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Did You Know You Can’t Do Drugs When Playing Chess Competitively?

Most professional sports have a clear set of rules to ensure all players get a fair chance to compete against their peers. This includes the prohibition of performance-enhancing drugs that may provide players with an unfair disadvantage. But did you know this rule also applies to Chess?

Professional chess players cannot take any performance-enhancing drugs like steroids and amphetamines. Players are subjected to random compulsory drug tests after each match, providing a urine sample.

Grandmaster Ivanchuk Scandal

Vassily Ivanchuk, a 20-year grandmaster in Chess, lost to Gata Kamsky in the 2008 Chess Olympiad in Dresden, Germany. As part of the 2001 ruling to test players of performance-enhancing drug usage, the International Chess Federation, or FIDE, required Ivanchuk to submit a urine sample after the match. 

Ivanchuk refused to submit a urine sample. Not only did he refuse the request, Ivanchuk even threw a temper tantrum. It was noted that he stormed the conference center, kicked a concrete pillar in the lobby, and repeatedly pounded on a countertop in the cafeteria with his fists before disappearing to the coatroom.

Ivanchuk was then banned from competing professionally for two years following the incident. The refusal to submit to a random drug test is treated as though he was tested positive for taking performance-enhancing drugs.

The ban of the grandmaster stirred outrage in the chess community. Professional chess players are known to keep a tight-knit community. They felt that accusing one of their own as a drug user blatantly insults their honor and intelligence. They soon wrote letters of protest to the officials, accusing them of destroying the game of Chess and insisting that everyone knows that drug usage has no benefit in playing Chess. (Source: Spiegel)

Effects of Performance Enhancing Drugs on Chess

The chess community’s claim is not entirely correct. Specific performance-enhancing drugs can help a chess player gain an unfair disadvantage over his opponent. Though anabolic steroids and Erythropoietin help other athletes in physical sports gain an advantage over the competition, it is untrue for chess players. However, it is a different case for beta-blockers. 

It is common for chess players to face extreme pressure towards the end of the chess match. This pressure may cause the player to hyperventilate, causing a significant rise in his pulse rate and blood pressure. This is where beta-blockers may help. It can help reduce the anxiety players experience, thus staying focused on the game. Though hypothetically sound, there is no way to create a performance-enhancing dose of beta-blockers. (Source: Spiegel)

However, in a 2017 research conducted by Professor Klaus Lieb, it was discovered that some prescription drugs that contained either modafinil or methylphenidate could enhance the performance of a chess player. Lieb gave 39 male chess players a pill that had either of the two substances and made them play chess matches against Fritz 12, a chess program. (Source: ECNP)

His study discovered that players who took either modafinil or methylphenidate played slower, indicating their thought processes were deeper. The players performed better, but only in classic games and not timed games.

The effects of the drugs were more pronounced if there wasn’t any time pressure in the game, as discovered in the neurological testing in the study. And though the drugs don’t necessarily enhance the quality of thinking or cognition, it does help players spend more time making decisions and making better calculations on their next moves. (Source: Chess Site)

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