Returning to competitive chess after a long absence can be incredibly frustrating. (A short absence can actually be helpful, for reasons I am not sure I fully grasp.)
Gata Kamsky, the aforementioned top-rated player in the US, challenged for the world championship in the 90s but set aside the game and went to law school. He returned to the board and shows flashes of his extraordinary talent and understanding of the game, but appears to lag far behind the world’s best in terms of opening preparation. He also plays very slowly, getting himself into terrible time pressure.
This all feels familiar to me (except of course the parts about talent and understanding). After skipping most of the 90s, I returned with a greatly diminished tactical facility and a general tendency to get WAY behind on the clock. This year, I was essentially inactive from February through mid-June, and now find those symptoms have manifested themselves again.
These things are generally chalked up to “mental rust.” There’s an interesting similarity between this effect and a disorder called Sluggish Cognitive Tempo, a form of attention deficit disorder that commonly displays in symptoms which are the opposite of classical ADHD, according to Wikipedia:
Instead of being hyperactive, extroverted, obtrusive, and risk takers, those with SCT are passive, daydreamy, shy, and “HYPO”-active in both a mental and physical way. Their demeanor is sluggish as if “in a fog” and logically they also process information more slowly. A key behavioural characteristic of those with SCT symptoms is that they are more likely to be lacking motivation…. Those with SCT symptoms show a qualitatively different kind of attention deficit more typical of a true information input and output problems such as memory retrieval and active working memory.
A person with ADHD is likely to have enhanced spatial and visualisation abilities – critical to good chessplaying; those with SCT appear to process logical information very slowly – like Kamsky (and me) running constantly short of time at the board. The “working memory” mentioned above is like computer RAM – it’s the space in your brain where you hold and process a bunch of stuff simultaneously – again critical for chess success.
SCT apparently stems from problems in the prefrontal cortex. I would be curious to know whether research has been done on the physiological basis for “mental rust”, i.e. lack of practice in specialized cognitive activities.