(ESPN) The grandmaster diet: How to lose weight while barely moving
Aishwarya Kumar ESPN.com
ONE WEEK IN early March, on a blustery, windswept day, Fabiano Caruana decides to get away. He drives three hours west from his St. Louis apartment over winding gravel roads to reach his destination, a 2,000-acre compound in rural Missouri owned by a wealthy friend.
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 hourlong 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.
As he’s jogging, it’s easy to mistake him for a soccer player. But he is not. This body he has put together is not an accident. Caruana is, in fact, an American grandmaster in chess, the No. 2 player in the world. His training partner, Chirila? A Romanian grandmaster. And they’re doing it all to prepare for the physical demands of … chess? Yes, chess.
IT SEEMS ABSURD. How could two humans — seated for hours, exerting themselves in no greater manner than intermittently extending their arms a foot at a time — face physical demands?
Still, the evidence overwhelms.
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.
“Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners,” Sapolsky says.
It all combines to produce an average weight loss of 2 pounds a day, or about 10-12 pounds over the course of a 10-day tournament in which each grandmaster might play five or six times. The effect can be off-putting to the players themselves, even if it’s expected. Caruana, whose base weight is 135 pounds, drops to 120 to 125 pounds. “Sometimes I’ve weighed myself after tournaments and I’ve seen the scale drop below 120,” he says, “and that’s when I get mildly scared.”
But there is literally nothing for Caruana to fear but fear itself. Stress and anxiety, in fact, are the greatest drivers of the phenomenon. Here’s how it works:
Grandmasters in competition are subjected to a constant torrent of mental stress. That stress, in turn, causes their heart rates to increase, which, in turn, forces their bodies to produce more energy to, in turn, produce more oxygen. It is, according to Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and Philip Cryer, a metabolism expert at the school, a vicious, destructive cycle.
Meanwhile, players also eat less during tournaments, simply because they don’t have the time or the appetite. “The simple explanation is when they’re thinking about chess, they’re not thinking about food,” says Ewan C. McNay, assistant professor of psychology in the behavioral neuroscience program at the University of Albany.
Stress also leads to altered — and disturbed — sleep patterns, which in turn cause more fatigue — and can lead to more weight loss. A brain operating on less sleep, even by just one hour, Kasimdzhanov notes, requires more energy to stay awake during the chess game. Some grandmasters report dreaming about chess, agonizing over what they could have done differently for hours in their sleep, and waking up exhausted.
To combat it all, today’s players have begun to incorporate strict food and fitness regimens to increase oxygen supply to the brain during tournaments, prevent sugar-related crashes and sustain their energy. In the 1980s and ’90s, smoking, drinking and late-night parties were common on the chess circuit — that’s right, chess had a “Boogie Nights” phase — but that scene has all but disappeared.
“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,” Ashley says.
According to Ashley, India’s first grandmaster, Viswanathan Anand, does two hours of cardio each night to tire himself out so he doesn’t dream about chess; Kasimdzhanov drinks tea only during tournaments and plays tennis and basketball every day. Chirila does at least an hour of cardio and an hour of weights to build muscle mass before tournaments.
But not one of these grandmasters has perfected his fitness routine like the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen.