How important is sleep to chess performance and can we compensate for a lack if it via a strong cup of coffee? In an attempt to answer these questions I’m currently reading the book Sleepfaring: A Journey Through The Science of Sleep by Jim Horne.
Horne takes a serious look at the science of sleep and explodes many of the myths about it. The real problem is that frontal cortex suffers greatly if its owner is sleep deprived and it is responsible for a number of ‘executive’ behaviors such as making rational judgements about risk. It is also responsible for coming up with new ideas and innovative plans, so that ‘creative spark’ is likely to be lost in a sleepy chess player. On the other hand various automated brain functions are going to be unaffected, so a player with fabulous technique might still play quite well based purely on experience.
It seems that coffee doesn’t actually help improve the performance of the frontal cortex despite making people ‘feel’ more awake. Neither does sucking sliced lemons. So if someone is sleep deprived they’re simply going to play worse than usual.
Are there players this will effect more than others? Well it’s logical to deduce that those with a higher IQ may suffer the most through being more reliant on executive brain function rather than well drilled technique. This probably accounts for why those with high powered jobs and long commutes fare disastrously in club matches after work but do much better at weekend tournaments in which they stay at a comfortable hotel. On the other hand those who have an easy time of it during weekdays should find evening games a happy hunting ground, especially if they don’t do the driving.
This points to a way in which someone can immediately improve their results; tournament selection. But as with so many of these things it depends on an accurate diagnosis about where their strengths lie and what issues they face.