Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger burning calories.

OPENING MOVE

For a long time, it was just a football thing. In more recent decades, strength training, sports nutrition, and (sometimes) performance-enhancing drugs have impacted baseball, basketball, and soccer, and then even less obvious sports like golf, table tennis, and auto racing. Now even the brainy game of chess is getting fit.

ATTACK

Think about this. Your brain, which makes up only 2% of your weight, is responsible for 20% of your energy use—the same percentage, when not exerting, as your muscles, which make up 40% of the average person’s weight. And when you’re contemplating chess moves in a close match, it’s like high-intensity cardio. Calorie-burning goes into overdrive, and so does bodily stress.

According to a fascinating ESPN article:  “In October 2018, Polar, a U.S.-based company that tracks heart rates, monitored chess players during a tournament and found that 21-year-old Russian grandmaster Mikhail Antipov had burned 560 calories in two hours of sitting and playing chess—or roughly what Roger Federer would burn in an hour of singles tennis.”

The article expounds: “Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Stanford University, says a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day. Based on breathing rates (which triple during competition), blood pressure (which elevates) and muscle contractions before, during, and after major tournaments, Sapolsky suggests that grandmasters’ stress responses to chess are on par with what elite athletes experience. ‘Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners,’ Sapolsky says.”

Combing brains with brawn, chess boxing alternates six rounds of chess with five rounds of boxing (three minutes each). / Wikimedia Commons

CHECK

As the increased energy expenditure is often worsened by stress that kills appetite and hinders sleep, chess players have been known to shed pounds at alarming rates during tournaments. Increasingly, those players are adopting strict fitness and nutrition regimens to maintain healthy weights, increase brain oxygen, and sustain endurance. Grandmaster Ioan-Cristian Chirilă does at least an hour of cardio and an hour of weight-training daily in preparation for tournaments.

ENDGAME

The closest thing to a chess doping scandal came in 2008 when the world’s No. 3 player refused to be tested. A 2015 article in the Journal of Sports Medicine & Doping Studies stated that most PEDs—including anabolic steroids, amphetamines, and cognitive-enhancement drugs—have “no proven effect on quality of chess playing.” But it postulated that caffeine, insulin, and erythropoietin (EPO) may provide “an illicit improvement of brain performance.” A more recent study found that modafinil (Alertec) improved chess playing by 15%, methylphenidate (Ritalin) by 13%, and caffeine by 9%. These stimulants triggered a more reflective decision-making process. Players are drug-tested at top tournaments.

CHECKMATE

Magnus Carlsen / Wikimedia Commons

Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion (ranked No. 1 since 2010), has taken chess fitness to a new level. He employs a chef to fuel his body with nutritious meals year-round (pre-match: an omelet or yogurt with fruit). During tournaments, he daily cranks out 30-60 minutes of vigorous cardio (usually treadmill running), and even more (tennis, skiing, etc.) when not competing. To clear his mind and strengthen his core, he practices yoga for 20 minutes daily. He drinks semi-chocolate milk during tournaments to feed his brain and body with protein, potassium, and calcium and the right amount and types of sugars for a steady supply of energy. And he’s optimized sitting to reduce stress and increase alertness as the game hours pile up and his opponents fade.  

“These long tournaments are quite tiring and long games are very tiring, especially at the end. If you are in good shape and can keep your concentration, you will be the one who will profit from your opponent’s mistakes,” Carlsen told the Wall Street Journal. “Games are lost or won in the final hours due to mistakes caused by fatigue.” Get fitter and play smarter.