A few years ago, Magnus Carlsen changed the distance he stretched his neck while playing on the boards. It was one of many micro-adjustments the five-time world chess champion had made in the 2010s, but this postural adjustment was unusually tedious, even by Carlsen’s standards.
Turns out Carlsen had come across a study in the journal of physical therapy science which mentioned that stretching the neck too far forward can lead to a 30% loss of lung capacity. The study noted that a 30 degree forward lean increases the stress on the neck by nearly 60 pounds, which means there is more load on our back and neck muscles, which leads to more migraines and irregular breathing.
Carlsen wasn’t going to let a 30% drop in lung capacity jeopardize his chances of lasting dominance. After all, he hadn’t allowed his love for his famous half-orange-half-water mix to get in the way of his progress, even when it meant the world to him since he was a kid.
He replaced the juice with a mix of chocolate milk and plain milk to ensure his blood sugar levels were reasonable, meaning he wouldn’t be prone to the energy crashes he was experiencing more in addition to the approach of the thirties. He then corrects his posture. Thereafter, he incorporated intense cardio sessions, streamlined his passion for football with frequent pickup games, and took up basketball when he could. Generally, Carlsen leads a life that many would struggle to associate with a chess player. In fact, the routines of some of the best chess players in the world are no different from the efforts of amateur athletes. “There are a lot of factors you need to keep in mind, but the most important factors are: diet, sleep and your psychological makeup,” says Ramachandran Ramesh, a former grandmaster.
Ramesh runs a highly successful academy in Chennai that has spawned dozens of notable prospects since its inception in 2008, including new hopeful R Praggnanandhaa. “I had a hard time because I didn’t think about those things when I was playing. I remember having very serious acidity problems when I was 18 years old. I used to throw up my breakfast the second I walked into the hall for our games and I had no energy left to play. If the games were five hours, I was a zombie for 2-3 hours.
“I use my experiences to tell these boys that they should focus on learning, not winning,” he adds.
Ramesh also recalls stories of losing sleep because it was impossible for him to switch off after a certain point.
Abhijith Kunte, a grandmaster from Pune, says his cardio routine, including multiple suryanamaskars, was more about making sure he could sleep and not so much about staying fit. “When you play so many rounds in a row, it’s hard to stop, especially when you’re losing,” says Kunte. “Your brain tries to fix mistakes and you go into this spiral. It’s very, very exhausting. The greatest players are those who can forget the past and get to the board the next day without any overflow from the day before.
Many players find it impossible to ignore mistakes from the day before or from a previous tournament. In fact, some studies claim that chess players lose nearly 6,000 calories a day during tournament play.
Before you dust off the old chessboard and jump into calorie “training,” the study isn’t conclusive because the data set is small, but the paper did provide a reason why this might be happening. He cites stress as the main reason.
During a game of chess, the heart rate and respiratory rate are constantly increasing, and there is also a case of high blood pressure. In turn, sleep is affected, causing fatigue and eventually weight loss. A top neuroscientist has deduced that a brain functioning with less sleep, even just one hour, needs more energy to stay awake during the game of chess.
The previously mentioned study indicated that this level of induced stress could result in an average weight loss of two pounds per day. “I don’t remember losing a lot of weight, but I remember this story about Karpov,” Grandmaster Adhiban Baskaran says.
Adhiban refers to the “aborted match” of 1984, the one where Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov fought for five months and 48 matches before FIDE President Florencio Campomane canceled the match.
It was perhaps impossible even for Campomane to ignore that Karpov had lost nearly 22 pounds during the matches. Kasparov wasn’t behaving too badly, but he could see the results of the games and the resulting stress took on Karpov’s sunken eyes.
As an alternative theory, behavioral scientists from the UK have conducted a study which suggests that chess players are so zoned out, especially at world level tournaments, that they forget to eat.
“…those kinds of things don’t happen anymore,” said Manuel Aaron, India’s first international petty officer, when asked about the effect of long games on the body. “Matches aren’t that long and even tournaments aren’t that long, so I don’t think players have to worry about that. That said, sleep and good nutrition are key.
“Fitness can be a walk or something. It doesn’t have to be so intense,” he adds.
One of chess’ biggest proponents, Viswanathan Anand was a strong proponent of physical routines. Besides spending a few hours in the gym each day, he cycled frequently and combined it with swimming once a week. Sure, the routine took a hit during tournaments, but he managed to squeeze in an abbreviated practice session.
And guess what, he didn’t do this to “get ripped off” or get into that mind-body connection, he only did it so he could literally stop dreaming about chess. “I think mental fatigue is more difficult to manage than physical fatigue. When the body is tired, we can sleep very well. But if the mind is tired or worried, it is very difficult to sleep. I try to keep my mind calm and happy. So before an event, I try to disconnect and take some time for myself – take a little vacation or do something different just to recharge my batteries,” Anand said during his tour.
The young Indian brigade is a bit different. “I don’t think a lot of them focus more on fitness,” said one former player in response to changing fitness trends in chess over the years. “Before, we paid more attention to these things.”
Adhiban counters by saying that the new generation is doing a lot but the focus is still on chess because “we have to reach a certain level to earn this free time.” Adhiban also admits to having caught the training bug from Carlsen, saying, “I saw him at the World Championships in Chennai (2013). He would pack his bags and go to Mamallapuram and play basketball there on public holidays. He also does a lot of cardio to stay fit.
Since then, Adhiban has designed a cardio routine and remains dedicated to his diet. “This generation is more health conscious,” says Ramesh. “The previous generation didn’t focus much on these things. They drank, smoked, skipped breakfast, and didn’t look healthy on the board. I think since Anand everyone has become a bit more professional.
SL Narayanan, a great master from Kerala, is cut from a different cloth, possibly under pressure. Narayanan’s focus, his mother Lyna insists, is purely on chess. “He only talks about chess. He doesn’t think of anything else,” she said. “See, I’m the only money-making member of this family, and he doesn’t have any sponsors so he works really hard at chess. He doesn’t have time for anything else.
Perhaps being able to focus on the body to succeed in a mental sport is also a privilege.