In my history and philosophy of science course, I used to start by asking students whether cheerleading was a sport. This aroused lively discussion because they usually had surprisingly strong feelings for and against this issue. But my real goal was to introduce them to the idea of demarcation criteria, setting up necessary and sufficient conditions that would establish whether some thing X belonged definitely to class A or definitely did not belong to class A. An important and unresolved question in the philosophy of science is the effort to identify necessary and sufficient conditions that would determine whether some theory was scientific or not, and this early exercise on cheerleading was meant to be an introduction to that more abstract question later in the semester.
In the course of the discussion, students would begin to identify various criteria as being necessary for something to be classified to be a sport, and physical exertion was almost always raised as one requirement. Others would challenge this, saying that chess was a sport that did not require exertion. Whether chess could be considered a sport or not was debated but the assumption that it did not require physical stamina was taken as a given.
But it turns out that chess is extremely demanding physically.
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.
Nowadays top chess players realize this and the article points out that they train just like athletes in those sports that we think of as physically demanding. Look at the training regimen of Fabiano Caruana , the number two ranked player in the world who lost his title match with world chess champion Magnus Carlsen in November of last year.
At 7:30 the next morning, he pulls on gray Mizzou sweats and matching running shorts, rubs the sleep from his eyes and heads out for his hour long run with his training partner, Cristian Chirila. They jog up and down the hills around the farmland, whispering during water breaks about openings and effective chess permutations.
At 5-foot-6, Caruana has a lean frame, his legs angular and toned. He also has a packed schedule for the day: a 5-mile run, an hour of tennis, half an hour of basketball and at least an hour of swimming.
It is well established that the brain uses more energy than any other human organ, accounting for up to 20 percent of the body’s total haul. Until now, most scientists believed that it used the bulk of that energy to fuel electrical impulses that neurons employ to communicate with one another. Turns out, though, that is only part of the story.
A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA indicates that two thirds of the brain’s energy budget is used to help neurons or nerve cells “fire” or send signals. The remaining third, however, is used for what study co-author Wei Chen, a radiologist at the University of Minnesota Medical School, refers to as “housekeeping,” or cell-health maintenance.
“Housekeeping power is important for keeping the brain tissue alive,” Chen says, “and for the many biological processes in the brain,” in addition to neuronal chats.
I know that after working hard on intellectual activities during the day with almost no physical exercise, I feel drained, and not just mentally. But the massive amount of energy used by chess players is not due to their brains working even more but that playing chess makes them more prone to behaviors during the tournament (such as not eating and sleeping properly, poor posture, minute motions, etc.) that cause them to burn calories at a higher rate than normal.
So while we can debate whether chess is a sport or not based on other criteria, there is no doubt that it is puts great physical demands on players, especially when played at the highest levels.