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If you’re ever arguing with someone about the veracity of chess being a sport for elite athletes, just pull up some of these mind-boggling stats on Google and you’ll shut them right up. According to Stanford neuroendocrinology researcher Robert Sapolsky in an interview with ESPN, “a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament” which is triple the amount an average person’s daily caloric consumption.
During a tournament, a player’s breathing rate will often increase dramatically (up to three times the normal time), their blood pressure will elevate, and they will experience muscle contractions throughout the entire competition. “Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners,” Sapolsky told ESPN.
These recent findings about the physical demands of playing competitive chess these past few years have led to several high-profile players adopting lifestyle changes to optimise their health and fitness for long tournament sessions. One of them is Norwegian chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, another example is Italian-American chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
Born in Miami, Florida to Italian parents, Caruana was four years old when his family moved to the Park Slope neighbourhood in Brooklyn. It was here in New York City that he discovered his unique talent for chess after attending an after-school program at Congregation Beth Elohim.
“I started around the age of five. I was around five, six, and it was just an after-school program, playing other kids and a few teachers,” Caruana recalled in a 2018 interview with Deadspin. “I don’t remember exactly who noticed my talent or if I was immediately very good, but the teacher there recommended to my parents that I pursue chess, and I was playing more or less as a hobby when I was a kid, and then at some point it became professional for me.”
During that same year, the future grandmaster participated in his first tournament at the Polgar Chess Center in the neighbouring Queens. From there, Caruana was paired with his first chess coach at the age of six, and his aptitude for the game increased exponentially. A gifted prodigy, at the age of 14 years, 11 months, and 20 days, Caruana became a chess grandmaster, making him the youngest grandmaster in the history of both Italy and the United States at the time.
The general advice which I’ve always been given is just to apply myself very consistently regardless of what my results are. If I’m doing well, to apply myself just as much as if I was doing badly, not to become complacent. This is something which is difficult because when you achieve something, you feel like the work is done. But the work never is really done.How yoga and hip-hop helped Fabiano Caruana challenge for the world chess championship | The Guardian
Fabiano Caruana’s training routine
Over the past few years, the chess player has been focusing on preparing his body for the rigorous demands of tournament play. He’s had some eye-opening moments during past competitions when he lost a lot of weight due to the stresses of the game. “Sometimes I’ve weighed myself after tournaments and I’ve seen the scale drop below 120,” he revealed to ESPN, “and that’s when I get mildly scared.”
On a typical day, the grandmaster practises his chess moves for a few hours, then fits in a number of workout sessions, including a 5-mile run, playing tennis and basketball as well as an hour of swimming. More recently, Caruana has added a number of physical hobbies to his lifestyle, like squash and yoga, the latter of which he has found to be particularly useful in helping him deal with the stress of tournaments.
“Not only do you burn an insane amount of calories, it’s also very mentally draining, and so you have to both physically and mentally have a lot of stamina,” he explained about his physical training routine. “So I try to work out to make sure I’m able to do that, to play for six, seven hours if needed.”
All of this preparation is to get Caruana ready and optimised for a chess tournament, which can stretch on for days. In his interview with Deadspin, the Italian-American player described what his daily routine during a chess tournament typically looks like.
During a tournament it’s just purely chess, from morning to night. It starts usually with breakfast and a brisk walk, and then preparing for the opponent pretty much up until the game. Usually it’s for a few hours before the game that I’ll prepare, look at their openings, try to figure out what I want to do, what they might do, try to predict what they’re doing. On the other hand, they’re trying to do the same thing, so we’re both trying to surprise each other. Then I play the game, which could last from four hours on average—maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less—and then it’s dinner and preparation for the game the day after. Sometimes I’ll watch TV or a movie at night to rest, maybe work out a bit, but it’s 95 percent chess.Fabiano Caruana Tells Us What The Life Of A Chess Grandmaster Is Really Like | Deadspin
To unwind from the physical and mental demands of being one of the top chess players in the world, Caruana’s favourite thing to do is watch movies. “When you play chess for hours at a time, it’s easy to be mentally exhausted, and you actually burn a lot of calories playing,” he told Fast Company. “It’s important to have an outlet for all the stress, and to do things where you don’t think about chess at all.”
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