The Current

Forget the treadmill: An intense game of chess can burn hundreds of calories, research suggests

Research shows high-level chess players can burn hundreds of calories while competing. We talk to grandmaster Maurice Ashley about why the game needs brains, and brawn.

Grandmaster Mikhail Antipovhad burned 560 calories over 2-hour game in 2018

The stress of high-level competition can mean playing chess can lead to weight loss, according to research. (Heidi Atter/CBC)
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When it comes to losing weight, a couple of intense hours devising the perfect checkmate could be just as effective as pounding a treadmill, according to some research.

In 2018, several competitors at the Isle of Man International chess competition had their heart rates measured while they played. 

After a two-hour game, grandmaster Mikhail Antipovhad burned 560 calories — the equivalent of more than a five-mile run.

That calorific burn comes from the stress of the game — increased heart and breathing rates, as well as elevated blood pressure — all of which can add up to weight loss.

The 1984 World Chess Championship was called off after five months with both competitors — Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov — experiencing exhaustion. Karpov was reported to have lost close to 20 lbs.

A recent ESPN article quoted Professor Robert Sapolsky, who in a 2009 speech at Stanford University said that a high-level chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament.

More recent research has since suggested the figure could be closer to 132 calories per hour, which would equate to 1,188 calories over a nine-hour game.

Maurice Ashley is a chess grandmaster and commentator who says that these days, the best chess players train on both chess boards and treadmills.

He spoke to The Current's interim host Laura Lynch about why the game needs both brains and brawn. Here is part of their conversation.

What were your thoughts when you heard players can burn hundreds of calories just from two hours of playing chess?

It's a reminder of what our sport is about at the highest levels, because it is intense. It is stressful. It's always razor's edge — every move could be a mistake. And that kind of pressure does lead to a lot of stress and subsequently a lot of calories burned.

The physical strain apparently is so great that players often drop weight during tournaments. What was the most extreme case of that? 

Well, probably the worst case was Anatoly Karpov, when he played his world champion match against Garry Kasparov back in the mid-80s. They played a really long match — it was called "the unlimited match" because instead of having a set number of games, it was the first person to win six games. And they couldn't get the six wins, they were so tightly matched.

And by the end Anatoly Karpov literally looked like death. I mean the guy's skin was just like hanging off his bones, it was so bad. They stopped the match and decided to play a new match that had a limited number of games. That kind of extreme example is bad because that match actually lasted months. But you could see quite a bit of that happening with players.

Chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley said that during a game he is often trying to 'manage the emotional boiling that's happening inside.' (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)

Have there been other instances of severe weight loss?

Not clearly … as certain as that one. I think today's players are much more cognizant of the fact that you have to stay in shape, you have to exercise, be ready for the rigours of that kind of tournament intensity. Today's players are much more keen on it. They'll focus on their diet, proper eating, proper exercise and I think that they're more steeled for competition than ever.

How have chess regulations changed to address this fact of extreme weight loss?

It has not. I don't think that problem exists with players today. The players are just much fitter; they workout on treadmills before, sometimes after games. Often after games in fact, just to get rid of whatever pent-up stress they had coming from the game, and wind down.

You're a grandmaster. Have you ever experienced that type of weight fluctuation?

No, I've always been pretty fit, pretty much aware of the kind of diet I eat, and really focusing on being healthy. 

You burn calories, but as long as you keep that voracious appetite up then you can always just get it back. So it's really about staying alert to the possible dangers of all that stress and potential weight loss and then just managing it.

After the 1984 World Championship was abandoned due to player exhaustion, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov took part in a rematch in London in 1986. (D. Osborne/Reuters)

Maybe you can give me a bit of insight here because when I see really good chess players playing, they look so stoic. And I would think that what they're really doing is just trying to slow things down, including their heart rate, to be able to focus on what's at hand. What's actually going on beneath the visage? 

My friends would look at me and say: "When we're watching you play ... we don't know if you're winning, you're losing, it's equal." They never know, but that's because my face, it has that resting angry face, you know, like I'm just trying to kill the guy. 

But inside? The heart rate's up. You think you're doing well and all of a sudden you realize you made a small mistake, and it's like "Oh man, this is gonna turn around," and you're trying to, as you said, slow things down and manage the emotional boiling that's happening inside. 

I suppose that the physical fitness would help you not be drenched in sweat when you're facing the board? 

You're going to sweat anyway — you're not going to be drenched in sweat though, but I mean it is that kind of thing. Imagine if you were to take a college finals.

You study like crazy the night before. Then you go to the finals and you have to take that test. Imagine thinking back-to-back finals on the same day, because chess games can last five, six hours. And imagine that the finals is actually fighting back! It's changing as you're trying to get the right answer.

Well that's what you're doing when you're facing an opponent. Your best ideas you're putting down, and the opponent's like: "Nope, I've got a better idea," and they're hitting back. And then imagine doing that nine days in a row. That is the kind of intensity that chess competition is about, and you have to be ready for those rigours.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin.

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