On Chess: Physical Fitness Becomes Increasingly Important For Top-Level Players

Jan 21, 2015

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen pretended he didn’t hear the question, but I knew he had.

Rex Sinquefield, founder of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, was about to throw the first pitch at a Cardinals game, and I wondered out loud which participant from the Sinquefield Cup -- the strongest tournament in chess history, held in the Central West End last September -- would be the best candidate for the same role.

“Magnus,” the other participants quickly concluded.

Carlsen played sports -- from soccer to golf -- on all of his days off at the Sinquefield Cup and, like most elite Grandmasters, he considers physical workouts an integral part of his general training program. He was even quoted in Men’s Health magazine on the parallels between fitness and chess, saying “Training your brain is just as important as training your body….It’s just like a muscle—if you’re not using it, you can lose it.”

Jennifer Shahade has become a proponent of chess players working out.
Credit Provided by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

I have been aware of the link between chess and fitness ever since I ran nightly after rounds during the second U.S. Women’s Chess Championship I won, in 2004. The tension of the moves, swirling around my head all day, were released with each pounding step.

I’m not a particularly good runner, though, dreading any workout of the day that included the activity. “I run bad,” is a common joke for my poker friends, where “running bad” is interpreted as a seemingly unending streak of bad luck. Recently, however, I took up CrossFit at the suggestion of my older brother, Greg Shahade, also a chess and poker professional.

Since then, I’ve reveled in the friendly atmosphere and challenging strength-based workouts, even though I’m less competitive than most of the people in those “boxes” I visit -- including the Crossfit right here in the Central West End. I’ve even learned to run a little better! Just like in chess, when you’re really bad at something, the learning curve is much steeper: I simply wasn’t moving my legs far enough in front of each other.

Greg and I created a video in which we combined chess with an iconic, often despised Crossfit movement -- the burpee. The concept of the video is simple: For every capture on the board, you perform three burpees. Because the game is played as blitz, you have a strong incentive to pound the burpees out as fast as possible.

In a similar vein, a number of Grandmasters and journalists participated in a physical blitz game outside the World Chess Hall of Fame this summer during the Sinquefield Cup. The two most enthusiastic was France’s No. 1 Grandmaster, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, there participating in the Cup, and International Master Danny Rensch of chess.com, there as a journalist.

The most famous chess workout is definitely chess boxing, which features alternating rounds of boxing and chess. You lose by knockout or checkmate. The hybrid started in Berlin and has caught on in in London, Los Angeles and New York.

But my favorite chess workout will always be hula chess, which I created back in 2010 with my partner Daniel Meirom. In hula chess, you still get a workout -- but you don’t need to avert your attention from the board for a second.

WGM Jennifer Shahade is a two-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion (2002, 2004) and the only woman to win a U.S. Junior title, achieved in 1998. She is the author of two chess books, editor of the U.S. Chess Federation’s “Chess Life Online,” and the host commentator for such high-profile events as the U.S. Chess Championships and Sinquefield Cup. Shahade is in the Central West End through the end of January as the Resident Grandmaster of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.