Stephen Moss: Why chess is an extreme sport

8/17/2014 – Yesterday we reported that two participants of the Chess Olympiad in Tromsø had died, on the final day, within hours of each other. The chess world was stunned, but should they be? Stephen Moss muses in The Guardian: "There were almost 2,000 players taking part in the event, quite a few of them getting on in years, unfit, sedentary. Healthwise, they were high risk." Interesting article.

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Stephen Moss concedes that it is a bizarre coincidence that two players should die within hours of each other. But his friend is spot on about the susceptibility of chess players to stress-related conditions. Chess, though the non-player might not believe this, is in many ways an extreme sport. At the Olympiad, participants were playing a game a day over a fortnight – 11 rounds, with just a couple of rest days on which to recuperate. For up to seven hours a day, they would be sitting at the board trying to kill – metaphorically speaking – their opponent, because this is the ultimate game of kill or be killed. It imposes enormous pressure on players. You need to be at the top of your game to perform. It has been suggested that in the course of a long chess game a player will lose as much weight as he does during a football match.

Moss tells us that the great Soviet players had the most ridiculous lifestyle, living more or less lived on vodka, cigarettes and chess. Many of them died young, like Leonid Stein, a three-times Soviet champion in the 1960s, who dropped dead of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of just 38. Mikhail Tal, world champion in the early 1960s, died at the age of 55 – a desperate loss to the sport. Vladimir Bagirov, who was world senior champion in 1998, was 63 when he dropped dead at the board while playing in Finland in 2000.

To this we add some other chess related fatalities that we cited in our report on the Tromsø deaths:

Johann Zukertort died from a cerebral hemorrhage suffered during a game in Simpson's Divan, in a tournament which he was leading at the time. José Raúl Capablanca died of a stroke in March 1942 while watching a skittles game at the Manhattan Chess Club. Other players who died during a chess tournament or game: Gideon Stahlberg (1908-1967), Vladimir Simagin 1919-1968), Cecil Purdy (1906-1979), Ed Edmundson (1920-1982). The following players died very shortly after a game or event: Frank Marshall (1877-1944), Efim Bogoljubov (1889-1952), Herman Steiner (1905-1955), Paul Keres (1916-1975), Alexei Suetin (1926-2001).

Stephen Moss's advice: The next time someone suggests a nice, quiet game of chess, or paints it as an intellectual pursuit played by wimps, tell them they’ve got it all wrong: this is a fight to the finish played in the tensest of circumstances by two players who are physically and mentally living on the edge. We all need to get fitter to play this demanding game, and society should recognise it for what it is – a sport as challenging, dramatic and exciting as any other.

  • Read Stephen Moss's full article in The Guardian
    Stephen Moss describes himself as "a keen but useless chess player". He says that, on the whole, he does not use chess as a form of sexual sublimation. Nor has he ever thumped an opponent, though the temptation has often been strong. Stephen Moss is editor of The Wisden Anthology 1978-2006: Cricket's Age of Revolution. He was also a candidate for Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.

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