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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Drugs and Chess

     In an effort to become an official Olympic sport FIDE instituted drug testing for chess. I never bothered to read them before, but they are quite interesting! The FIDE drug regulations can be viewed on their site HERE
     What legal or illegal substance could a player take in order to enhance performance? I didn't know there were any, but an article in The Washington Times had some startling revelations. 
     Recent research shows that for tournament-level chess players such drugs do exist. In a series of experiments, researchers found that caffeine, the stimulant Ritalin and the stay-awake drug Modafinil improved a players’ chances of winning a game against a computer program set to their skill level, but not by much. 
     In a single game, the edge gained by taking one of these was the equivalent of giving a player the opening move, but over a many games the marginal improvement seen in players taking Ritalin and Modafinil could be large and relevant. 
     However, players under the influence of performance enhancers slowed their play enough to the point that they were more likely to lose on time. They played better, but used more time. 
     The new study, published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, set out to test whether three drugs with reputed powers of cognitive enhancement actually improved performance of complex intellectual tasks more than a placebo. Forty German tournament players between the age of 18 and 60 took part. They reported to the lab on four separate days. After breakfast and again after lunch and each was given either 200 mg of caffeine, 20 mg of Ritalin, 200 mg of Modafinil (Provigil), or a placebo. 
     Test subjects played a total of 20 games against a computer program , the strength of which was adjusted to their level of play so that they would score wins 50 percent of the time. By the end of four sessions, each player had tried each of the drugs and the placebo.
     Competing against the program under the influence of placebo, players won 52 percent of the time. Under the influence of Ritalin, players won 54.1 percent. On caffeine players won 54.3 percent and on Modafinil they won 55.1 percent of the games. 
     As for the speed issue, compared with players on the placebo, the players’ average reflection time per game increased when they were given any of the other three capsules. Times per game rose from 7.28 minutes to as high as 9.22 minutes on Modafinil which meant their probability of exceeding the time limit in a tournament game would be substantially increased. 
     Other findings: When the researchers eliminated games lost on time, players who got Modafinil and Ritalin (but not those on caffeine) showed even greater performance enhancement over those on the placebo. Players who took Ritalin, widely used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, showed an enhanced ability to tune out distractions.
     FIDE's list of banned substances includes Ritalin and Modafinil, but not caffeine, and the researchers in this test questioned the fact that coffee was not banned. 
     Their conclusion is that cognitive enhancement is a possibility. If time is not a factor, taking any one of these three drugs appears to significantly improve an individual’s ability to tune out distractions and improve performance, but where time is a factor the price may be too high. 
     My conclusion is that these drugs are better suited to correspondence chess where time is not such an important factor.  Before firing up Stockfish and Komodo and trying to sort out which one is offering the better suggestion, wash down some Modafinil with a couple of cups of coffee and improve your performance by 10 percent or so. It could be worth a some rating points. 

Medscape Medical News - Psychiatry Stimulants Enhance Cognitive Performance in Top Chess Players. Read more...

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