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Brainpower Drugs

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Tony Mayo sends in this story from the Washington Times on drugs to boost concentration and other things that could aid chessplayers. Susan Polgar is interviewed. I excerpted a similar piece in the LA Times last December at ChessBase. Jeremy Silman has an epic compendium of thoughts on the subject here. Some USCF discussion record is here. Larry Parr might have some content hidden somewhere in here. The most sensible take on the topic is here.

"Even if a drug makes you bigger and stronger, it won't help you think better," Mrs. Polgar said. "You need logic, planning, concentration. To my knowledge, there is no drug that would help us play better chess."

In the near future, that may not be the case. While muscle-building drugs spawn home runs and congressional hearings, a coming era of cognitive enhancement promises boosted brains to rival baseball's bulging biceps.

Picture a golfer who never gets nervous, a basketball player learning to shoot perfect free throws with the help of a pill.
Can't quite conceive it? Don't worry there may be a pill for that, too.

"The idea of [cognitive enhancement] is starting to take hold on a larger and larger scale," said Dr. Vernon Williams, a sports neurologist and pain-management specialist at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles. "Lots of people are still kind of unaware. But that's only temporary.

"Before long, this will be something that is potentially as much an issue in sports as steroids."

I've long maintained that it's wrong to assume that some drugs cannot help some people play chess better just because there is no universal Elo pill. Caffeine is an obvious one that we all know staves off feelings of tiredness. (How it works was recently in the news). There is also a problem separating drugs from supplements and even food. Scarfing a lot of ginseng has strong effects on some people, for example.

The prevailing sentiment is to discard the invasive and insulting practice of drug testing until something is conclusively proven to improve performance and/or do harm. It's the harm part that led to things being banned in most sports. If something makes you perform better and has no harmful effects, it's hard to say what's wrong with it. Is it any more an unfair advantage than eating better food or having a personal trainer or a better bike? Perhaps.

What does seem silly is testing chessplayers for the same things as weight lifters and cyclists. This was/is necessary to comply with the IOC rules and qualify chess as a sport, which helped some federations get state funding. But drug testing is not cheap.


There are such drugs ('fenamin', 'cola', etc) in wide use by armed forces since at least WWII to increase concentration and perform intencive duties during extended time period up to few days sleepless. These could help a chess player during the short period of few days like the important tournament or match final days.

There is also this post from a professional poker player who found his drug of choice for mental games. I was pointed to it by a friend and after reading it I thought how much more useful that drug would be for chess than poker.


If what is written here is true, do you think they should start testing for these types of drugs (and not steriods, which seems dumb)? Would a player on this drug be cheating?

Herbs gingko and gota kola boost sharp mental faculties by increasing blood flow to the brain. Rosemary oil helps to increase alertness.

I inhaled rosemary oil (along with orange oil) while taking my Ph.D. qualifying exams and wrote 78 single-spaced pages of information in three eight-hour periods. I probably annoyed the other candidates taking the exam though.

Off topic, but I found an interesting toy:


You can type in any subject, of course.

Well, I hate to admit it, but I've taken Adderall (an anti-ADD medecine) recreationally once for a gigantic essay, and boy did it EVER make me think better and clearer.

I'm surprised that the uprise in anti-ADD pills in the United States hasn't been discussed, as they are very frequently abused. They give you a mild buzz and make concentrating a lot more easier and fun. I would, of course, not reccomend them to anyone as I can easily see the addiction potential.

In 1994 I conducted personal experiments with several "cognitive enhancers" on my own chess ability against my computer in 1994. Against the same settings of Chessmaster 3000, the following was my record for 64 blitz games. A put a two-week "cool down" period between the daily consumption of each substance. It took about a week to complete each cycle of 64 games.

No substance (the "control") 24/64
Ginko Biloba 28/64
DMAE (di-methyl-aminoethanol) 31/64
Dilantin (Phenytoin) 34/64
No substance (second "control") 27/64

The second control establishes a trajectory for improvement over the 3-month period. What this experiment doesn't account for is the "placebo effect" or the "experimenter effect," both of which actually destroy the validity of any conclusion for anyone else except myself.

My personal conclusion was that Ginko Biloba has a small positive effect on my ability, DMAE helps about 50-100 rating points (but isn't worth the side effects), and Dilantin helps by 100-200 rating points.

It should be noted that I have some ADHD symptoms, though no full diagnosis. Ginko Biloba had no side effects. DMAE created excessive tinnitus (ringing ears) and photosensitivity for me; it was unpleasant after 7 days and also exacerbated my ADHD symptoms.

The side effects of Dilantin (an anticonvulsant, prescribed in much larger doses for epilepsy) were all positive for me. It gave me unusual clarity and calm. It seemed as if the multiple thoughts usually chatting away in my head suddenly learned how to listen to each other, allowing me to explore them one at a time. Unfortunately, when I later started taking this regularly, I built up a tolerance for it, requiring larger doses for the same experience. At that point I did notice some undesirable side effects and quit using it regularly.

I still pull it out for important tournaments. Dilantin has contributed to two of my three victories over masters. This is anecdotal evidence, but sufficient for me to continue enjoying the clarity and calm it brings in critical games.

You're a true pioneer blissful one..I'm impressed. Keep laying down the ground work for the rest of us. My own area of expertise in performance "enhancement" involves mundane beverages: coffee, beer and whiskey. I'm sad to say I find negative effects upon my chess performance after even a single drink..even though I'm a long term daily imbiber. Coffee is helpful for the first round of a swiss event..but often backfires on me if I over indulge during a multiple round day. You'll find me sipping V8 juice instead during tournament play. I'm clearly behind the times.

omigosh! this thread could be something from AA or NarcAnon! Think as ever, the downside is addiction. From 1 pill to 2 to 4 ...

Yes, how many pills DID the wise man get?

It would be interesting if someone could organize a genetic study on the top chess players to look for genes associated with their ability. The players are so highly selected for certain very specific thinking skills, you'd think they'd be a great population for hunting for any associated genes.

I tell you what, if I hit the Wild Turkey too hard the night before playing, I really don't do well. I don't think 101 proof gives you any more 'mindpower'.

To a certain extent, alcohol has helped my chess, or rather, not hindered it as much. I have actually never lost a game drunk to any of my sober friends (and have actually won some!) who are all strong players relative to my level.

This is an interesting post, and one we discussed in detail on the message boards earlier. For an interesting take on the whole drugs in sports thing, a recent article in Slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2116858/) by William Saletan makes the argument that steroids in baseball is no worse than Tiger Woods undergoing surgery to improve his vision.

The Polgar sisters sure play good chess enough without any drug enhancement. Can drugs replace opening analysis, endgame studies and middlegame tactics? Not!

What has Fischer been taking since 1972?

Query: How much phenytoin were you ingesting in order to enhance your cognitive performance?

I am compelled to take the drug for therapeutic purposes. I have noticed some nearly negligible adverse effects of the drug on cognition but these may be caused by nocebo rather than the drug itself.

Also: what inspired you to experiment with dilantin for this purpose?

All of these drugs have possible side effects, but I've actually found that dietary supplements are a much safer bet. A recent one that I heard of and tried is Think Gum which combines the beneficial qualities of herbs with the brain-stimulating effect of chewing gum. I read about it in an article, but then researched it more through its website www.thinkgum.com

Well gee! This thread is like deja vu all over again too, or two if you know what I mean.

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on April 25, 2005 2:35 PM.

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