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“Hopefully you’ll make a better doctor than a chess player" he told me


Jonas was a young man who was stuck at the state psychiatric hospital, and I was his medical student.

Jonas was an only child who had grown up in a comfortable suburb of Springfield, Massachusetts, where mom and dad lavished chess tournaments, violin lessons, and other cultural luxuries upon their son. He was on the brilliant side and just few social skills shy of being a popular kid, when he was first diagnosed with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy.

It wasn’t a life sentence in the same way that the more severe form of this illness could have been, and although he was more of a cerebral fellow than a budding soccer star, the fact that he would soon need help ambulating sent him into an emotional tailspin.

Jonas stopped many of his extracurricular activities, including chess tournaments and classical music concerts, refused to go to college, and finished off a bottle of pills from the bathroom cabinet in a sloppy suicide attempt, which landed him in the intensive care unit at the local children’s hospital.

After he woke up and was medically stabilized, Jonas refused to go home with his parents or work with a therapist, became depressed, and when treatment at a private psychiatric hospital wasn’t successful, he was transferred to the state psychiatric hospital, where he was put on a suicide watch.

But I was a bright-eyed medical student who was going to need a good letter of recommendation from my supervisor, Dr. Curling, the dark-humored elder director of the unit who would be my boss for the two-month rotation.

“So, Dr. Freedman, you’ve already done good work with a number of budding antisocial patients as well as treatment-resistant schizophrenics,” he told me as he described my next assignment. “Now it’s time for you to fix the impossible.”

I grabbed my trusty medical student clipboard and went to the nurses’ station to review the chart they had compiled on Jonas. As I reviewed the transfer summary from his previous hospitalization, I was amazed to read about how lucky this young man was to be alive. He was about ten minutes away from being brain dead due to his depressed respiratory rate after his overdose, and was close to irreversible liver failure, as he’d also ingested a bottle of Tylenol.

I proceeded to read through Dr. Curling’s admission note from the prior week, which underscored Jonas’s “extremely high risk of suicide given prior severe attempt and ongoing profound depression due to largely unchangeable circumstances.” Apparently Jonas had told Dr. Curling that he would “kill himself as soon as someone looked the other way.”

I found Jonas sitting in the day room separated from the rest of his fellow patients. An orderly named Larry was situated about eight feet away and was charged with watching his every move. Jonas stared out the window and didn’t look up or down as I approached and called him by his name.

“Mind if I sit down then?” I asked.

I attempted one more introduction, but when he refused my handshake or even to make eye contact, I sat down quietly on a chair across from him.

After ten minutes of silence, Jonas stood up. I observed how he walked to the other side of the room. He moved a bit more slowly than healthy young men, but this was not a person who was suffering massively from his condition at the current time.

I stayed in my seat for another ten minutes and waited for Jonas to engage with me. He didn’t.

“Don’t worry, you still have time. This kid is stuck here for a while anyway, You may be able to avoid your inevitable failure after all,” Dr. Curling noted in his typically caustic manner.

I took this as encouragement when I sat across from Jonas the following day, even as he moved away when I made it clear that I could outlast him in the waiting game. The third day, there was finally some communication.

He told me, “Leave me alone or I’ll kill you.”

But I was prepared and came armed with a surprise of my own that I placed on the table separating us.

“Would you mind killing my king instead, Jonas?”

As I took the chess set out of the box, Jonas looked at those once-beloved pieces and then back at me, a spark of something besting his desire to remain angry and silent.

“I’ll kill your king for sure,” he grumbled as he picked up the pieces and set them on the board.

Jonas beat me in about ten moves and tipped over my king with his finger before standing up and resuming his place by the window.

I arrived the following day and put the chess board down on the table between us. I took the white pieces this time and smiled at him.

“They say you’re more likely to win if you go first.”

“So, you know your stuff,” he said softly and angrily. “Let’s see if you know how to handle a Sicilian Defense.”

I didn’t know how to, and he beat me in about nine moves. As he tipped over my king he told me, “Hopefully you’ll make a better doctor than a chess player.”

I laughed and he grinned at me before moving away slowly. Larry, surprised, laughed too which drew a glare from Jonas.

“Same time tomorrow?” I asked.

Jonas nodded and returned to staring out the window longingly.

Dr. Curling, for his part, was actually happy with my progress. “He’s opening up to you. That’s good. Wait till he realizes that you don’t actually care about him and you’re just doing your job.”

It was more than a bit cynical, but Dr. Curling had some pretty significant experience in the field.

The following day Jonas beat me again, using a more aggressive chess opening. I asked him about his tactics, and we actually had our first conversation. He told me he first learned strategy from watching the games of Bobby Fischer. He’d watched thousands of famous chess matches as a child and enjoyed this particular chess grandmaster, as he was quite an iconoclastic fellow.

“You know Bobby Fischer hated Israel and didn’t particular care for being a Jew,” Jonas said dryly.

“Are you saying this because you want to try to hurt my feelings?” I asked him.

“What does it matter to you? I’m just another patient to you, you don’t care about me anyway.”

Touché, Dr. Curling.

I decided to stop at a used bookstore on my way home, picking out Bobby Fischer: My 60 Memorable Games.

The next day after Jonas beat me again, I handed him the book. He took it from my hand and flipped through it for a few moments. “Why’d you buy this book? He hated guys like you.”

“As much as you do?” I asked.

“Well, not because you’re Jewish or whatever you are,” he said before looking away with a fair share of embarrassment.

“Hey, I know you’re not an anti-Semite, Jonas. You hate me because I’m a student doctor who doesn’t care about you. But Jonas, I’m not just a student. I’m your student.”

Jonas thought for a very long moment before responding. “Fine.”

“Great. Now can you can teach me how to play a decent game of chess already?”

Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.

Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in the Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 804)

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