The relative importance of fitness


Did you ever see the 60 Minutes clip on Carlsen; it’s maybe 8-10 minutes long. You can find it on Youtube if you did not catch it. Basically, as a chess player you are constantly amused. For example: when they are amazed by Carlsen’s confidence against Kasparov, when he does not feel that he has to sit at the board when Kasparov is deciding what line to go for on move 5. Or the expressions of wonder when the journalist sees Carlsen give a blindfold display. “The most amazing thing I have ever seen,” I think the words were.

But the real amazing thing is not the party tricks grandmasters can easily perform. The amazing thing is the story of “lazy Carlsen” and how the myth-machinery is spinning, with Friedel from ChessBase chipping in, using the L-word.

Carlsen did decide early on not to go down the Russian drillmaster school and decided to be in charge of his own chess development. He does not devote all of his time to chess when he is at home; maybe not a lot even. But here are some of the statements that contradict the lazy idea:

– When up in the London Eye with the journalist, Carlsen blanks him and blanks the view; he is thinking about the next day’s game.

– At some point he says that the trip he went on at age 13 was very successful and the culmination of a heavy amount of work.

– He is travelling half of the year, at least (I think they said 200 days) with chess.

– He is sweating it out in the gym.
And this is just from a less than 10-minute segment! We have far more information on Carlsen showing his high level of concentration at the board, that he has a strong team of trainers and helpers and so on.

I am sure that Carlsen likes to play on the Wii, that he spends a good deal of his time in Norway hanging out with friends and playing football. But you are not lazy because you do not spend all your time preparing for the next game. Kramnik, Gelfand and Anand are all married with children; knowing personally what that feels like, I can say that a lot of time is spent being a family man!

The term “the Mozart of chess” has been re-invented for Carlsen. The metaphor is supposed to be something like a “no-effort genius” I assume. Indeed, Mozart did study music with his father (a top composer in his own right) from the age of 2. He wrote his first big pieces at the age of 6 – in his father’s handwriting (and allegedly copy and pasted from little-known pieces). By his early twenties, he was the most talented composer of his time – OVERNIGHT!

Carlsen is the number-one rated chess player at the moment because of a few factors:

– A great understanding of chess, which is just not something that comes through DNA

– His great physical shape, which again is not a gift or something that comes with buying a gym membership; you have to actually go there

– Almost excessive determination

– A smart team that handles everything around him perfectly. For example: Carlsen goes to the airport when someone tells him it is time to go to the airport. If not told, he will not go. This is the way it should be; Carlsen focuses on delivering the product, the good moves or the appearance or the great hair.

– A great intelligence; Carlsen understands quite well how to handle most situations and opponents. Obviously it failed in London at the end, but his other attributes got him through.
And now we come to the topic of the article: the least important of these factors is in my opinion the physical part. It is quite obvious that you can ruin your performance at the board by eating something that destabilises your blood sugar just before or during the game. But how great an advantage do you actually get from these hours spent in the gym?

I used to believe that it was quite a lot, but over the last few years I have come to understand that running on a treadmill or otherwise, makes little difference to your chess abilities. Some, but not a lot. Now I go to the gym and lift weights (the small ones that the girls juggle with in the yoga class), run on the treadmill and sit on the rowing machine, trying to will it to move on its own accord. I do this for my health, not for my mind.

If I want to strengthen my arms, I do not go for a jog. If I want to strengthen my endurance, I do not lift weights. So, why, if I want to strengthen the muscle in my head, do I go to the gym? Sure, there is some pay-off from general fitness, but it is absolutely obvious to me that the brain works very much like a muscle. Its strength grows when it comes under pressure. If it does not, it doesn’t.

So what is the best chess workout? You got it – working on chess. As long as your health is decent, the results are not determined by your age, your intelligence, your BMI or anything else. It is determined by your chess skills and your determination, before, during and after the game.

38 thoughts on “The relative importance of fitness”

  1. Speaking for myself, working out (using the girl-yoga weights as described in your article – I don’t use any weights over 25 pounds/11 kg) does also train my determination. It’s another act of sitting down and applying myself.

  2. Nice post Jacob

    I agree and disagree.

    “…it is absolutely obvious to me that the brain works very much like a muscle. Its strength grows when it comes under pressure. If it does not, it doesn’t.”

    Yes, I agree – the more pressure and more difficult (efficient!) activity you are doing – the more your brain is developing. And as a results – you can strenghten your brain no matter what you want to use if for.

    “As long as your health is decent, the results are not determined by your age, your intelligence, your BMI or anything else. It is determined by your chess skills and your determination, before, during and after the game.”

    No, I disagree. The performance is determined by everything that helps you or disturb you in a specific time frame (period). When you are tired, sick and nervous or sad – your results are most often much worse than when you are fresh, healthy, happy and motivated. And if you are speaking about physical excercises – when you do them regularly and in an efficient way – your power and energy (overall) HAVE TO be at higher level. And it helps you to play better chess and obtain better performance. Of course if you do not possess the necessary knowledge and experience – you would be beaten no matter how many hours a day you spent at the gym!

    I do not any illusions – being in a great physical and mental shape (state) helps you to obtain the highest level of your possible performance. You should remember that being focused for long periods of time – requires much energy. Chess is a “killer game” – at higher level one (simple?!) mistake and most often you lose.

  3. > “As long as your health is decent, the results are not determined by your age, your intelligence, your BMI or anything else. It is determined by your chess skills and your determination, before, during and after the game.”

    Sorry but the work is not enough. Of course it is an important and obligatory thing but as in everything there are some natural aptitudes, natural gifts. And unfortunately, people are not equal on this. Although this is not enough alone, naturally. If you have natural gifts but you don’t work, you’ll never do something. By the way, someone who works hard but no natural gifts should have better results someone who has natural gifts but doesn’t work, what is quite common unfortunately, but if you have both then you should be able to make great things and maybe being a genious as Bach, Mozart etc. Just “determination” and “work” are not enough to make the genious.

    Mozart had a natural gifts, he was what we call a child prodigy and he was not the most hard worker of the world. He would never been Mozart with just work, “determination” and “work” and without his natural gifts…

    P.S.= I am a professional musician myself.

  4. Oops, sorry, I see an error in my post:

    “some natural aptitudes”

    I think it’s not correct English. I guess it should be: “some natural abilities” or “natural skills”, I’m not sure between both…

    Thanks to correct my previous post as it should be. 🙂

  5. Hi Jacob,

    Thanks for this insightful post!

    There’s one thing I’d like to share with you and your readership. I’ve noticed some kind of recurring pattern in the way chess improvement works (for me at least!). I can focus on one area of chess (say one specific opening variation or a middlegame theme) for weeks in a rather obsessive manner, working hard to trully grasp the ins and outs of the question. Then, at some point, I decide to focus on another area. It can go on and on for months. During this period of time there seems to be no impact whatsoever on my over-the-board skills and/or results. So I get frustrated, decide to take a break and eventually completely give up chess for a while (say 2/3 weeks, sometimes longer).

    Then, at some point, I feel like playing again, just for fun and without worrying about my results. And that’s usually when I notice the improvement. There is some kind of freshness in my play and the stuff I have studies before the break seems to fit together like pieces of a jigsaw. It’s as though my brain had time to clean up the mess in my head and archive all the pieces of knowledge during this well-deserved break!

    I wonder if other reader have had a similar experience?


  6. @Jonathan: I think that is quite a common and natural experience.

    Regarding physical fitness: I agree that if you already feel good, acquiring the additional ability to run a marathon doesn’t do much for your chess.

  7. Physical fitness for me is important because if I can run for 20 km or cycle for 100 km then I feel accomplished and ready for a fight on the chessboard. But it’s mostly a mental reason.

  8. it comes Stephen Hawkins at my mind when I read this article.
    but one way or another we depend of our body to transport the brain, so punishing it seems a bad choice 🙂

  9. As a former international-level athlete and current mediocre chess player, I can state quite confidently that being in outstanding physical shape is really not that great a benefit in chess. Oh well.

  10. Interesting stuff . May i suggest Daniel Coyle ‘s ” The talent code ” for anyone interested by performance , training and talent ?

  11. I have been working out in gym for nearly 4 years now(kinda bigger volume than mentioned in the article) and even though I am teeneger rated aroud 2100, I would say it doesnt help at all, moreover sometimes makes me tired and lazy to go study chess, so my 2 cents are that it is all about priorities and nothing else than training chess gonna make you better player.

  12. @d.
    I guess it’s also a matter of priority. I think one should ask oneself the question which investment has the highest return, given the limited availability of time.

  13. @Seth
    Yes, of course. There are spin-offs from doing anything seriously; but it does not mean that it is the right way to train chess :-).

  14. @Tomasz Chessthinker
    I think my point in the article is quite clear and that it is killed by the extracts you take out (quoted outside context anyone?).

    If you have three hours to spend a day, spending them on chess and cake will help your chess more than to spend them in the gym. I have seen enough evidence of this to accept it; though I would prefer if it was the other way around.

    A balanced approach is of course best; but who has the time to do both? For your health = off to the gym, but do not delude yourself and think it will do wonders to your chess. If you do not understand it, you don’t. The physical energy is about 10% of the game, if that.

  15. @Blue Knight
    There have been so many studies in music showing that the best musicians were those who worked most and nothing else. For example, one determined who the talented ones were at early age and looked at them again at late teens. The talents were nowhere.

    Talent is overrated is a nice book, but really, the sources are many. We like to think that talent exists, but science has never found it. Talent is usually the excuse for not working hard: “he is more talented than I, so of course he is better…”

    I remember Plaskett trying to insult Dvoretsky in one of his books, claiming that Yusupov, Dolmatov and Dreev were of course no better than Nunn, Speelman and Short.

    He is right. But to take one trainer against a country of 50 million is a good way of showing that the training system is more important than the talents.

    Let us look at Kasparov. In How life imitates Chess, he claims that “the ability to work is as important or more important than anything else”. Another word for this is probably determination. Kasparov was not the most gifted player of his generation in my opinion, but he was the greatest ever. Because of his excessive determination to win.

    The pure talent is something I have yet to see. All I see is people working those famous 10,000 hours and then become talents…

  16. @Matt
    At the Danish Championship GM Davor Palo was clearly the most tired of the participants. He won, but the opposition were poor this year. Sune Berg Hansen had a new baby and others were out of shape.

    What is relevant is that he is fantastically fit. But mentally, he tired in a way the others did not. It was all about who were most used with thinking.

    A basic level of fitness is useful, but if you want chess fitness, probably the Kramnik method, where after 6 hours of work, he started solving hard studies, is best.

  17. It seems to me that there is a lot more common ground than some posts may indicate. A basic level of fitness is helpful, but once you reach a certain level, returns become diminishing. Clearly, a chess player doesn’t need to be able to run a marathon or bench a certain amount in order to play well. I think we also need to differentiate between fitness and health, being fit and being healthy are two different things.

    I also believe though that more physical energy will lead to more mental energy and vice versa. If you are going to play two rated games a day in an open tournament, the better fitness can lead to an edge in the long run. More energy is beneficial in life in general, both physically and mentally.

  18. Speaking about everyday life, and not about what you eat or do right before a game, there are two main factors related to the physical fitness which have a major influence on how well the brain works: regular and sufficient sleep and cardiovascular system efficiency.

    The first one is needed because during sleep the neurotransmitters’ levels are restored to the optimal level. The second because the brain needs to be perfectly irrorated with blood all the time (and I mean ALL the time, or neurons start dying very fast).

    So, for a Chess player who wants to keep his/her food-on-the-table providing muscle in shape, regular cardio exercises are needed, which doesn’t mean s/he has to be in marathon-athlet shape, but it does mean that s/he cannot sit on his/her ass all day long, and have to take at least 45 minutes of each day for at least one uninterrupted walk (or cycling, or swimming which is always the best exercise, if possible).

    Weightlifting, on the other hand, is useless for the physiology of the brain, but if one feels it can be helpful in any psychological aspect (determination, self esteem, …), then it shouldn’t hurt. Be careful with the strain you put your back under, though: when you start having problems there, you’ve found an unwanted companion for life!

    1. Jacob Aagaard

      I agree that 45 min cardio + chess training is great. I particularly like the health aspect, as I am turning 40 soon!

      But I would say that I have seen enough cases of fit vs. fat, where fat studied more chess. So 45 cardio + 45 chess vs. 90 min chess; my money is on the 90 min unfit guy. I agree that “my experience” is a very unscientific starting point, but it is hopefully not delivered as fact, but as “my experience”.

      Alcohol intake and lack of sleep has big influence on your play. Just as eating/drinking sugar during the game can muddle up your mind. I personally found running for 1-2 hours before the game highly useful, even though I would do less between events. I recommended this so IM Sam Collins, who tried it and almost fell asleep during the game. My experience and observations are hopefully useful; but trust your own insticts :-).

  19. @Jacob Aagaard

    > the best musicians were those who worked most and nothing else.

    I’m sorry but this is not quite true, not only. At least in classical music.

    Of course, the work is an very important and essential part and you can do nothing without it but the natural gifts exist, really. Nobody has the same capacities, gifts (I hope it’s the good word for what I am talking about. In French we say: le, ou les, don), and even with the same hard work people will not arrive to the same level.

    Persons who work in an identically way, all as hard, will not arrive exactly two the same level. Some will have a higher level, others a lower level. Natural capacities and gifts play a role.

    These come after the work (by the way, as a big French guy said: the gift without the work is only a nasty defect) and make the difference after between people but they really exist. It’s also what makes the difference between for instance the genious and the common people. You’ll be able to work as hard as you want, if you have not the gift(s) you’ll never be a genious, just work is not enough. Anyone even with the hardest work as possible can never be a Mozart, Bach etc. You have need something more… And this is also valid has lower level, at a lesser effect.

    1. Jacob Aagaard

      This is a well-known position. However, science has never been able to prove this. On the contrary it seems that most people are similarly gifted. I personally do not believe that my mind is not able to do exactly the same as someone elses. But the passion for the training is what is lacking to become a gifted musician (and it is 38 years to late to start). I personally believe that Tiger Woods became the all time great because his father instilled the right qualities in him from before he could walk, not that he happened to be gifted. Many kids are coherced to practice/train/whatever from an early age, but hate it (a few chess players spring to mind). If the gift is to love it and have determination for the field, I am with you. Otherwise I have to say that I do not believe in magic. I believe in science and talent is unproved so far. And when I look at chess, which I understand pretty well, I see no special talents anywhere. I do so personality properties that support chess, but not something that could not be developed.

  20. @Jacob Aagaard
    In Skakbladet, Palo writes that he has gained a lot of weight the last years, as far as I remember, so him being in fantastic physical shape may be an exaggeration 🙂

    Jacob, I agree that 90 minutes on chess will make you a stronger chess player than 45-45. For happy amateurs without specail chess skills, the 45-45 may be a very good choice I find.

  21. @Jacob Aagaard

    Well, the science, if you want, although I don’t believe it, but by experience I can say this exists. By the way, 1. in this case, there should be many many geniouses or great musicians, anyone could be, because… see 2 and 2. in a superior music school, e.g. the Juliar School or the great Superior Conservatory in Paris, absolutely anybody, all students, work hard and make the same work and studies and concert etc and yet, after the even many study years nobody has the same level. You’ll have the (super) soloist, the orchestra musician in the orchestra and another as the soloist of the orchestra etc

    Again, the hard work, and even other things, are absolutely essential, nothing can arrive without it but, at least at a certain level, from a certain level, and it’s what makes the diferences between people, this is not the only thing.

    Now, in chess, I agree it’s a little different, maybe. Although I guess there are some natural abilities or/and skills which can be a plus and help… But this is not THE thing which does this person will become a champion, or not. 🙂

    The scientists, err… 😉

  22. Jacob Aagaard

    @Blue KnIght
    I think I would be able to point to many differences of attitude, training levels, passion and so on, before I have to invoke talent. But obviously I could be wrong as well.

  23. >Anyone even with the hardest work as possible can never be a Mozart, Bach etc. You have need something more…

    With the same teachers, exalted passion, opportunity and capacity for work, you would be able to improvise fugues on provided themes like J.S., or produce lovely chamber music while bowling like Wolfie. But no one could work as hard at music or love fugues as much as Bach.

    How to increase the passion to win at chess? This I would like to know!

    @Blue KnIght

  24. @Robert R

    Sorry but I don’t think so. The fugue is a terribly complicated musical form and the most perfect. I don’t know if you tried to write a musical piece but this is very complicated. And just technic, passion, work… are essential of course but not sufficient to have a marvellous piece quite musical, and not just technic.

    There are many composers who make relatively technical pieces, and they are technically good, even excellent, but they are not e.g. Bach’s fugues, very far of that. They can work harder but never will make. In music, there is something more than just technic and this is more than just work or teachers. It’s something which doesn’t teach. Although say the scientists… 🙂

  25. @Blue Knight
    If you look at scientific progress, you will find that many “genius” inventions were delivered at the patent office a few days and in some cases hours before others delivered the same patent applications.

    Sure, in music, you will find specific ideas and styles that come from a persons personality. It is what some artists have refered to as “luck”. That once you have the high level of technical ability, your taste leads you in a direction where it interests other people. Some people are just technique, but no personality and thus do not create anything interesting.

    At least this is the argument.

    My main point is probably that in chess, which I think is at least as articstic and technically challenging as music, I cannot prove talent. I have seen it claimed, only to see that it was all lies, as with the Magnus story…

  26. so anyone can play chess like Magnus, they only have to work very hard?
    I think you have created a strawman about what ‘talent’ is supposed to be

  27. Physical fitness becomes more important to chess (and general mental skills) the older you become. At age 35 it may be only a minor factor, but at age 70 the short- and long-term memory of someone who has been exercising diligently will be far greater than those of the couch potato. It has to do with greater blood flow to the brain, the neurologists say.

    So spending 90 minutes on chess and 0 on exercise might yield slightly better chess this year, but for the long haul I will continue to prefer 45-45.

  28. I see a lot of arguments about nature vs. nurture on chess blogs, but hardly anyone refers to the existing research on the subject–beyond Ericsson’s research on Berlin musicians, which is both widely cited (e.g., Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) and deeply flawed (the study does not include those who might have given up music because they weren’t talented enough). A few months ago 5 psychologists published a meta-analysis of the role of “deliberate practice” vs. other factors on the mastery of chess and music. They discovered that deliberate practice accounted for 34% of the chess mastery and 30% of the music mastery.

    So deliberate practice is important, particularly since it is the only factor under the control of the aspiring chess master (or GM). But other factors (e.g., working memory) are even more important.

    You can read the study here:

    While this research *should* largely settle the raging debate, I suspect that it won’t. Most chess bloggers and commenters will not read the study and will continue to believe what they currently believe because of confirmation bias, if nothing else. I hope that my prognostication will be proved wrong, though!

  29. @tony
    I think if you take my example into the extreme you should not talk about straw men :-). I do not believe that Magnus is far more talented than other players; only he has experienced a lot of forces coming together:

    * Early determination leading to hard independent study as a small boy. I would guess that his relationship with his chess playing father also played a role.
    * A very supporting family, who took a year off travelling around the world to give him tournaments
    * The right trainers at the right time
    * Special attention in a rich country, leading to lots of invitations and possibilities
    * A will to win

    The latter might be talent based? If this is what we talk about when we talk talent, I think the definition is pretty loose.

    Where Carlsen distinguishes himself a lot from similar “talents” is around the 13-14 year old mark. Which is also where he starts to get lots of invitations and the time of their travel.

    I interviewed Negi when he became a GM. His family hired a woman, taught her the rules and had her play lots of games with their talented son. Parimarjan is a great player, even if he is no Carlsen. He became a GM before Carlsen. I personally believe he could have reached that level if he had had the right trainer for him at the right time. There are a lot of coincidences along the line.

    This is certainly a nurture vs. nature argument. But I just do not see great evidence of nature; which I do in some other fields, like basketball :-). Still the greatest ever basketball player was far from one of the tallest…

  30. @Chris Falter
    Thanks for your input. I will check it out if I get the time. I do agree with your main point; that what is within our control is the most important to focus on no matter what. But it can affect how we train young players and how we advise them.

  31. @Jacob Aagaard
    Having just read the reprint of Agdestein’s biography of Carlsen, I see *tremendous* evidence of natural talent.

    * At age 2 he was solving 50 piece puzzles. (My exceptionally gifted 2 year old was solving 15 piece puzzles at age 2, and he’s now attending Princeton University.)
    * At age 4 he was engineering with Legos at the level of a 12 year old
    * At age 5 he had memorized the flags, names, and capital cities of 150 countries

    If Carlsen is not endowed with preternatural talent, then I am a Shetland pony!

    This is not to deny the role of the exceptional training and opportunities he had. I’m just saying that if you combined the training and opportunities of young MC with someone who was a top 1% talent, rather than a top 0.001% talent, then you would end up with Jan Ludwig Hammer, or maybe even Jacob Aagard. 🙂

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