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Are you ‘doping’ when you drink coffee and play chess?

Nov 10, 2014
Coach 1270

I’ve never thought my mocha java could be classified as a performance-enhancing drug. I wonder whether any of my online opponents would have objected to me slugging coffee during our games? Probably not I reckon, because chess players tend to have a more realistic view of things than the bureaucrats at WADA(World Anti-Doping Agency) and the IOC(International Olympic Committee).

via @Nomadic Lass CC BY-SA

Do you remember Grandmaster Vassily Ivanchuk missing a drugs test at the Dresden Chess Olympiad and facing a two-year ban from the sport? Luckily, clever bureaucratic wrangling on the part of FIDE (they cited a breakdown in communication and Ivanchuk’s fragile state of mind after losing his last game) meant Ivanchuk avoided sanction. But the whole affair, and other noise made about drug testing in chess, smacks of a lack of common sense.

Let’s frame the issue correctly for once: The outcomes of some sporting events are easily influenced by drugs. Weightlifting and sprinting, for example. Some sports less so, such as soccer, where although endurance might be increased, vision, skill, positional sense and experience count far more and cannot be improved by drug use. And then there’s chess, described by some as a cultural artefact, and not a sport at all. You know, the game where you sit on your bum and look at a board, and the amount of physical exertion means your greatest risk is a dislocated finger.

And please, don’t start talking about beta blockers, modafinil and Ritalin. The risk of complications to the thinking process and emotional instability posed by those drugs outweighs their possible benefits, so why would a chess player even think about taking them? And I haven’t even mentioned the slight on the character and history of chess that doping would imply, which is enough to make the vast majority of players, professional or not, baulk at the thought of taking drugs to win a chess match. Simply put, chess is one place where individual ego, at least for the moment, is still subordinate to the culture and grandeur of the game.

This last point is crucial, and cannot be overstated. There may well already be drugs that can improve your chances of winning a chess match. But who’s going to take them? The world’s sporting superpowers will continue to vie for supremacy, and doping will be an integral part of their ongoing battle. East German robohumans were replaced by Soviet robohumans who have been replaced by American and Chinese robohumans. The world will continue to clamour for bigger, faster and stronger. And chess professionals and enthusiasts will continue to study, debate and play the game the way it has always been played, as that is the only way to get cleverer.

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