Fitness may not be the first thing that crosses your mind when you think about chess. But picture this: when elite chess players are competing, with everything to lose, the mind is working overtime, blood pressure is high, lungs working harder than usual. If nothing else, one has to factor in comfort. When the US grandmaster Bobby Fischer was preparing to play the reigning World Chess Champion Boris Spassky of the USSR at the 1972 World Chess Championship match in Reykjavik, he demanded that his special chair goes with him. When Spassky saw the chair, he asked for the exact same one for himself. At the time, it was seen as the men being quirky. After all, chess players have always been considered fussy. But maybe Fisher was on to something, because these days, chess players are placing a greater onus on fitness.
Speaking to ESPN in September last year, American neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky said that a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament. “Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners,” he said. Sapolsky should know, since he has studied the effect of stress on human health for over three decades. In fact, the death of two chess players within hours of each other during a chess Olympiad in Norway in 2014 led to a slew of articles on how the body reacts to hours of sitting in front of a chess board trying to outsmart an opponent. Stephen Moss, author of The Rookie: An Odyssey through Chess (and Life) (2016), wrote in The Guardian at the time that “there were almost 2,000 players taking part in the event, quite a few of them—especially the men—getting on in years, unfit, sedentary.” For a sport that uses both hemispheres of the brain, and requires intense focus, a certain level of physical fitness is important to succeed.
Elite chess players these days understand this. Led by examples of the FIDE (the international chess federation) World number 1 Magnus Carlsen and number 2 Fabiano Caruana, players today have intense fitness regimes. Known for his obsession to detail, Carlsen even factors in the exact angle in whih he must lean towards the chessboard, while making a move during a game. He plays football, practices yoga, and substituted orange juice for chocolate milk early in his career in an attempt to control the way his body burns sugar when he’s playing. His former coach Simen Agdestein was not just a chess grandmaster himself, but also played as a striker for the Norwegian football team.
Increasingly, Indian chess players too are cottoning on to the need for fitness. “(Playing tournament chess) is extremely tiring. A typical game lasts anywhere between 4 to 6 hours for me. It can lead to a state of total exhaustion by the time I am done with a game,” says 16-year-old Nihal Sarin, India men's number 10. Badminton is his go-to sport to maintain physical fitness.
“When Viswanathan Anand was about to play with Carlsen in Chennai in the 2013 World Championship, I hadn’t seen him for a while," says chess coach Vishal Sareen. When he met Anand, it was clear to Sareen that the former world champion had been working out. "Physical fitness has come into the game for 30 years, but only now is it getting better,” says Sareen, who has coached Parimarjan Negi (India men's number 8), Tania Sachdev (India women's number 4), and Abhijeet Gupta (India men's number 12), among others. “Abhijeet is one of those who will go out for a jog at minus 30 degrees celsius in Russia,” he says. For Anand, it is the gym and cycling. For Krishnan Sasikaran (India men's number 5), it is table-tennis. In fact, he even has a serving machine at home for TT.
“Traditionally it is thought that chess is a sedentary sport and physical fitness is not important. But there is a shift in paradigm. Whichever chess players I have worked with have a physical fitness routine. They have to get their heart-rate going and sweat a little bit. An increased stamina leads to increased alertness and motivation,” says sports psychologist and former world top-100 badminton player Gayatri Vartak. She is the co-founder of Samiksha Sports, a consultancy that helps athletes improve through mindfulness, life skills, and other activities.
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India’s number 3 men's chess player Vidit Gujrathi looks for what he calls a “fun element” in his workouts. “For me, nothing beats basketball. It really engages me, and gives excellent results health-wise. Chess requires a lot of sitting, and that’s not good for your health, so I bought a treadmill and I would walk on it while working on chess. My sister is a physiotherapist, so that really helps, and I make sure I get up every half an hour and do some kind of light exercise in between long hours of sitting,” he says. On 1 September, the 25-year-old led the Indian team to joint-victory (along with Russia) at the Online Chess Olympiad.
Sarin, who beat Carlsen in an online Blitz game on 27 May, says that the recent popularity of chess online has also led to an increased awareness of fitness, and how it helps players. “It is certainly changing now. I think it is a question of communicating it to the outside world and things are improving now, especially with the rise of chess on the internet,” he says.
Fischer’s chair story from 1972 might be an odd one, but he certainly knew the importance of fitness. He loved power-lifting with weights, and regularly swam and played tennis. As he once said, “Your body has to be in top condition. Your chess deteriorates as your body does. You can’t separate the body from the mind.”
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.