How Chess Kept a Man Sane in Jail

Since its beginnings in the Gupta Empire of northwest India as Chaturanga (literally standing for the four divisions of the military- the Infantry, Cavalry, Elephants, and Chariots, and which in the modern game represent the Pawn, Knight, Bishop and Rook respectively), Chess has been known as the game of intellect. 

However, there have been reports of danger associated with the game too.

No, we’re not kidding.


Although chess is considered to be very good for the brain, there are instances where playing excessive chess has lead to dangerous outcomes. A lot of chess players are known to have become mentally troubled. Even though there is no direct evidence that chess was the reason for this, some say that the game could have been the trigger which led to the surfacing of underlying troubles. 

Several grandmasters have suffered from mental ailments.

Paul Morphy, the first unofficial world champion the sport had lapsed into a state of delusion and paranoia within two years of playing international chess. Some doctors allege that chess rearranged his neurons. He spent the last 10 years of his life wandering aimlessly talking to himself.

Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world champion suffered a mental breakdown near the end of his life and spent 40 days in a Moscow sanatorium. Similarly, players like Bobby Fischer, Alexander Alekhine, Akiba Rubinstein, have faced their own share of mental health hurdles.

But Not Natan Sharansky!

Natan Sharansky
Natan Sharansky

During his time in prison, it was chess that kept him sane and helped him survive the difficult times.

Natan Sharansky is an Israeli politician, a human rights activist, an author and the Chairman of the Institute of the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy. Born in 1948, in Ukraine, he loved to play chess since a young age and become the champion of his native Ukrainian town, Donetsk, at the age of 14. 

Before going to prison, Sharansky developed a computer program that improved his decision-making skills and as Sharanksy puts it, taught him to build a logical set of aims and find the means to reach those aims. 

He was sent to prison in 1977 because he was thought to be an American spy.

He spent nine years of his life in a Siberian prison, considered to be one of the harshest internment camps in the world. Half of that time was spent in solitary confinement, where the prisoner is not allowed to have any contact outside the cell. During that time, he was also locked in a punishment cell for over 400 days. 

A punishment cell is a small, dark and cold place where there is no one to speak to, nothing to read, no sense of touch and almost nothing to eat. To safeguard the prisoner’s mental stability, Soviet law decided that no prisoner should be left in the punishment cell for more than fifteen days in a row. But the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti) of the Soviet Union did not care about this law. When they wanted to break a prisoner, they would keep him in a punishment cell for long periods of time.


Natan Sharansky stayed there for 130 days at a stretch and the only way he could survive was by playing chess games in his mind. He played thousands of games with himself. When the game was over, he would turn the board and play as the opponent. Since he had no time constraint, he would try all the possible outcomes in the game and thus keep himself engaged. This skill is what helped him survive the harsh days and kept him sane. After a few hundred games, he saw no difference between the white and black pieces and considered all these pieces as his allies in one mutual struggle for survival.

After being released from jail, he defeated the world champion, Garry Kasparov, in Israel in 1996. In his book ‘Never Alone’, Sharansky revealed how he spent his years in prison and solitary confinement, and how this prepared him for a public life after his release. 

In 2020, Sharansky was awarded Israel’s Genesis Prize for his ‘Legendary’ Advocacy work. Today, he is considered to be one of the greatest human rights advocates of our lifetime. He has fought for the rights and dignity of all ethnicities, religions and nationalities at great personal sacrifice and has set an example for future generations.

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