Why all Formula 1 drivers should play chess

Mar 23, 2017
  JacquelineW
StaffCoach 1525

When three-time Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton was asked to name a second favorite sport, the Mercedes driver's answer surprised many: "Do you know that I have recently discovered that chess is a sport. I love chess - but is it really a sport? If it is, I take chess. And, of course, snowboarding - depending on the season."

Close followers of Hamilton's social media accounts may already have been aware of the F1 driver's love for chess. Last year, he posted this photograph on Twitter:

(Bonus question: What do you notice in Hamilton's chess picture (apart from his hat and tattoos)? Leave your answer in the replies.)

At first sight, it may seem a bit out of character for a speed-loving racing driver to be in for a slow-paced, sedentary sport like chess. But in fact, it makes perfect sense. What's more, one can easily argue that all Formula 1 drivers should follow Hamilton's example, since Formula One racing and chess have a lot in common. Chess skills make good mental training for F1 racers. (Probably the same goes for the other way around. But it's a bit more complicated for all chess players to start racing than for drivers to start playing chess.)

'Chess at 150 miles an hour'

At the eve the new Formula 1 season, starting this weekend in Melbourne, Australia, a lot of attention goes to the technical sophistication of the cars and the physical preparation of the drivers. Drivers need to be ultra-fit to be able to control the 2017 F1 cars. Increased G-forces call for more physical strength, especially in neck and chest muscles. Formula 1 drivers are said to have the stamina and endurance of triathletes. 

But at the same time, they need to have the concentration span and strategical insight of a chess player. The mental aspect is perhaps the most critical part of F1 racing. Racers need to be able to stay completely focused for the entire race. Saul Miller, sports psychologist, once said in the New York Times that Formula One is "like playing chess at 150 miles an hour."

For Formula One drivers, the chess board can function as a mental gym. Playing chess is an excellent way to enhance concentration. Studies show that the brains of people who play chess are significantly different than an average brain. For example, grandmasters are able to 'shut down' parts of their brain in order to bring more energy to the brain areas that are used in chess. Thus, they can 'peak' in the brain areas that are used for decision making.

Chess-like strategy in Formula 1

The biggest complaints about today's Formula One is that is not spectacular enough or downright boring. A Formula 1 race often has long periods in which very little track action appears to be taking place. But it's often during these apparently quiet moments that the biggest stakes are being played out in race strategy, F1Scarlet Knowledge Base points out

Drivers and their teams have to make important decisions about "tyres, fuel level, pit stops, engine revs, grid position and the nature of the specific track itself. Depending on the way these elements are used and calculated, the winning car is not always the fastest in terms of raw speed or passing on the track."

"In some ways race strategy is the same as chess," said Ross Brawn, the strategist behind most of Michael Schumacher's 91 victories at Benetton and Ferrari. "You know which direction you want to go in, and then try to be three or four moves ahead to try and outwit the opposition."

In an article for F1i, former Formula One driver Felipe Nasr also described the parallels between chess and Formula One:

Racing in Formula One is a lot like playing chess, where the basic knowledge is common: 64 squares arranged in an eight-by-eight grid; 16 pieces: one king, one queen, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, and eight pawns, with each of the six types of piece moving differently.

The strategy to move them to victory includes a combination of mathematics, psychology, intelligence, dedication, first-player advantage, attack and defence. There are differences depending on whether you are playing with the whites (what opening move do you fancy?) or with the blacks.

What better way to train these chess-like aspects of F1 driving than chess itself?

While these strategic aspects annoy some Formula One fans, others love it. According to F1Scarlet Knowledge: "For many spectators, strategy is a source of aesthetic pleasure, as watching a game of chess is to a Grand Master. Although there is not much action on the board in a chess game, it is the mental action of outwitting the adversary that pleases the spectator."

But in the end, we all love a bit of spectacle. Not only on the chess board but definitely on the racing track. As one F1 fan (@Roodda) remarked after last season's 'boring' Hungarian GP: "Chess match Formula One races are only interesting if someone loses their queen. I think a few pawns got nabbed and a bishop looked in trouble once. But that was it." 

New game in Pawn Level: F1 racing on the chess board!

To celebrate the start of the 2017 Formula One season, we'll be launching a new game in the Pawn Level (the River) this weekend. Gaming your training at top speed! Fuel shortages, accelerating, spilled oil on the tarmac, imploding cars and a whole lot of chess: Chessity is getting ready for a spectacular Formula 1 season. Are you ready to get to pole position?

3 - 2 -1 Coming very soon!

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2 Comments

arunjchess 07:21 - 27 Mar 2017
Wow. All the best
Labelle 06:19 - 1 Apr 2017
"What do you notice in Hamilton's chess picture (apart from his hat and tattoos)?"

Chessboard is on the wrong side.

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