Physical Fitness Promotes Mental Fitness

Many great players have emphasized the importance of physical fitness. Mikhail Botvinnik, that monster of self-discipline, wrote in his autobiography Achieving the Aim:

I was a round-shouldered lad and didn’t go in for sport. … As a present I was given a book by Muller which was quite well known in those days. For the half-century or so since then I have done morning exercises. The weak lad straightened up and, as they say nowadays, noticeably “filled out.”

Before Alexander Alekhine defeated José Capablanca in their 1927 world championship match—an upset if there ever was one—he reputedly gave up smoking and drinking and underwent a program of physical training. It seems likely that his surprising victory in their marathon match of 34 games was at least partly due to his better physical preparation. In other words, he wore down his opponent, who probably hadn’t taken the whole thing seriously enough. And who can blame him? He had never lost a game to Alekhine before.

In the recent Candidates’ Tournament, Vladimir Kramnik almost upset the heavy favorite Magnus Carlsen. Before the event, Kramnik worked hard on his physical fitness. Peter Svidler, who tied for third place, did the same. Of course, Magnus Carlsen is 22 years old, while Kramnik is 37 and Svidler 36—no amount of going to the gym can fool Father Time!

Ironically, Kramnik fell short in the end not because he was too old, but because of a “rookie” mistake. In the last round, he abandoned his usual defenses and played desperately, rather than maintaining his veteran poise and “dancing with the girl he brought.” If Kramnik had stuck to his usual openings in the last round, he probably would not have lost. Now we would all be talking about his remarkable come-from-behind victory in the tournament, and no doubt Kramnik’s physical training regimen would be given due credit.

GM Alexandra Kosteniuk, 2008 women’s world champion, wrote on her blog:

Many people ask me what’s the best way to improve at chess and how to prepare for chess tournaments. What should their training day look like, how much time spent on openings, middle game, etc.

I cannot stress enough how important physical preparation is before chess tournaments. Chess competition is tough, requires many hours spent at the chess board, with maximum concentration. You need all your strength and nerves to be in top form. Nothing will prepare you better than being in best physical form. All you need for that is to do some kind of sport regularly….

I try to start every day with a 5K run. …

So good luck in your chess preparation, but remember to go out and do some sports, it will help your chess, I guarantee it!

Mens sana in corpore sano

Descending from the sublime to the mediocre: I myself try to exercise every day, though I do not always succeed. As I have told my two sons, “You may not always feel like working out, but after you have done it you are always glad you did. You never regret going to the gym.”

Of course, exercise is good for you in every way, not just for your chess. It’s good for your heart, lungs, digestive system, skeletal structure, and helps you manage your weight. You reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke. You feel better; you have more energy. You look better. Your clothes fit. You have more self-respect. You get more respect from other people. Exercise even affects your outlook on life: we constantly hear of studies showing that exercise is just as effective as medication in treating depression.

You say you don’t have time to exercise? Fix your schedule to make time. As I read once in a book by the time management expert Alan Lakein, and I believe these words and try to live by them: If you are too busy to exercise, you are too busy.

Tim Hanke