A Heart-Racing Experience! (1)

by Ashwin Subramanian
2/26/2024 – Chess is often considered a calm and quiet game, where the only sound is the clicking of the pieces. But what if we could hear the heartbeat of the players, and see how their body reacts to the tension and excitement of the game? That is exactly what was done in the Freestyle Chess 2024 event in Weissenhaus, where the heart rate of some of the world’s best chess players were monitored as they faced each other! We start this series with a look back at how it all started. | Photo Lennart Ootes

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In this article, I will share with you the history of heart rate monitoring in chess, my observations and insights from the Freestyle Chess event, and some tips and techniques on how to train your heart for chess! 

The Pulse of Chess: A brief history of Heart Rate Monitoring

Let’s delve into the captivating journey of heart rate monitoring in chess. From its modest beginnings to the pulse-pounding present, let’s explore how this innovation has transformed the game.

In his captivating article “Emotion Detection in Chess,” Frederic Friedel delved into the intriguing world of heart rate monitoring during intense chess matches. He recounts GM Dr. Helmut Pfleger’s pioneering efforts in 1979 at the Grand International GM tournament in Munich, where he measured the heartbeat of two legendary chess players, GM Boris Spassky and GM Ulf Andersson, during their games. Frederic mentions that Helmut used beta blockers on himself and was disappointed with his performance when playing "calmly" — apparently the pulse rate highs are required for acute tactical play! Frederic also unveils an AI experiment that harnessed webcams and external sensors to measure heart rate variability, shedding light on cognitive states. The article concludes with fascinating insights from this groundbreaking research.

In Oct 2021 I published an article, Biofeedback in Chess, a few days before my talk at the Global Chess Festival at Budapest, in which I share my background in Chess and what inspired me to explore biofeedback technology for monitoring my heart rate (and calories burnt) and tracking my eye movement while playing chess!

In March 2022, ChessBase also published an article, Players’ heart rate in chess broadcasts, telling us that World Chess would be displaying players heart rate during their Grand Prix series of events, using an AI technology similar to that used by hospitals to track patients’ vitals over video! A fascinating way to measure heart rate without the players having to wear a device. However, in their 2023 event they switched to using Apple Watches to measure Heart Rate.

Another ChessBase article by Jaydeep Chovatiya in April 2023, Physiological factors that can significantly impact your game, explores how physiological aspects affect chess performance. It also lists the incredible peak heart rates of various players such as Leinier Dominguez (181 bpm), Wesley So (178 bpm) and Ray Robson (175 bpm)!

There have been a few events prior to 2020 such as with Bilbao Masters about seven years ago, where Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura wore Fitbit Blaze watches, as well as at Isle of Man in 2018, where several players heart rates were measured using a Polar Heart Rate Monitor!

How I became “The Heart Rate Guy” in the chess world

After the Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz event in 2022, I got nicknamed the “The Heart Rate Guy”. But how did I earn this peculiar title? It all began with a curious intersection of technology, adrenaline, and the cerebral game that has captivated minds for centuries. Allow me to rewind the clock and unravel the tale of my journey into uncharted territory—the pulse-pounding world of biofeedback in chess!

I’ve been intrigued by how chess players think and feel during a game for many years. I wondered if we could use Biofeedback to make chess more entertaining for its audience while also enabling players improve! May top players seemed to concur with the idea as well!

"Ask Vishy" video: the former World Champion gives his opinion on heart rate monitoring 

What Anish Giri thinks about recording bio feedback during the games

Hikaru's take on the subject

Magnus thinks all this "makes matches more exciting!" 

So I decided to experiment on myself, using sensors for eye tracking, heart rate/calories & heart rate variability! Here is my talk, Ashwin Subramanian: My experiments with Biofeedback in Chess at the Global Chess Festival 2021 where I shared my learnings and recommendations from these experiments!

My baseline heart rate was 65, but when I played chess competitively my heart rate reached a whopping 149 bpm, higher than when I was on treadmill. Even between rounds it would never go below 110 bpm! In another chess tournament that was conducted by Vidit, my HR peaked at 139 bpm! My average heart rate when I played competitively was between 120-130, while when I played casually it was in the range of 75-112! Chess really gets your heart racing!

I saw this chart that plotted the heart rate trend during a game between Magnus and Hikaru - in a high-stakes chess match between Magnus and Hikaru, their heart rates told a tale: Magnus remained cool as a cucumber, while Hikaru’s ticker raced toward 140. Turns out, we’re all in the same boat—competitive pressure cranks up our heart rates, thanks to our ancient fight-or-flight instincts!

This was truly fascinating, and I hoped to experiment more! In a thrilling showdown before the 2022 Olympiad, chess super GMs Anish Giri and Vidit Gujrathi faced off in a unique “Death Match.” Equipped with Apple Watches, their heart rates were streamed during the intense battle. Surprisingly, Vidit’s peak heart rate hit 176 bpm, while Anish reached 156 bpm! The twist? Their heart rates spiked even more during Rapid and Blitz portions compared to Bullet rounds!

We continued our heart pounding experiment at the 2nd Death Match where Gukesh and Arjun faced off! This time, we wielded the Rhythm24—a precise heart rate monitor by Scoche—as our weapon. Our mission: to find the perfect heartbeat companion for the upcoming Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz. Gukesh’s and Arjun’s heart rates were relatively much lower with neither of them breaching 140 bpm and also a 90%th percentile of 110 bpm, despite a very closely contested match in a chaotic and noisy environment amidst the Dreamhack gaming event!

At Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz 2022, we measured the heart rates of several participants simultaneously and made the information available to the audience during commentary with Lichess integration. The feedback from players, commentators, and the audience was encouraging, sparking fascinating conversations about heart rate trends!

Vidit was one of them who specifically acted based on what he saw and felt during the 1st Death Match, and he talks about this extensively in this interview with Levitov (starting 22.54 for 5 mins!). Sagar also mentions this specifically during my interview with him after the Tata Steel 2022 Rapid and Blitz event. I’ve always felt that such data would be very useful to players as well to understand themselves better! 

Sagar Shah of ChessBase India interviewed me on the subject

Coming soon: Heart-Pounding Moves – Insights into Players’ Heart Rates at the Weissenhaus Freestyle Chess Tournament!

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Ashwin Subramanian is a Software Engineering Manager in the Hi-Tech Industry leading a large team of engineers to deliver mission critical enterprise software. He is an avid chess player who is currently studying biofeedback in chess during his personal time.


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genem genem 2/28/2024 09:24
As A.Giri said, most interesting would be a graphic report showing the eye movements of the players.
Federer17 Federer17 2/27/2024 01:43
Not a fan of this... some things, like bodily functions, should be kept private.
brabo_hf brabo_hf 2/27/2024 11:10
I wonder what a doctor would say when he sees heart-rates above 150 while playing chess. I know from at least 2 players that their doctor recommended to stop playing chess as they were risking a heart-stroke.