An incredible piece in ESPN on what hours of playing chess can do to your body. Aishwarya Kumar highlights research that shows chess can be as stressful on the body as any other physical sport. The best part of the article however is about the fitness regime of the current world chess champion and a legend already at 29, Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen’s genius is well known but the work ethic to sustain that genius is quite an inspiration. The piece also goes to show why physical fitness is key to succeed in seemingly physically less demanding but mentally stressful vocations, including our own world of investment management. Don’t be surprised if you see a Marcellus portfolio counsellor pumping iron at your neighbourhood gym.
“IT SEEMS ABSURD. How could two humans — seated for hours, exerting themselves in no greater manner than intermittently extending their arms a foot at a time — face physical demands?
Still, the evidence overwhelms.
The 1984 World Chess Championship was called off after five months and 48 games because defending champion Anatoly Karpov had lost 22 pounds. “He looked like death,” grandmaster and commentator Maurice Ashley recalls.
In 2004, winner Rustam Kasimdzhanov walked away from the six-game world championship having lost 17 pounds. 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.
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.
It all combines to produce an average weight loss of 2 pounds a day, or about 10-12 pounds over the course of a 10-day tournament in which each grandmaster might play five or six times.
Grandmasters in competition are subjected to a constant torrent of mental stress. That stress, in turn, causes their heart rates to increase, which, in turn, forces their bodies to produce more energy to, in turn, produce more oxygen. It is, according to Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and Philip Cryer, a metabolism expert at the school, a vicious, destructive cycle.”
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