The Queen's (Weight Loss) Gambit
September 14, 2019 10:13 AM   Subscribe

In October 2018, Polar, a U.S.-based company that tracks heart rates, monitored chess players during a tournament and found that 21-year-old Russian grandmaster Mikhail Antipov had burned 560 calories in two hours of sitting and playing chess -- or roughly what Roger Federer would burn in an hour of singles tennis.
posted by Chrysostom (32 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
In the 1980s and '90s, smoking, drinking and late-night parties were common on the chess circuit -- that's right, chess had a "Boogie Nights" phase -- but that scene has all but disappeared.

Take my money Paul Thomas Anderson!
posted by gwint at 10:35 AM on September 14, 2019 [15 favorites]


That whole article is fascinating, thank you for posting.
posted by gwint at 10:39 AM on September 14, 2019


This is weirdly validating. Brains DO need a lot of calories!
posted by schadenfrau at 10:49 AM on September 14, 2019 [12 favorites]


Now I better understand the huge power usage of all those Google and AWS server farms.
posted by PhineasGage at 10:55 AM on September 14, 2019 [4 favorites]


At the risk of going full pedant, Polar Electro Oy is a Finnish company, based in Finland.
posted by myotahapea at 11:03 AM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


I think it was Botvinnik who first articulated the importance of physical fitness training for chess, so this has been known in GM circles for a long time. Botvinnik was a very thorough man. He also used to play training games with the radio blaring and with people blowing cigar smoke in his face, for example.
posted by thelonius at 11:16 AM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


I see the other side of this phenomenon in the forest. Lost hikers or bikers who are low on water and calories (and are stressed out about getting back home safely) don't have the mental capacity to make good decisions about what to do. The lost hikers I met a few months ago only ate a handful of nuts before leaving their car, and they thought they were going to do a 4-mile loop. When I found them it was 4pm, 100°, they had hiked 7 miles and were 7 miles away from anything.

While I helped them get re-hydrated and gave them the little energy chews I had in my pack, I asked if they had ever stopped to discuss their route or way-find. They had not, confident that they were eventually going to circle back around and return to their car if they just kept on the same trail. They finally had stopped at a trail intersection, to discuss which way to proceed, and had just decided poorly when I came along. They may have been ill-educated about hiking in the wilderness, but they weren't stupid people. They were simply very, very low on energy, hot, stressed out, and couldn't think straight as a result.

Great article!
posted by carsonb at 11:55 AM on September 14, 2019 [32 favorites]


I assume it's got something to do with these guys popping Ritalin or Adderall for some kind of mental performance edge. Easy to burn calories when your muscles are tense and heart is pumping 120 bpm sitting down. Do competitions drug test?
posted by floam at 12:15 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


(Or, could just be natural epinephrine release given the high stakes, adrenaline's a helluva drug.)
posted by floam at 12:19 PM on September 14, 2019 [2 favorites]


I'm kind of surprised Federer would burn only 560 calories in an hour of tennis.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:23 PM on September 14, 2019 [14 favorites]


Your treadmill is lying to you, I'm afraid
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 12:30 PM on September 14, 2019 [4 favorites]


As near as I can tell, on a lazy Saturday afternoon where I'm not trying very hard, the "source" for that Federer calorie figure is this Quora answer.
posted by glonous keming at 12:39 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


As far as I can tell, the calorie burn stuff is not obviously accurate. It's calculated from heart rate, which frequently is indeed quite elevated (e.g.120) while playing chess, but one might think that the conversion between heart rate and calories burned should be quite different between typical cardiovascular exercise and mental exertion.

That said, the physical experience of playing serious chess for five or ten hours a day (common in US weekend tournaments, where you will have multiple rounds per day) is definitely nothing easy.
posted by value of information at 12:40 PM on September 14, 2019 [7 favorites]


Drug testing for proscribed stimulants is a thing at top-level international FIDE events but not at lower levels. Like, nobody is getting drug tested at the U.S. Open, AFAIK.
posted by value of information at 12:43 PM on September 14, 2019 [2 favorites]


In the 1980s and '90s, smoking, drinking and late-night parties were common on the chess circuit -- that's right, chess had a "Boogie Nights" phase -- but that scene has all but disappeared.

Take my money Paul Thomas Anderson!



I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:22 PM on September 14, 2019 [34 favorites]


I'm kind of surprised Federer would burn only 560 calories in an hour of tennis.

Sounds about right. Especially when you consider there is a fair bit of down time during an hours competitive play time.
posted by Mitheral at 1:40 PM on September 14, 2019


When proctoring math exams I like to have hard candies and tell people to try a few if they can’t remember stuff they know they know. The bonk is real.
posted by clew at 1:49 PM on September 14, 2019 [5 favorites]


He also used to play training games with the radio blaring and with people blowing cigar smoke in his face, for example.

My late friend Anoop was a pretty good chess player but became a superior one in many ways by virtue of being able to shut out external stimuli. In a quiet and cool room we were pretty evenly matched but I recall playing him once in a busy and overheated donut shop with flies buzzing around us and the radio tuned about a quarter notch off of true so the tinny AM dance chart toppers came with a heaping dose of static as well. He was serene and focussed. I was... not.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:50 PM on September 14, 2019 [2 favorites]


No, seriously, the brain can soak up a lot of calories, and burn them quickly.

A lot of the sweating is the body trying to cool elevated metabolic processes in the brain, rather than as a side effect of norepinephrine.

Proctors out there - infrared gun the kids' heads; they're going to be at an elevated temperature.
posted by porpoise at 5:52 PM on September 14, 2019 [5 favorites]


Interesting article but ... thinking vs energy expenditure is complicated. It may apply to these chess players but I'm very wary of extending that to cognitive work in general. There's been a fair bit of study to measure EE and proxy variables (e.g., blood glucose) and, as far as I know, the results in that direction are really mixed. There doesn't seem to be strong evidence that challenging cognitive work increases total energy expenditure all that much. The basal rate is just so damned high.

(Side note: if an HR-monitoring company tells you that you burned X calories from HR data alone, they're selling you a pretty thin story. Heart rate and energy expenditure are generally linked but they're notoriously inaccurate at an individual level. At a group level, still fairly inaccurate when compared to DLW measurement but we use it anyway because of the huge cost difference. HR is driven by both non-metabolic and metabolic factors, etc. If you want to do individual energy expenditure from HR, you need to calibrate it or it can easily be wrong by 2x. Or maybe it'll be spot-on because you fit the population. Who knows?)
posted by introp at 7:10 PM on September 14, 2019 [3 favorites]


BOLD (blood-oxygen level dependent) imaging.
posted by porpoise at 9:44 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


Am I misreading the article? I've seen discussions before about the energy the brain uses, but I think this article talks mostly about the physical toll of stress:
Stress and anxiety, in fact, are the greatest drivers of the phenomenon. Here's how it works:

Grandmasters in competition are subjected to a constant torrent of mental stress. That stress, in turn, causes their heart rates to increase, which, in turn, forces their bodies to produce more energy to, in turn, produce more oxygen.
Though to say that we produce oxygen is a weird way to put it.

I didn't see that they teased apart how responsible high-level cognitive processes are versus, say, stress hormones.
posted by trig at 2:00 AM on September 15, 2019 [3 favorites]


The article emphasizes the stress part, and I agree with that, although the brain is using a lot of calories. I am sometimes actually shaking during a rated game due to the stress. Single games are one thing, but when you get to a long tournament or match, you need to be in decent shape. Professional tournaments can go 2-3 weeks, and if you’re sick or even just less than 100%, you’re probably not going to do well.
posted by MtDewd at 6:14 AM on September 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


Note also that stress and anxiety have complicated effects on long-term metabolism in the context of adiposity. I study leptin, which is a hormone involved in satiety that is secreted by adipose tissue--basically, the way its action is often described can be summed up "if you have enough body fat, there's no reason to eat more." Anyway, it has some interesting interactions with the glucocorticoid hormones that we often think of as stress hormones: high leptin levels are correlated with more blunted cort responses to acute stressful events in both humans and rodents, but only if they were already high when the stressor hits... and chronic stress (and the chronically elevated glucocorticoids that result from chronic stress) will erode leptin levels regardless of the quantity of body fat that remains.

Metabolism is a lot more complex than "calories burned" type thinking generally gives it credit for. We barely understand how a calorie consumed is translated into a quantity of energy either used or retained by the body; in fact, it's worth reminding everyone that a calorie is measured in terms of the energy produced by burning a food substance, not in terms of how energy is extracted by the body from any given foodstuff.
posted by sciatrix at 10:26 AM on September 15, 2019 [9 favorites]


> it's worth reminding everyone that a calorie is measured in terms of the energy produced by burning a food substance

Yeah I remember being kind of shocked in high school and then again in college when we made crude bomb calorimeters and burned Cheetos and saltine crackers to determine the kilocalories in chemistry classes. Like, how do we know the bioequivalence here? If I soaked that saltine in lighter fluid there would be more calories but I don't think it'd necessarily be digested. Would that go on a nutrition label? It seems like before burning you'd first need to break down the foodstuff into individual components with known calorie absorption constants or something and then burn them separately and sum it up.

This wasn't my biology class so each time I asked I was basically told to shut up and finish the lab.
posted by floam at 10:54 AM on September 15, 2019 [4 favorites]


To be fair, you would probably also have been told to shut up and finish the lab in biology class, too. This shit is really, really complicated, and we don't understand it well enough for even your standard collegiate introductory biology instructor to have a pat answer for you in a class. We don't really have good ways of working out the bioequivalence beyond rough estimates, especially because the digestability of the same food can vary dramatically across individuals and across time based on expectations about that food, familiarity with it, stress, and so forth.
posted by sciatrix at 11:04 AM on September 15, 2019 [4 favorites]


Maybe we need some kind of artificial stomach, like a compost digester vat full of gastric acid, digestion enzymes, gut bacteria, etc.
posted by floam at 12:18 PM on September 15, 2019


Maybe we need some kind of artificial stomach, like a compost digester vat full of gastric acid, digestion enzymes, gut bacteria, etc.

Working on your Rook endings will probably make more difference in your results, without the expense and danger of installing something like this
posted by thelonius at 12:36 PM on September 15, 2019 [5 favorites]


For a moment I read that as referring to The Rook and it almost made perfect sense.
posted by trig at 2:37 PM on September 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


Competitive chess can be surprisingly physical.
posted by TedW at 2:44 PM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


Chess boxing
posted by porpoise at 5:15 PM on September 15, 2019


"In the 1980s and '90s, smoking, drinking and late-night parties were common on the chess circuit -- that's right, chess had a 'Boogie Nights' phase -- but that scene has all but disappeared"

I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine.

The writer of this article really blundered a chance to reference that song (YouTube and wiki).
posted by exogenous at 6:44 AM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


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