Moral Panic About Chess

Pessimists Archive
3 min readJan 11, 2023

The ancient game of chess has a storied history, dating back centuries to its origins in India. Over time, it has become known as one of the most intellectually stimulating and challenging games in existence, requiring a great deal of focus, patience, and strategic thinking. The game has also been traditionally associated with the upper echelons of society and the educated class, and it continues to be held in high regard by those who play it.

But it wasn’t always so. There was a time when chess was viewed with suspicion and even hostility, when it was blamed for causing insanity, suicide, and even murder. This negative perception can be traced back to the 19th century, during what has been called the “chess panic.”

This was a period of widespread interest in the game, sparked by the phenomenal success of young chess prodigy Paul Morphy. His victories in Europe, and subsequent tour of the United States and England, led to a craze for the game that swept the nation. But this enthusiasm was not universal. Many members of the public, and even the scientific community, viewed the game with suspicion and alarm.

In response to a letter from a concerned housewife, one newspaper editor opined that the chess craze was “exactly like an epidemic” and that it was “too engrossing, monopolizes too much intellect for mere recreation, and is not profitable.” He went on to claim that “for young men to become insane on the subject, and believe they are going to be a Paul Morphy, is one of the absurd, as well as sad, effects of the chess panic.” Scientific American, one of the most respected publications of the time, was equally dismissive. In an article titled “Chess-Playing Excitement,” it argued that the belief that chess could discipline the mind and indicate a superior intellect was “exceedingly erroneous” and “buncombe.”

The chess panic of the 19th century was rooted in the belief that the game was a frivolous pastime that could lead to mental disorder. This was a time when the field of psychology was in its infancy, and little was understood about the workings of the mind. The fact that the game could captivate players for hours on end led many to believe that it was somehow dangerous.

But fast-forward to the present day, and the perception of chess could not be more different. The game has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years, in part due to the global pandemic, which has left many people with more time on their hands. The hit Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” has also played a role, introducing the game to a new generation of fans. Past champions such as Garry Kasparov and current ones like Magnus Carlsen inspire reverence, and even social media influencers like Alexandra Botez, who streams her chess games on Twitch, have become idols to the younger generation.

Gone are the days when hours spent playing chess were considered a waste of time. Today, it is seen as a refreshing respite from the chaos of modern life, a soothing antidote to the violent, mind-numbing games that dominate the gaming scene. It is also now widely recognized for its ability to improve cognitive function, enhance decision-making skills, and even increase creativity.

In conclusion, the chess panic of the 19th century serves as a reminder of how fickle public opinion can be, and how, in the words of the great philosopher Heraclitus, “no man ever steps in the same river twice.” It is also a reminder of how societal perceptions can shift over time, and how what is once considered frivolous can eventually be recognized as something of great value.