Why chess can help new dads change a nappy

Scottish Daily Mail - - Friday Books - by Jonathan Row­son (Blooms­bury £20, 352pp) DO­MINIC LAW­SON

GRaNd­MaS­TeR chess is as­so­ci­ated in the pub­lic’s mind with dis­pro­por­tion­ate lev­els of ec­cen­tric­ity, or even insanity.

This is a sta­tis­ti­cally in­valid cliché cre­ated by jour­nal­ists who don’t have a pas­sion for the game them­selves and there­fore can’t un­der­stand why oth­ers would de­vote their lives to it.

But here’s some­thing much more in­ter­est­ing: a book by a grand­mas­ter that sug­gests it may only have been chess that saved him from mad­ness.

The Moves That Mat­ter is a re­mark­ably self-re­veal­ing work by dr Jonathan Row­son, who at­tempts to use the 1,500-year-old game of 64 squares as a metaphor for life, love, death — the whole hu­man con­di­tion, in other words.

I knew that Row­son, a three-time British Cham­pion, and the strong­est-ever Scot­tish player, had been di­ag­nosed with type 1 di­a­betes at age six and de­fied the ef­fects of this de­bil­i­tat­ing con­di­tion to rise to 139th in the world at his peak 15 years ago.

What I didn’t know was that insanity had gripped his fam­ily in its ter­ri­fy­ing ten­ta­cles when he was a child. or, as he puts it: ‘Build­ing my life around chess as a be­wil­dered ten-year-old gave me a way to post­pone con­fronting the re­al­ity that my fa­ther had some­thing called schizophre­nia and that my fam­ily had grad­u­ally fallen apart.’

It got worse: at the fu­neral of his grand­fa­ther, with whom he had been liv­ing, he sees his brother Mark is also be­com­ing com­pletely de­tached from re­al­ity: ‘at some point, Mark, my for­mer chess idol among other things, was sec­tioned un­der the Men­tal Health act.’

There is a des­per­ate scene in which he at­tempts to help his brother es­cape from the psy­chi­atric ward, but they are im­me­di­ately ap­pre­hended by the po­lice.

amid this trauma, writes Row­son: ‘Chess was al­ways there in the way a lis­ten­ing friend is al­ways there...I couldn’t dis­cuss my emo­tions with the game, but I could chan­nel them with­out harm­ing any­one or be­ing harmed. I feel lucky to have es­caped men­tal ill­ness, to have lived a full life.’

Row­son is not ar­gu­ing that chess alone gave him that ‘full life’. He came to re­alise he did not have what it took to get to the top and, in any case, he had an­other pas­sion, for phi­los­o­phy (he has de­grees from ox­ford, Bris­tol and Har­vard, go­ing on to run the So­cial Brain Cen­tre at the Royal So­ci­ety of arts).

He also found love. Mar­riage and, more par­tic­u­larly chil­dren, got in the way of the monk-like ded­i­ca­tion, which, he feels, is re­quired if a grand­mas­ter is not to fall fur­ther and fur­ther be­hind more sin­gle­minded com­peti­tors.

But he cred­its chess with giv­ing him the men­tal frame­work for tak­ing on those more worldly chal­lenges: ‘Chess achieve­ment gave me in­tel­lec­tual con­fi­dence that I might oth­er­wise not have had.

‘More pre­cisely, it gave a way­ward 12-year-old the will to heal and grow through au­ton­omy and mas­tery.’

Row­son clearly thinks his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences have wider ap­pli­ca­tion, and sees the in­tense con­cen­tra­tion and self­im­prove­ment de­manded of chess-play­ers as in­valu­able tools to strengthen so­ci­ety more gen­er­ally: ‘The game is a gate­way to a form of per­cep­tion that can help us reimag­ine the world and our place in it.’

I don’t see it, my­self; but then, Row­son has a some­what mys­ti­cal cast of mind — he

is an avid prac­ti­tioner of tran­scen­den­tal med­i­ta­tion. For me, at least, part of the at­trac­tion of chess is that it is en­tirely ab­stract, her­met­i­cally iso­lated from the moral chal­lenges and im­per­fec­tions of hu­man so­ci­ety.

How­ever, Row­son is on to some­thing when he notes that in a world char­ac­terised by mu­tual in­com­pre­hen­sion on the part of ide­o­log­i­cal op­po­nents, more peo­ple could do with the es­sen­tial chess skill of try­ing to see the board from the other point of view: ‘One qual­ity of mind I am sure chess cul­ti­vates is a ca­pac­ity to see both (or more) sides of an ar­gu­ment.’

But — and this dis­tinc­tion Row­son slightly skates over — po­lit­i­cal views are rooted in emo­tional and cul­tural at­ti­tudes, whereas dis­agree­ments over the chess­board are not just en­tirely dis­tinct from our po­lit­i­cal prej­u­dices: they are akin to sci­en­tific de­bate, in which the mat­ter can be set­tled defini­tively by ob­jec­tive anal­y­sis.

This is se­ri­ous stuff, but Row­son, be­ing an as­pi­rant ‘new man’ with a work­ing wife, comes up with a novel chess/life anal­ogy that made me laugh. Or, as he puts it: ‘My chess ex­pe­ri­ence proved sur­pris­ingly use­ful in my new role as nappy-changer-in-chief.’

Row­son gives ten rules, based on the prin­ci­ples of count­less chess man­u­als. For ex­am­ple: ‘Prepa­ra­tion: it is cru­cial to have some back­ground knowl­edge of the “op­po­nent”, not only from sen­sory feed­back around the rel­e­vant area, but also by con­sid­er­ing re­cent feed­ing ac­tiv­i­ties . . . Pre­vent un­nec­es­sary counter-play: hold both legs in the air with left arm . . . Ac­ti­vate your pieces: reach for the cot­ton pads with right arm . . . es­tab­lish po­si­tional con­trol: place fresh nappy un­der lower cheeks and re­lease legs . . . The de­ci­sive at­tack: swiftly po­si­tion nappy with wings at rear, re­move cov­er­ing tape and close nappy.’

That glimpse of do­mes­tic nor­mal­ity does more than of­fer a brief flash of hu­mour in an oth­er­wise pro­found work: it also pro­vides a heart­warm­ing con­trast with the child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence of fam­ily psy­chosis at the out­set of this most un­usual part mem­oir, part guide to liv­ing.

Grand­mas­ter: Jonathan Row­son

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