The game of chess is renowned for being a thinking man’s game, where clever strategy and foresight are the heavy artillery, while brute physical strength is not even considered eligible. However, not many people realise that a lot of physical training goes into the making of a chess champion.
Hours are spent in the gym training to make the body a willing servant through which the mind can impose its will.
The World Chess Championship is likely to showcase the myriad facets of the game at the highest level as Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carslen face off.
World No 1 Carlsen is well known for playing long and physically taxing games and is usually reluctant to agree to draws – something that goes with his terrier-like approach. Since the championship is expected to be a demanding affair, the 43-year-old Anand has been cycling, swimming and walking in his bid to be prepared for his much younger opponent. “Anand can expect some long games against Carlsen. That will be demanding on his body and considering that, he has to be at his physical best,” says GM Dibyendu Barua.
Dr Sanjeev Sahni, sports psychologist, who has worked with more than a few top chess players, can walk the talk in this department.
“To be a top level player, one needs to have a combination of talents working in peak condition. The first few things that come to mind are good anticipation time, attentional focus and decision-making abilities. Each individual has an innate anticipation and focus, while taking decisions within a stipulated time helps in honing these strengths,” says Sahni.
“After that, one looks at neuromuscular coordination — the synergy between mind and body, and finally, electrodermal response, a change in the electrical properties of the skin in relation to stress.”
Sahni, a former Sports Authority of India scientist for 14 years, was known as ‘the electronic psychologist’ because of the psycho-diagnostic equipment that he helped develop for athletes back in the day.
“The problem is that in India we still think that one psychologist for an entire team is a good bargain, whereas abroad each player has one!” he exclaims.
The most overlooked part in chess is the need for the body to be a good medium. Many people dismiss chess or even golf as sport because it doesn’t fulfill their idea of physicality.
However, Dr Alok Pandey, avid chess player and psychologist feels that if the mind is in control then the physical will follow suit, but it is getting there that is difficult.
“One little distraction can cause a monumental change in the game. Players have to stay alert and manage the conditions better than their opponent. Walking from time to time helps in releasing any muscle spasm from continuous sitting and consistent movement of the eyelids prevents strain,” he advises.
Pandey, a retired Indian Air Force Wing Commander, argues that while being patient has its rewards, having body awareness is imperative to withstand the various pressures that are always trying to surface. “There is no way around developing oneself if one wants to compete at the highest level. In the end it has to be a synthesis of mind and body and that is the ultimate test.”