No chess player has ever tested positive for having taken a substance to improve their sports performance, all the sources consulted say. However, modafinil, methylphenidate (Ritalin), and caffeine (in very large doses), as well as amphetamines and beta-blockers in general, can be helpful at certain times, but with serious drawbacks. Ian Niepómniashi and Liren Ding passed control on the 21st after the six-hour draw in the ninth game of the World Cup in Astana (Kazakhstan). The Russian dominates 6-5 with three to go, but he will lead the black pieces this Wednesday in the twelfth.
“In FIDE [Federación Internacional de Ajedrez] We do not have evidence of a single clear positive ”, says the Russian Arkady Dvorkóvich, president of that organization, which brings together 199 countries, in a conversation with EL PAÍS. The adjective “clear” is used in this case to not include cases, such as that of the Ukrainian Vasili Ivanchuk, of refusing to pass the checkpoint as a protest for their existence. Or some other where the positive was produced by taking anabolics (totally useless to play chess better) because the player in question practiced bodybuilding as a hobby.
Dvorkovich adds: “As FIDE is a member of the IOC [Comité Olímpico Internacional]we faithfully follow the guidelines of the WADA [Agencia Mundial Antidopaje], but for the moment we take it as a pure formalism; We don’t have any concern that there could be a doping problem in chess”.
Those words reflect a feeling that is less than unanimous in mental sports: chess players see anti-doping control as a very annoying nuisance. Among other reasons, because the enormous stress they suffer during the games causes them to urinate frequently for four or five hours (it is the average duration). And then, if they have to pass control, they lack raw material. Some resort to drinking beer for its diuretic power before going to deposit the sample.
Actually, the matter is not as black and white as the board, because it implies interesting nuances. A scientific study (Franke, Andreas, Lieb and others), published in 2017 by the European Neuropsychopharmacology journal, consisted of 39 chess players playing 20 semi-rapid games (15 minutes per side) against computer programs. Divided into four groups, they took modafinil, methylphenidate, caffeine (in very high doses), or a placebo. The improvement of the results with the first three substances was 15, 13 and 9%, respectively.
One of its authors, Klaus Lieb, professor of psychiatry and psychotherapy at the University of Mainz (Germany), already warned: “These substances can cause serious side effects, as well as create dependency.” British doctor Jana Bellin, then president of the FIDE Medical Commission, added that methylphenidate (marketed as Ritalin) “has a structure and pharmacology similar to cocaine.” And the Foundation for a World without Drugs ensures that Ritalin can cause “nervousness, insomnia, anorexia, loss of appetite, changes in the pulse, heart problems and weight loss.”
Six years later there are more reasons not to believe that these substances can really help a chess player. The prestigious psychiatrist Jesús de la Gándara, former head of service at the Burgos University Hospital, already stressed that “the effects of these powerful stimulants can be very different in one person or another.” He now speaks to this newspaper again to update that statement: “It has been proven that these substances work well in people with severe attention deficit problems. But it is highly unlikely that a chess player will suffer from them. So modafinil can even be counterproductive for almost everyone because it will over-strengthen their attention.”
Amphetamines can be very useful in time trouble, when many plays must be made in seconds or a few minutes; but they would be counterproductive during the previous three hours, when calm thought is required, because the player will be overly excited. And vice versa in terms of beta-blockers. All the doctors consulted about it by the author of this report in the last 25 years agreed that preparing a programmed cocktail so that the beta-blocker acts during the first hours and the amphetamine at the moment of maximum tension “is theoretically possible, but very difficult.” and dangerous”.
With current knowledge, De la Gándara specifies more: “You could take a mild beta-blocker that does not affect the brain, only the rest of the body, to control anxiety and nervousness during the early stages of the game. So that amphetamine was beneficial in time trouble without having harmed before. If one is very careful about the precise dosages, such a combination need not seriously endanger one’s health. Now, the player who does that will test positive for sure.”
It is possible that pharmacogenetics will force us to completely change this analysis in a future whose closeness is not clear. But, contrary to what happens in other sports, it seems quite unlikely that pharmacological doping exists in chess and almost nobody knows about it. The one that does worry, and a lot, is electronic (illegal help from computers that play better than the world champion in tenths of a second). But, given the very strict measures taken at the Astana World Cup, it can be said with very little margin of error that Niepómniashi and Ding are clean of illegal pills and chips.
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