The Grandmaster Diet

By FM Mike Klein
From Chess Life, December, 2008

Look at any tournament hall: It is filled with discarded candy wrappers, sugared sodas, and bags of salted snacks. If you are a culprit, are you missing out on a simple way of improving your tournament results?

A decade ago I stood in line for a midnight buffet in Las Vegas. My game had just concluded and after five hours of battle I was hungry and weary. I ventured to the closest refilling station where I was joined by the late GM Igor Ivanov, who had just received my capitulation. Ivanov sauntered over to talk, first greeting me with a rhyming poem about butterflies that he wrote on the back of his score sheet, then grabbing an empty dish. As we moved down the endless line, the white of our plates quickly disappeared. We disregarded any thought of the “nutritiousness” of our meal. For a few voracious minutes, we gorged. I do not know about the grandmaster, but I paid the price the next day. I awoke for my morning game with a bowling ball in my stomach, too fueled to focus.

How often do we experience a similar scene at chess tournaments? Unhealthy eating and inattention to nutrition leads to sluggishness, inability to think clearly and an overall rotten temperament. Dealing with time constraints and trying to answer to our confused and deprived bodies requires a battle plan both before and during a competition—a plan that databases cannot provide. Some players discount the benefits of such a strategy, while others, including health professionals and parents, trumpet the merits of a nutritionally-sound repertoire.

Before delving into the tricky practical challenges posed by weekend Swisses—where rounds are stacked and meal choices are often based primarily on convenience—a closer look at everyday meal habits can reveal some areas that may increase performance.

Before A Tournament

Eating well is no nutritional novelty. The media bombards us with selective tips for longevity and prevention of certain diseases. Tomatoes fight prostate cancer. Vitamin D prevents osteoporosis. More than anything, chess players require good brain health. A growing consensus suggests certain vitamins and minerals can improve memory-recall, concentration, focus and overall optimism.

If the brain could ask for a last meal it would choose one high in fish oils. Nearly all nutritionists cite the benefits of a partial-pescetarian diet—suggesting it is not a fly-by-night phenomenon. One study concluded that the Japanese have slightly higher IQs because of their reliance on fish as a dietary staple. Research in the United Kingdom has shown standardized test scores to rise in line with an increase in fish oils. These oils are not found naturally in the body, but one can derive a great deal of benefit from only a few servings per week.

Heidi Skolnik, the New York Giants team nutritionist, said there is an “off-the-charts upward trend” in the use of fish oils by athletes and non-athletes alike. “Fish is something we keep hearing more about,” she said, explaining that omega-3 fatty acids are the real treasures of foods like salmon and shellfish.

She recommends three servings per week. “Consistency is a big issue,” Skolnik said, “If you are inconsistent with your eating, you are more likely to become inconsistent with your concentration.

It would be a mistake to think of the football players she counsels as lumbering oafs with no need for mental focus. Skolnik explained that her advice helps them in strategy meetings and for memorizing complex plays and formations—the same types of preparations required for chess players. “In football, they have to be alert and able to change at any moment,” she said. She also advises the coaching staff, whose job is more dependent on mental maneuvering rather than physical exertion (one could safely add kickers to the list, too).

“I do recommend fish oils for many reasons,” said Mitzi Dulan, team sports dietitian for the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City Royals, adding that mental acuity in the field of sport is “overlooked, but gaining traction.”

If you disdain eating fish, your local drug store will likely have what you need. Steve Wicklum, an amateur hockey player who is also a clerk at a vitamin store, said sales of fish oil supplements that supply omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have been “astronomical,” adding, “[They] are one of the most popular gigs in the store.” He explained that these fatty acids replace the bad fat in your body with more necessary and leaner fat, resulting in more useful fuel for the body and perhaps some weight loss, and that omega-3 is crucial for helping people deal with the highs and lows of competition. He also pushed Ginkgo biloba supplements for enhanced memory (studies are inconclusive, but if there is a benefit, supplements are the best method of ingestion, as the amount of Ginkgo in energy drinks is negligible).

The next thorny issue is the balance between proteins and carbohydrates—how much of each to eat and when to eat them. Despite the term “low-carb” recently entering the pop-culture vernacular, carbs are absolutely necessary for chess success according to health professionals. Carbohydrates are necessary to provide glucose, which is the primary source of brain energy. Lower levels of glucose can cloud thinking and impair judgment—disastrous results for chess players. Nutritional guidelines suggest people should consume between 30-50 percent of their calories from carbohydrates. Physical athletes queue up at the higher end of the spectrum since their regular bursts of short-term energy burn off the carbohydrates. How should a mental athlete determine where he falls?

The food eaten prior to a tournament is as important as during,” said Kelly A. Hammer, nutritionist and writer. She suggests a high-protein and high-carbohydrate meal with at least a 30-minute buffer before a round. “The carbs will help sustain the focus, while the protein will add to the needed nutrients for brain connections,” she explained. “Foods to eat before a long haul would be carbohydrates (veggies, grains, fruits, rice or potatoes) along with some protein—eggs, peanut butter, chicken, nuts, soy and yogurts are good examples. Carbs alone won’t cut it.

The tricky thing is not having so much (carbs) that you are sleepy,” Skolnik said.

The carbohydrates Hammer listed are often referred to as “good carbs.” They are high in fiber and they reduce toxins and regulate blood sugar and insulin. The so-called “bad carbs” include baked goods, white bread, pasta, potatoes and soft drinks or candy with refined sugar; the calories have little or no nutritional value. These foods have a high glycemic index, leading to insulin resistance and adult-onset diabetes. Walter Willett, chairman of nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, once declared, “Eating white potatoes or white bread is just like eating candy, as far as your body knows.”

Nutritionists have some specialized advice for vegetarian chess players. The list includes GMs Viswanathan Anand and Peter Leko (some high-profile poker players have even switched to a macrobiotic diet, free of all additives, with leader Cyndy Violette citing a “clarity of mind” that comes with the regimen). No meat in one’s diet means protein consumption must come from other areas. Skolnik is a proponent of tofu, though she cautions that you need much more volume to equal the protein content of a similar portion of chicken. Dulan, who has counseled the Chief’s nine-time Pro-Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez as he experimented with veganism and vegetarianism, added that protein deficiencies can be offset by nuts, beans and plant powders.

During a Tournament

A chess player’s intake during and between games is arguably more important than during his training period. Short-term factors like blood-sugar levels and hydration begin to have a greater impact over brain performance.

As with fish oils, nutritionists are equally unanimous in recommending water as the best source of hydration during a game. Not drinking enough increases the prevalence of fatigue, headaches and low blood-pressure, all of which can negatively affect performance.

Hammer, author of the recent book Brain Food, is fervently in favor of nature’s hydrator. “I believe in water!” she said. “All our organs, including the brain, need water to function properly and at optimum levels. Sports drinks have their place in the endurance sports. They should not replace water in [chess] events.”

Sports drinks add electrolytes and carbohydrates, but since most chess players do not sweat profusely during matches, and minimal physical activity burns few carbs, those pitchers of water that hotels provide may be as far as players should go for refreshment. Nutritionists recommend sipping water even before one gets thirsty; a dry mouth is an indication that dehydration is beginning.

Dulan, who claimed even working out at moderate levels for 45 minutes does not require a sports drink, does see one benefit for them: “Research shows kids drink more when drinking a sports drink. So, [they may be] good for kids in tournaments to help maintain blood sugar concentrations and mental focus.”

But if a consensus has been reached on water versus sports drinks, there is not even a quorum when it comes to the question of caffeine. Caffeine inhibits the brain’s adenosine receptors, reversing the chemical’s depressive effects. Hammer added that caffeine has the benefit of increasing metabolism, which allows the body to process nutrients faster. She added, “However, too much caffeine or caffeine on an empty stomach can cause a sharp increase in activity for a short amount of time, followed by a low—similar to blood sugar levels. I always say, ‘Too much of anything, is still too much.’”

“I think that caffeine is an individual thing but you have to find your own tolerance level,” Skolnik said. “There is a line between enough that is a stimulant and too much that will make you jittery.”

So caffeine may make someone alert and somewhat more chipper, but the relation to focus and especially memory is its most misunderstood aspect. Produce one study that links prolonged caffeine use to poor long-term memory, and another will claim that the drug aids when involved in a focused task like taking a test, or perhaps playing chess (there have been no scientific studies on chess ability and caffeine). If benefits do exist, they are almost certainly short-term. One study proved rats gained one-third more dendrites (branches stemming from neurons that conduct electrical stimulation) in their brains after being injected with caffeine, but the neurons returned to their original shape shortly thereafter. In humans, caffeine only remains in the body for three to four hours after consumption.

A slower intake that allows time for smaller releases of caffeine may also be key. Matthew Honan wrote in Wired, “For optimal brain gain, regular tea breaks, as favored in the UK, are more effective than a 20-ounce French roast sucked down at Starbucks. To maximize alertness and minimize jitters … [drink] frequent small doses—like a mug of low-caffeine tea or half a cup of “joe”—rather than a one-time blast. Test subjects reported that periodic small shots made them feel clearheaded and calm, both of which enhance mental performance.” He added that a small snack combined with caffeine may be the best one-two punch, which brings up the question of what, if anything, to eat during a game.

Nutritionists suggest several snack options to maintain glucose and blood sugar levels during a game, especially protein-rich snacks like nuts, fruit, tuna, cottage cheese, and surprisingly, beef jerky.

“You need to be adequately nourished to have your neurotransmitters firing,” Skolnik said. She advises small bites during a competition to avoid having too much blood lost to digestion but also to avoid becoming famished after a competition, when people are likely to overeat for the next meal.

Physical athletes also seek the same balance between eating and overeating during a competition. At this year’s golfing world’s U.S. Open, former winner-turned-announcer Johnny Miller saw Tiger Woods eating an energy bar near the end of his Monday playoff. “I’m a little surprised Tiger ate so much between the green and the tee,” he said on air as the playoff went to a 19th hole, golf’s version of an Armageddon match. “It’s not always good to eat in the middle of a round too much—maybe just one bite or two.”

As it turned out, Woods, perhaps the most focused athlete of his generation, won the hole and with it the championship. He was certainly in tune with what his body needed. In his book, How I Play Golf, Woods writes at length and with specificity about his dietary habits, touting the benefits of vitamin supplements B1, B6 and B12, which are rapidly depleted during periods of tension and stress—pitiable conditions golfers and chess players share. Woods claims B-vitamins have been shown to improve accuracy in pistol shooting competitions, a sport that closely rivals chess in its mental component.

Nutrition for Kids

When Skolnik took her son to a chess tournament, she was shocked at the dearth of healthy food options available. There were no moms feeding orange slices or bananas, just a concession which sold junk-food snacks. Most items like candy were high in refined sugar—the potent chemical that will spike a child’s blood sugar and then send it just as quickly into a tailspin. Though she feeds her children much more nutritiously at home, convenience triumphed on that occasion.

“I was unaware and got caught off guard,” she said, admitting, “I think he had four doughnuts that day.”

Many scholastic events stack rounds on top of each other so closely that the nearest food stand becomes the default energy provider for the day. As a caregiver, it is easy to reason that any food is better then sending a child into battle on an empty stomach. Parents who have witnessed their child endure the soporific Saturday night round at a nationals can attest to the demands placed on their young charges. Ideally, however, parents should devise a plan before the tournament begins.

One chess mom who has made a science out of healthy tournament eating is Amy Taylor-Brill, whose 10-year-old son Seth has been playing competitively for several years. “Any mother will attest to the impact of certain foods on children,” she said. “I saw that the kids who were eating pizza and pop for lunch and buying candy at the breaks between matches were usually running wild. So I simply did what I did every day, which was to plan and prepare healthy meals for my child.”

Taylor-Brill said she is a supporter of the research that links protein consumption to brain activity (according to Dulan, proteins stabilize the blood sugars and therefore keep the brain functioning efficiently and evenly). To that end, she outfits Seth with an array of high-protein foods to eat between rounds. Open his lunch box and you will likely see hard-boiled eggs or a salmon-salad sandwich. To satisfy his sweet tooth, she adds pumpkin bread or a lemon square. “Those are the staples,” she said. “Then I usually add an ethnic flair at lunch just for fun.” Dig a little deeper and you might find edamame and a sushi roll one day, or hummus and tabbouleh the next. She will also arm Seth with ham, cheese and grape kabobs to take to his board. For out of town tournaments, he leaves with his chess set and a cooler of food.

“There is no question that Seth can play a longer, more focused game if he eats well,” Taylor-Brill said.

Dulan suggested equipping a chess-playing child with a sandwich of tuna or chicken salad or natural peanut butter on whole grain bread, cheese sticks, fruit and almonds, walnuts, cashews or pistachios.

Getting a child to abstain from soda and chips may not be easy at first. One former top junior had to become his own case study before he got the message.

Nelson Lopez II, former Denker Tournament of High Schools champion, grew up eating fruits and avoiding processed foods out of obedience. “My dad would make me eat fairly healthy. I never thought it really helped me,” he explained. “I did it because he made me.”

Then, at a World Open when he was an early teenager, Lopez became the unwitting subject of his own experiment. He began 3-0 and convinced his father to loosen the reins. “I started eating a bunch of Skittles® and soda,” Lopez recalled. “The next day I did horribly. I went to 3-3 just like that.” He said he felt tired and lacked alertness during the losing streak. Since then, Lopez has not needed any prodding. “Ever since that I always eat healthy,” he said, referring to his habits at and away from tournaments. He is now a junior at the University of Texas at Dallas, where you can often find him cooking his own meals rather than eating out.

Besides the nutritional component to Taylor-Brill’s painstaking efforts, she also claims several hidden benefits. “To Seth, it is a psychological boost because he feels loved and supported by his parents,” she said, “and because he knows that healthy food will provide his brain the energy it needs to do the hard work of chess. The real advantage to bringing your own food to those major tournaments is that Seth has much more time to rest between matches because they aren’t wasting time hunting around for food and waiting in lines. Rest seems to be the only antidote to the stress they endure and getting that extra rest and relaxation definitely allows Seth to play better in subsequent rounds.”

Taylor-Brill added that she would like to see the USCF adopt formal food guidelines in tournaments that they sponsor or sanction. At many scholastic events, players are not permitted to bring food into the tournament hall, nor are they allowed to exit the tournament room while the game is in progress. She suggested that a player should be allowed to summon a tournament director as an escort outside the tournament hall for the purpose of grabbing a mid-game snack.

Nutritionists have also weighed in on some stress-busting foods for children that get nervous before or during matches. Skolnik said carbs have serotonin which can relax the body and ease jitters, but over-consumption can dim alertness. Foods high in potassium like bananas are thought to be helpful, as well as comfort foods, which can be made healthy. She gave the example of pasta, with shrimp and broccoli added. Skolnik said some research suggests vitamin B6 may also help calm a child. In addition, some people take melatonin supplements as a way of getting to sleep after a stressful day of king hunting.

Professional Perspectives

In 1981, German doctor and GM Helmut Pfleger produced research to show that chess players endure similar stresses to other mental sports like shooting and golf. Late last year, Roberto Baglione, head of the Department of Nutrition at the National High Performance Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, followed up on Pfleger’s research by publishing a study of leading players’ nutritional habits.

Baglione’s research, the first of its kind, included the responses of 72 active grandmasters (GMs) and woman grandmasters (WGMs) from all over the world. He began by discussing breakfast.

“Breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day because of its direct impact on the mental (and physical) performance in the morning,” Baglione said of the often-skipped meal. “It has a direct effect on the glucose concentration in the brain and liver, and supplies a number of nutrients which are essential to produce neurotransmitters.”

Of the sample pool, more than one-third of the players claimed they regularly passed on breakfast. GM John Fedorowicz, who was not interviewed for the study, often finds himself in that group. His experience offers a rebuke to the conventional wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

“If there is a round in the morning, I would rather starve to death than eat before a game,” he said. “It always worked out well for me.”

Fedorowicz makes a concerted effort to get eight or nine hours of sleep per night during tournaments. He won’t eat a meal if he cannot complete it at least two hours before a game (according to Fedorowicz, GM Walter Browne used to advertise a free steak dinner to his opponent, with the caveat it had to be eaten right before the round). When a morning round is involved, sleep trumps food.

The same goes for Scott Hagwood, the only American Grand Master of Memory (he is a past United States National Memory Champion). Despite his ability to memorize more than 800 numbers in sequence in one hour, Hagwood said he does not follow any dietary guidelines before or during competitions. Like Fedorowicz, he focuses more on getting a good night’s sleep.

Fedorowicz almost always shuns food during games as well, though he did confess to eating a piece of cheese during a seven-hour round at a U.S. Championship several years ago. He also does not mind his opponent eating, as long as it is not distracting. While at home, a more leisurely schedule gives him time to be attentive to eating well. He said he prepares lots of salads with toppings like grilled chicken and light Italian dressing.

“I try to eat healthy when I am at home because when I go on the road I know it’s going to be a problem,” he said. Fedorowicz also cooks, but only as a hobby—his stint at a New York City culinary institute only lasted a week. “My knife skills were terrible,” he said, “and chess players need their fingers.”

Baglione’s test group did not reveal a high level of health consciousness with many of their answers. Few took supplements. No GMs responded that they took fish oils or vitamin B12 and only one took ginseng (though Skolnik said research is inconclusive as to its mental benefits). Less than one-third said they took other vitamins, minerals or protein supplements. Only two sought professional nutrition advice. One in seven smoked cigarettes and the most popular mid-game snack was chocolate. Most focused on not overeating before games.

GM Gregory Serper offered a few interesting anecdotes to explain his approach to meals at chess tournaments, which is more superstitious than nutritious.

“I must confess, I like Chinese restaurants and the dragons on the walls,” he said, adding that if you play two games in one day, you will need the quick service that Chinese restaurants provide. “The problem is the fortune cookie. The good news is that you know your future. The bad news is that you cannot change it.”

Playing in his first tournament in America in 1996, his fortune announced, “Whatever you do you are going to be a winner.” Shortly thereafter, GM Alex Ivanov blundered against him in a dead drawn position. Two years later he ate Chinese before the final round of the World Open. His cookie ominously read, “Time will heal your wounds”—with the title on the line, he erred against GM Alex Shabalov. The “healing” came the next year. In 1999, he graced the cover of this magazine after winning the World Open. During the tournament, he had revisited the same Chinese restaurant, where his tiny scroll correctly promised, “It’s time for a raise.”

“Those fortune cookies—they are killers,” Serper said. “I collected them at some point because they never lie, never.”

GM Valery Salov might not share Serper’s belief in portentous meals. In 1988, Salov won four straight games after visiting an Italian restaurant. He was asked why he did not continue to go back and he replied that he did not particularly like Italian food.

“It just proves if you want to win a tournament you have to make a sacrifice,” joked Serper, who does not share Salov’s aversion to marinara. “It’s a tasty sacrifice.”

Serper said his choice of where to eat at a tournament is based mainly on time constraints. When he is forced to eat fast food, he has noticed strange anomalies in his games. Once, after eating at McDonald’s, he formed a very rare version of “Alekhine’s Gun,” where he placed his two queens and rook on the same file. He won a Continental Open once by eating every meal under the golden arches, but he warns, “Don’t trust all the commercials with the funny clowns or cute Chihuahuas … I got sick to my stomach.”

As a child, Serper overheard future GM Evgeny Bareev give some strange advice. “He said, ‘It is a very good idea to be hungry before a game,’” Serper recalled. “‘Your head is really clear, you can calculate variations and you are aggressive.’ I tried this experiment for an adjourned game. You can’t calculate. All you can think of is food. Don’t listen to all this baloney.”

In some cases, food is as much about replenishment as nourishment. Reports following the Anatoly Karpov-Viktor Korchnoi match in 1978 indicated the world champion may have lost as much as 30 pounds while defending his title, suggesting his famed in-game blueberry yogurt was as important for its calories as any other mystifying meaning.

Despite all the intended benefits of a nutritious lifestyle, dietitians and chess players alike agree that food is not a performance panacea.

“If somebody doesn’t have the skill and the talent, nutrition isn’t going to all-of-a-sudden make them have that skill and talent,” Skolnik said.

Serper put it more bluntly: “If you want to get better at chess, spend one hour studying Kasparov’s games. You will do more than spending one month changing your diet.”

But if you cannot stomach broccoli, and your rating has reached a plateau, why not give competitive eating a try? First prize at the Nathan’s International July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest—$10,000.

Before making any dietary changes you should consult with a physician.

Fischer Generation Nutrition

Chess players who became so during the Fischer boom of the early 1970s are reaching their golden years. A freshman in high school who watched the PBS broadcasts of Fischer versus Spassky is now eligible for the U.S. Senior Open. In order for those memories to remain vivid—and of course to be able to recall all the latest theory—this generation is wise to heed some particular nutritional advice.

According to Jean Carper, author of Your Miracle Brain and board member of the American Aging Association, aging brains need more glucose because they become less efficient at metabolizing the brain fuel and therefore have more fluctuation in blood sugar levels. She cites several studies that show those over age 50 scored significantly better on memory tests after consuming a large glass of lemonade spiked with carbohydrates rather than saccharin.

Carper shares the belief that breakfast’s importance cannot be understated and she also champions fish oil, claiming that our earliest ancestors in East Africa increased the size of their brains due to the abundance of freshwater fish in their diet. She warns, however, not to consume more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids.

Surprisingly, the grandmasters in Baglione’s survey may be served well by the chocolate they eat, at least in the long term. The antioxidants contained in pure dark chocolate (white chocolate has none) contain phenols that have twice the antioxidant capabilities of those found in some other sources. The phenols help cleanse the body of free radicals (molecules with an extra electron which act like ravaging bishops in the body and have been linked to various diseases like Alzheimer’s). Harvard researchers have gone as far to conclude gourmands of cocoa live on average one year longer. Carper’s other high antioxidant foods include spinach, strawberries and blueberries.

Carper’s research also produced a strong link between the B-vitamin folic acid and brain health. She said a great majority of people with clinical depression lack proper levels of folic acid, and that the vitamin has also been linked in numerous studies to poor attention and memory loss. She lists other vitamins shown to slow memory loss, like vitamins A, B6, B12, C and E.