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Chexercise: Chess and Physical Fitness

“Before and during [the world championship chess match], [Bobby] Fischer paid special attention to his physical training and fitness, which was a relatively novel approach for top chess players at that time. He had developed his tennisskills to a good level and played frequently during off-days in Reykjavík. He also had arranged for exclusive use of his hotel's swimming pool during specified hours, and swam for extended periods, usually late at night.According to Soviet grandmaster Nikolai Krogius, Fischer ‘was paying great attention to sport, and he was swimming and even boxing.' ”

This quote from Wikipedia describes the training regimen employed by former world chess champion Bobby Fischer. Amid a culture of chain-smoking and heavy drinking (bear in mind, most of Fischer’s toughest competition came from the USSR), Fischer stood out not only in his high level of play but in his careful maintenance of his body, with both regular exercise and keen attention to diet before his toughest games.

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In my last article, I discussed how the definition of a sport can extend to virtually any competitive event with a wide enough audience. Certainly, chess finds its way to the forefront of the discussion, as even with its long history and immense popularity worldwide, it has yet to gain unilateral recognition as a true “sport”. If, however, we are to grant chess such a coveted title, there is probably no better icon for the game than Robert James Fischer, the wunderkind-turned-superstar-turned recluse, the man who took on an entire empire and beat it at its own game.

Beyond his many, many eccentricities and reclusive personality, what strikes me as extremely interesting about Fischer is how he treated his body as an extension of his mind. Whether or not his regimen was the key factor in his successful World Championship title challenge is up for debate. However, it is clear this tendency of his inspired later generations of chess players to do the same for their bodies.

Garry Kasparov, another former world champion and contender for the title of “Greatest Player of All Time," prepped for matches both with his famously intense opening preparation and with activities such as swimming and bicycling. Visawanathan Anand, deposed as World Champion in 2013, attributes much of his recent success to weight loss and renewed attention to diet; in interviews, he has commented on how the strain of travel and long games demands a tough body to get through it all.

And indeed, Magnus Carlsen, the current World Champion himself, maintains similar habits, at times working on his strategies while on a treadmill. Competitors have said that his staying in excellent physical shape is responsible for his avoiding silly mistakes and mental lapses in games. Also, the guy has done some modeling on the side: I guess all that physical training has given him the chance at a second career.

Carlsen’s sexiness aside, taking a look at the importance chess players place on their physical wellness speaks to the demanding nature of the game itself. Any serious competitor will tell you that after the fifthhour or so of play, maintaining focus becomes almost as difficult as calculating the variations themselves. At chess’ highest level, one small mistake in the midst of the battle can mean an instant and unforgiving defeat.

Juvenal's adage "mens sana incorporasano"– "sound mind in a sound body" – has often been used to describe the importance of supplementing rigorous academics with proper physical exercise. It seems that modern chess has come to take this saying as its mantra. We all know how a great workout can alleviate mental stress. So it's in chess, where consistent physical activity can alleviate the mental strain in the middle of the game. Chess is really a many-hour tightrope act; exercise, moreover, is the best way to keep balanced.

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