Nav: Home

The influence of stimulants on performance when playing chess

March 06, 2017

How do highly complex cognitive processes change when we take pharmacological substances? Is it possible to enhance these processes by using substances such as the CNS stimulant methylphenidate or the wakefulness promoter modafinil, or do these actually undermine creative thinking and the ability to concentrate? Researchers at the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the Mainz University Medical Center have recently looked into these and other questions in a randomized placebo-controlled double-blind study. The conclusion they came to was surprising: they found that high-performance tournament chess players can actually enhance the highly complex cognitive functions they require by taking these substances and thus win more chess matches--unless they are under time pressure. The results of the trial have recently been published in the online edition of the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology.

Chess is a sport requiring high levels of concentration and a great deal of creativity, thus placing considerable psychological stress on players. In the case of speed chess, a game can last for between five and 60 minutes while a normal chess game can have a duration of up to eight hours. During a tournament or a match, the concentration of even top players will flag from time to time, which may result in mistakes. The question arises of whether it is possible to avoid or at least reduce the risk of this happening so that the abilities so important to winning at chess, i.e., alertness, concentration, strategic thinking, creativity, patience, and tenacity, can be continuously maintained at a suitable level over time. There are indeed tried-and-tested methods that can be used to achieve this: to ensure to get enough sleep, to eat healthily, and to take exercise. Even modern grandmasters like Magnus Carlsen fall back on these old remedies. However, it is worth asking whether, if he were to employ methods that have become more recently available such as neuro-enhancement by stimulants (also sometimes called "brain doping"), he would be able to maintain more balanced concentration over a longer period. On the other hand, the use of such substances could compromise the creative and highly concentrated thought processes required to play chess well. This is an aspect of major significance when it comes to the politics of sport because FIDE, the World Chess Federation, has applied for chess to be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. But if chess becomes an Olympic discipline, the players will be subjected to doping tests. In addition, according to the statutes of the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, a sport can only be a recognized sport, and thus eligible for financial support, if it applies doping test regulations.

The positive or negative effects that the cognitive enhancers methylphenidate, modafinil, and even caffeine can have on highly complex cognitive performance in tournament chess players have now been investigated by researchers at the Mainz University Medical Center. The principal investigators of the trial undertaken at the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy were Professor Klaus Lieb and his former Mainz colleague Professor Andreas G. Franke, now Dean of the Faculty of Social Work and Education at the Neubrandenburg University of Applied Sciences. In their investigation entitled "Methylphenidate, modafinil, and caffeine for cognitive enhancement in chess: a double-blind, randomized controlled trial" they compared the effects of the prescription drugs methylphenidate and modafinil with those of the freely available caffeine. In the placebo-controlled trial, 39 male chess players received either 2 x 200 mg modafinil, or 2 x 20 mg methylphenidate, or 2 x 200 mg caffeine, or placebo on four different days in a 4 x 4 crossover design. Every day they played twenty 15-minute games in two sessions against a chess program (Fritz 12) adapted to the individual abilities of each of the players. In addition, the subjects underwent neuro-psychological testing.

During the trial the researchers discovered that after use of methylphenidate, modafinil, or caffeine, players unexpectedly required more time to deliberate about moves than when taking placebo only. When all 3,059 analyzed matches were taken into account, it emerged that use of the stimulants did not result in the winning of more games than when placebo was used. However, when the investigators looked at the 2,876 matches that were decided within 15 minutes they found that when the subjects had taken methylphenidate or modafinil--but not caffeine--they won more matches against the chess program than when receiving placebo. The researchers thus concluded that methylphenidate or modafinil improved chess performance when the players were not under time pressure or were in a position to suitably manage their time during the short 15-minute matches.

This was something the investigators had not anticipated. They had assumed that, as claimed in the literature, the pharmacological substances would lead to a diminution of the highly complex cognitive processes required to play chess. "These results demonstrate for the first time that even highly complex cognitive abilities, such as those needed to play chess, can be enhanced by means of the use of stimulants. It would seem that under the influence of the stimulants the subjects were able to reflect more deeply when it came to decision-making," said principal investigator Professor Andreas G. Franke. And Professor Klaus Lieb added: "This was a very elaborate trial. Good controls were in place and all 39 subjects participated in all our tests. Now we have initial evidence that doping in chess using the stimulants methylphenidate and modafinil is possible. However, the results of our trial need to be replicated by other researchers before definitive statements about the doping potential of stimulants in chess can be made."

The authors warn against taking these substances because of the associated risks and possible adverse effects that are more pronounced on repeated use. Moreover, individuals should not have such preparations in their possession unless these have been specifically prescribed for them, and, of course, because they confer unfair advantages when playing chess. In addition, the researchers recommend that the relevant authorities take decisive steps to introduce more doping tests in professional chess.
-end-
The trial was approved by the ethics committee in Mainz (No. 837.351.10(7360) and registered in the international trial registry http://www.clinicaltrials.gov under number NCT01834547. It was funded from internal research resources of the Mainz University Medical Center. There was no financial support from public third-party sponsors or the pharmaceutical industry.

Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet Mainz

Related Caffeine Articles:

Systematic review confirms longstanding caffeine intake recommendations
A rigorous, new scientific Systematic Review paper on caffeine safety confirms the results of the widely-cited Health Canada literature review (2003), which concluded that adverse health effects were not associated with caffeine intake levels at ≤400 mg/day for adults (which is the equivalent of about 4 cups of coffee/day, and 90 percent of Americans typically consume less than this amount ), ≤300 mg/day for pregnant women and ≤2.5 mg/kg-day for children and adolescents.
Caffeine boosts enzyme that could protect against dementia, finds IU study
A study by Indiana University researchers has identified 24 compounds -- including caffeine -- with the potential to boost an enzyme in the brain shown to protect against dementia.
For women, caffeine could be ally in warding off dementia
Higher caffeine intake in women is associated with reduced odds of developing dementia or cognitive impairment, according to the results of a new study published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.
For women, caffeine could be ally in warding off dementia
Higher caffeine intake in women is associated with reduced odds of developing dementia or cognitive impairment, according to the results of a new study published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.
Light and caffeine improve driver alertness: CARRS-Q study
Bright light combined with caffeine can improve driving performance and alertness of chronically sleep deprived young drivers, according to a Queensland University of Technology road safety study.
Caffeine has little to no benefit after 3 nights of sleep restriction
A new study found that after restricting sleep to 5 hours per night, caffeine use no longer improved alertness or performance after three nights.
Increased education could help adolescents limit caffeine consumption
Caffeine is the most available and widely used psychoactive substance in the world and is the only drug legally accessible and socially acceptable for consumption by children and adolescents.
Moderate amounts of caffeine during pregnancy do not harm baby's IQ
Women drinking and eating moderate amounts of caffeine during pregnancy should be reassured that they are not harming their child's intelligence, according to a study from The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital that was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Brief cognitive-behavioral therapy helps those with problematic caffeine use
Engaging in brief, cognitive-behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for helping people with problematic caffeine use lower their caffeine consumption, according to a new study coauthored by Laura M.
How to stay awake without caffeine
You're tired and you need an energy boost, but you don't want the jitters from caffeine.

Related Caffeine Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Digital Manipulation
Technology has reshaped our lives in amazing ways. But at what cost? This hour, TED speakers reveal how what we see, read, believe — even how we vote — can be manipulated by the technology we use. Guests include journalist Carole Cadwalladr, consumer advocate Finn Myrstad, writer and marketing professor Scott Galloway, behavioral designer Nir Eyal, and computer graphics researcher Doug Roble.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#530 Why Aren't We Dead Yet?
We only notice our immune systems when they aren't working properly, or when they're under attack. How does our immune system understand what bits of us are us, and what bits are invading germs and viruses? How different are human immune systems from the immune systems of other creatures? And is the immune system so often the target of sketchy medical advice? Those questions and more, this week in our conversation with author Idan Ben-Barak about his book "Why Aren't We Dead Yet?: The Survivor’s Guide to the Immune System".