After Netflix released its miniseries The Queen’s Gambit this fall, a buzz began to grow around chess, exciting people who had never before been interested in the game. But the perception of what a competitive chess player looks like has largely remained the same; perhaps you picture a bunch of old white men in suits sitting around tiny tables, with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other.
According to College fourth-year, former Chess ExCo instructor, and competitive chess player Greg Gillen, this portrait isn’t too far off from the real chess world of the ’60s and ’70s.
“I know that a lot of the players in the ’70s had this reputation of going down to the tournament, playing their games, and smoking while playing,” Gillen said. “Then, they would go back to their hotel room and have several drinks.”
Since The Queen’s Gambit was released on Oct. 23, 2020, Chess.com has reported millions of new users to the site, and numerous game companies report massive increases in the sales of chessboards, with Goliath Games claiming a 1000 percent increase in its sales.
The seven-episode series, which is set in the 1950s and 60s, portrays a competitive old guard of chess competitions. What viewers might not realize, though, is that the game has evolved since the time period portrayed in the series.
These days, if you’re a serious player, drinking and smoking are no longer a part of the routine; many chess enthusiasts approach the game with the same dedication to physical fitness as elite athletes.
Though the average person would not consider sitting around a chessboard for hours on end to be particularly strenuous, performance experts have proven just how taxing chess competitions can be. According to Stanford professor Dr. Robert Sapolsky, top players in the world can burn up to 560 calories in one 2-hour game. That is the equivalent of Roger Federer playing one hour of tennis.
Head Women’s Tennis Coach and Chess Club Advisor Constantine Ananiadis has noticed the strain games can have on his players, attributing it to the exceptional mental focus required for chess compared to other sports.
“In a sport like tennis, you can botch the first full hour of a match, lose the first set, and still easily come back to win the second set and the match,” Ananiadis said, “You’re pretty much always in it until you lose the last point. In chess, one small lapse in concentration and you’re done. You can play 39 great moves, but if you botch the 40th one, you lose the game. There’s no coming back.”
This mental strain can have a drastic effect on the health of players. During tournaments, players can burn an astonishing 6,000 calories per day, three times what the average person consumes in a day. With this caloric deficit on top of the elevated stress and fatigue, competitive players can lose anywhere between 10 and 20 pounds in one tournament.
To combat the intense mental and physical stress that high-level chess can put on the body, players are now optimizing their diet, nutrition, and even the way they sit to gain an advantage.
Akshat Phumbhra, College fourth-year and member of Oberlin’s chess club, has noticed this evolution.
“Every athlete is always looking to be in the best shape possible,” Phumbhra said. “As science advances and we know more about how to keep our bodies healthy, diet [and] exercise invariably become a part of an athlete’s life. With chess, one of the things that is more popular is yoga. It really helps players stay calm and be able to sit at a chair for hours on end.”
For Gillen, this shift is the result of the competitive nature of chess players.
“I think now you see a lot less of that hedonistic lifestyle at the upper echelon of chess,” Gillen said. “If someone else is trying to get an advantage by exercising discipline in all their habits, then, if you want to be the best chess player, you know you’re going to have to do that too.”
Players have modernized every detail of their preparations and are more devoted to optimizing performance than ever before. Constant physical activity, nutritional optimization, and forgoing all drugs and alcohol are the minimum requirements to be competitive as a chess grandmaster in the modern age.
In short, chess has modernized — whether it be the training and diet of competitive players, or The Queen’s Gambit popularizing the sport for a whole new generation. As a result of these shifts, this declining sport could be moving into a new and unprecedented golden age.