How Blitz Helps me Heal: Chess and Parkinson’s

988880_10151885912798412_231202489_nI come from a world of my own. I have Parkinson’s disease. Without medications and even with, my brain loses cells every day, it forgets how to walk, how to type, how to stand. When people speak of Parkinson, they rarely think of speed, of either, mind or body. In this case both mental and physical speed are hampered. That seems to leave me with slow games, but Parkinson attacks long term memory as well.

I play chess. I play blitz games. My goal is bullet games. It seems impossible in my situation. To play you need your mind to be agile, and your body too. So how do I acquire the speed I need?

I wake up everyday with a brain that has been reset. Every day I don’t know how to walk, type. Everyday I relearn. Medications have finite power, my disease only grows stronger. The status quo is not an option. Either my mind grows or Parkinson’s wins. That of course, is excluded. Life wins. The only question is how, how do I win?

I start from the end. I can play fast. Clearly, I didn’t have time to learn, not the conventional way. I often wake up at 3 AM. Not many  sounds can stir me. I am without dopamine*, scrambling to find a seat before what I call the grace period ends. The grace period is the 3 or 4 steps that my brain can execute with the little dopamine left. After that, either I am seated or I’m in trouble.

I can’t see well. I look for sounds. A little music wakes me up. My ear listens to games with structure, structure.

Parkinson’s also attacks the ability to speak. One thing was clear, watching, hearing masters, but not beginners, was working its way into my brain. I would slowly begin to hum.  After an hour of watching, I was more alert, my speech faster, I would get up the next day recharged, happy.

Chess, at the highest level, was good for me. It made dopamine, by stimulating my brain. To forget I have that disease, I need a challenge so formidable, so ridiculously impossible, that I would have no choice but to take it. His name is Yaacov. When we spoke he said, I can help you reach my level. His theory, it spoke to me. There was something intuitive in it. I liked that. Intuition is lightning speed understanding, or better, moving. This was how I would learn. If I can react to Yaacov playing, then there is something pretty universal in his playing, something of a nature that goes beyond chess, and that I, without playing, already possess, I call it the truth in chess.

It is my lucky day if I wake up at 3 AM without depression. Not ordinary depression, as if that wasn’t bad enough, but Parkinson’s own kind.

After 5 minutes of chess, of watching Yaacov, it’s gone. I wake up without fear, without worries, I am with numbers.

Yaacov makes me work, practice, his relentless faith essential for the success of the enterprise. Now the world is upside down. When I miss a lesson, I feel it in my brain. It slows down. So we skype. Our lessons are marathons, we revisit historic games, world championship games, he wants to know what I would play, and I think about it as if I had always done that and his enthusiasm wins over the levitation that I do to catch up with his mind.

We’ve become friends, we converse about life. But meanwhile much to my amazement I am, making progress in chess. This isn’t just mind speeding exercises, this is real. I play in tournaments. Bullet tournaments. My greatest joy is when I win because I played faster than my opponent. Who doesn’t know. That’s the key, nobody knows. I don’t want special treatment. To anyone, I’m just an ordinary chess player.

The right thinking, the production of those games we call immortals, do have the power to bring someone’s mind back to life. There is a reservoir of energy, of connectedness in chess, in the pursuit of perfection, that can reach across an ocean, and move someone who otherwise would lose hope.

The meaning of life isn’t numbers, it’s what we do with them, how we order them toward greater good. If the succession of moves can be compared to a melody, the rhythm, the times at which the moves are made, is just as important. The combination of both is what separates random chatter from conversation with intent. It begins at 3 AM. And it never ends.

Find out more about Thierry on his twitter feed: https://twitter.com/t0hierry.

*Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s pleasure and pain centers. 

Comments

  1. Fantastic. Thierry’s writing captured my interest – quick, direct thoughts.

    I’m inspired to study some chess and play some blitz!

    Good luck Thierry.

  2. Touching article. What a positive way to face a difficult situation. Congratulations on capturing the human spirit of overcoming adversity.
    Best to you, Thierry.

  3. Best Wishes Thierry. Had my kid read the article so to understand the profound impact the game of Chess can have in one’s life.

  4. Thierry continues to amaze and inspire me day after day. I’m very proud of him and I consider him to be one of my closest friends in the chess world 🙂

  5. What Thierry says is really incredible. This article interests me because, not only is it fantastic and inspiring, but also because of when he mentions Yaacov Norowitz, who is my coach too. Yaacov teaches chess in a way which really gets the brain going, and his methods are incredible. I’m so glad that Thierry can strengthen his mind by playing chess and the lesson he teaches is a very good one as well. Best of luck!

  6. I apologize for my late answering to your comments. I want to thank again US chess and Jennifer Shahade for opening their magazine to me. I am up this minute and watching Yaacov playing, I recognized his simply by listening. I keep making progress, with up and down days. I will never stop playing. Thank you to all and happy new year.

  7. Inspiring! I’m a Class C player in standard but a Class A in bullet. My brain seems to prefer speed. I get bored playing slow games and purposely squander good positions to move on to the next game. In last year’s Millionaire Chess I went 4-0 in my first 4 games when I inspired myself to play slow. I lost the final 3 games when my boredom caught up to me.

    Thanks Thierry for writing this piece.

    • I can relate. Chess at high speed is a worlds of its own, with unique rhythm and stimulates my brain in a way that slow games dont.

  8. I have Parkinson’s ànd I play chess. I take. The meds and have had DBS. I enjoy chess. I have been as high as 1800 and a Senior and national arbiter. Thank you for sharing.Movement disorders and being distracted are my biggest problems.

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