Elite Chess Players Can Burn 6,000 Calories And Lose 1kg A Day In Tournaments

30 September 2019
Grooming, Diet, Sports, Chess, Health and Nutrition, Mental Health
Image: Warner Bros

Consider this the grandmaster diet: an inability to lose weight while barely moving

To the untrained eye, a game of chess looks like a rather relaxing activity. Or if not relaxing for the mind, at least an activity that can be classed as leisurely.

The movements are often slow, drawn out as the mind processes just what outcomes are possible and how best to avoid the worst. And when the move is eventually enacted, all it requires is a slight flick of the wrist.

Say that to an elite chess player and they’ll likely laugh in your face. Because for these professional athletes, the sport is neither leisurely or relaxing. In fact, it’s one that sees them burn more than 6,000 calories a day during tournaments.

It’s hard to imagine that sitting still has the ability to burn so many calories – after all, aren’t doctors always warning us about the dangers of being sedentary and the need to get up and move? But in the world of chess, the sport is absolutely a physical one.

This is something chess legends Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov can attest, with Karpov reportedly losing more than 10 kilograms over the five months that it took to complete the 1984 World Chess Championship in Moscow. The championship was actually called off due to their physical conditions, making it the first World Chess Championship to end without a result.

But while other sports have benefited from the likes of technology and improved recovery and nutrition methods, chess hasn’t been so inclined to look outwards.

As recently as 2004, a six-game championship left Rustam Kasimdzhanov seven kilograms lighter, while in 2018 a company tracking heart rate of grandmaster Mikhail Antipov found that he had burned 560 calories in just two hours. To put that in perspective, Roger Federer would roughly burn the same amount in an hour of singles tennis.

As ESPN reports, chess players can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, which is three times what an average person consumes in a day.

Drawing on research from Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Standford University, the reason for the high caloric burn is due to breathing rates, which triple during competition, blood pressure which also elevates during competition, and muscle contractions before, during and after major tournaments. According to Sapolsky, the stress elite chess players encounter during a tournament is on par with what elite athletes experience.

“Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners,” said Sapolsky.

And in case you’re wondering what this all accumulates in, the answer is an average weight loss of 2 pounds (approx. 1 kilogram) a day.

Ultimately, it’s the fear that drives the weight loss for chess players. In competition, grandmasters are subjected to constant mental stress which can lead to elevated heart rates and, by extension, the production of more energy in the body in an effort to produce more oxygen.

Add to that physiological response the fact that players often eat less during tournaments, simply because they don’t have the time or appetite, and you’ve got the recipe for a crash dieting superclass. As Ewan C. McNay, assistant professor of psychology in the behavioural neuroscience program at the University of Albany suggests to ESPN, “The simple explanation is when they’re thinking about chess, they’re not thinking about food.”

With increased stress, sleep is also compromised which can lead to more weight loss. A brain operating on less sleep, even by just one hour, requires more energy to stay away during the chess game and for many elite players, hours spent in bed are spent restless, going over every move they could have made and how things could have played out differently.

Consequently, today’s professionals have begun to examine their diet and fitness regimes in an effort to stave off the weight loss. According to grandmaster and commentator Maurice Ashley, Viswanathan Anand – India’s first grandmaster – does two hours of cardio each night to tire himself out so as not to think about chess during sleep.

As Ashley says, “Physical fitness and brain performance are tied together, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that grandmasters are out there trying to look like soccer players.”


Via GQ Australia