy with schizoid personality disorder (not to be confused with schizophrenia), symptoms of which include lack of interest in platonic, familial and sexual relationships; difficulty expressing emotions; poor communication skills; and general social detachment.
Reider’s patient, like many other schizoid persons, had trouble expressing anger in situations that called for it. Chess fixed that.
“[The game] provided an outlet for his hostile impulses in a nonretaliatory situation. The authors stress the dynamics in the use of the game, showing that it is a social experience which necessitates abiding by rules, taking into consideration the wishes and acts of another person, and wherein intense interpersonal relations are possible in a brief period. Good use was made of the patient’s digressions from the game and his newly acquired ability to speak about his feelings, fantasies and dreams which the particular emotional situation of the game touched off.”
By emotionally loosening the adolescent via chess-play, Reider was able to take advantage of “digressions” from the game, likely without the boy even realizing what was happening.
Boss won’t get off your back? Feeling trapped in a dead end job? Maybe it’s time to belly up to the chess board and let ’er rip.