Those of you who read my social media posts know that I’ve been going through hyperbaric (oxygen) therapy in preparation for a major surgical procedure in November. With this type of treatment, you’re placed in a sealed Acrylic tank, pressurized to thirty feet below the ocean’s surface and bombarded with 100% pure oxygen. Each dive, as it’s called, lasts roughly two hours. By employing the use of a pressurized environment, oxygen is forced into your body, down to the cellular level. In the simplest terms, the treatment is akin to having a cellular make over that has some amazing effects. Physically, I feel as if I’m in my twenties again (I’m 55 years old). My mind/body coordination is better than when I was in my teens. And then there’s the effect on my mind which is the most amazing of the many benefits of hyperbaric therapy.

One problem most of us have when playing chess is maintain a high degree of focus. We can zero in on a position and see the smaller picture easily. An example of visualizing the smaller picture would be seeing a potentially strong attack (for you) early in the game, becoming fixated on the attack and failing to see an even more lethal counter attack by your opponent. The problem with seeing the smaller picture is that you miss the bigger picture which turns out to be of greater overall importance. This occurs because our focus isn’t highly trained. In my last article I recommended a card counting technique to help develop your immediate focus. While this will help with reeling in scattered thoughts prior to playing, you still have to maintain that focus, something I had trouble with, at least until very recently.

A neurologist became interested in what happened to me after I started my hyperbaric treatments because he realized he could measure the effects of oxygen on the brain via chess playing. Having a patient who played and taught chess gave him a perfect test subject. Here’s what I’ve noticed so far in regards to my treatment and it’s implications regarding chess:

Those scattered thoughts that haunted me but also allowed me a certain level of creativity have nearly vanished. There’s no dithering around when it comes to decision making. The problem, be it a leaky kitchen sink, math equation or chess position, presents itself and I act upon it immediately. While I do enjoy becoming lost in thought, it’s great to be able to not waste time “spacing out.” When faced with a problem, I think with a greater degree of logic, being able to break the problem down and then solve it in a straight forward manner. Prior to the treatments, I had to focus my mind just to acknowledge the problem in the first place. Then I would take a slightly round about way in my journey towards solving the problem at hand. Now, the problem quickly comes into focus and the solution lays itself out very clearly. With chess, I’m finding it much easier to see the small and big picture simultaneously, clearly seeing a given position from both sides of the board. Of course, this doesn’t mean I’ll be challenging Magnus Carlsen anytime in the near or distant future, but my game is much better. I’ve been playing a number of computer programs at a level where the silicon beast normally crushes me. Not so much as of now! I see the board with greater clarity!

Oxygen will not make you smarter, something many people have asked me about. You have to work with what you were born with! What the oxygen does is to help your brain operate at a higher level. It comes down to focus. I had to drive up to my dad’s place yesterday, traveling through an extremely bad storm. He has an extremely steep driveway leading up to the house. I parked my car and noticed his copy of The New York Times sitting at the bottom of the driveway which was littered with slick and subsequently slippery leaves. Normally, I would stagger down the driveway, hoping I didn’t slip on the leaves and break my leg. However, I found myself quickly moving towards the newspaper, my mind focusing on spots where there were no leaves, guiding my feet to those safe places which allowed me to avoid slipping. This is what I mean about focus. Driving around San Francisco, I see architectural details I never noticed before even though I had taken the same route year after year.

This ability to see things in a different, more focused way, is allowing me to view various positions on the chessboard in a more enlightened fashion. My brain is finding it easier to see the board from my opponent’s viewpoint, thus allowing me to determine their best response to my potential moves. While you could say that I’m playing better chess I think it’s more a case of being able to play more clearly. By clearly, I mean seeing things with greater clarity. Unique details are recognized by your brain. The world looks slightly different these days.

Obviously, most people are not going to be presented with the opportunity I’ve been given, hyperbaric therapy. However, as Nigel pointed out via a social media posted article )http://www.normalbreathing.com/Articles-breathing-maximum-brain-oxygenation.php), you can increase your oxygen intake without a machine which will give you (although not as quickly or drastically as in my case) a greater ability to focus. Because we must breath in order to live, and we do it day in and day out without putting much thought into it, we tend not to give oxygen intake much thought (unless we suddenly find ourselves without air). We tend to think of physical improvement as a byproduct of eating healthy and getting exercise. Of course, both of these endeavors will help in our quest to live a long and healthy life, but something as simple as controlled breathing can be a game changer.

I must admit that I was not happy with the idea of having to lay in a tube for two hours a day, five days a week for eight weeks, even though I had 500 cable channels at my disposal and an extremely comfortable but small bed inside the tube. However, the benefits far outweighed my complaints. Memory is also increased. On Friday, I watched a documentary my doctor had seen numerous times. While I had only seen it this one time, my doctor pointed out, after we had a discussion about the film, that I had been able to recall the most minuet details of the nearly two hour documentary. This ability to remember smaller and smaller details comes in handy when it comes to studying chess theory, especially opening and endgame theory. How easy would a college class be?

I’ll be officially starting the neurological study this week (tomorrow) and will keep a journal, the highlights of which I’ll publish here. For those of you who would like to have their brains function at a higher level, consider, breathing exercises, physical exercise and of course, diet. While it may not have as strong an effect on your body as a pressurized oxygen tank, you’ll still see a difference and that difference could translate into better ratings points or better yet, a healthier, happier life. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).