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The Starbucks Defense

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In a recent article, the NY Times summarizes what has been known for a long time: caffeine is a performance enhancing drug. I wrote about this years ago when FIDE wanted to start testing along IOC guidelines to make chess eligible for IOC recognition (achieved) and potential inclusion in the Games (denied). After reading two books on coffee and caffeine in 2002 it was obvious why so many chessplayers swear by the stuff. That is, for the same well-known reasons office workers today and the coffeehouse philosophers, poets, and scientists of yesteryear drank it. It's a very effective stimulant. Excerpt below, but read the whole thing.

Caffeine, it turns out, actually works. And it is legal, one of the few performance enhancers that is not banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

So even as sports stars from baseball players to cyclists to sprinters are pilloried for using performance enhancing drugs, one of the best studied performance enhancers is fine for them or anyone else to use. And it is right there in a cup of coffee or a can of soda.

Exercise physiologists have studied caffeine's effects in nearly every iteration: Does it help sprinters? Marathon runners? Cyclists? Rowers? Swimmers? Athletes whose sports involve stopping and starting like tennis players? The answers are yes and yes and yes and yes. . . .

"There is so much data on this that it's unbelievable," he said. "It's just unequivocal that caffeine improves performance. It's been shown in well-respected labs in multiple places around the world."

That it may not help every chessplayer all the time begs the question. What matters about caffeine (which isn't banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency and therefore not in chess competitions) and other similar things, is whether or not it's potentially harmful or constitutes an unfair competitive advantage. If the answer is no, who cares? If data came out that showed eating a pound of Skittles before every game improved your Elo 30 points, should we then ban Skittles? What about vitamins or a more homeopathic source like ginkgo biloba or St. John's Wort? What about an Ethiopian chewing khat (qat) or a Peruvian or Bolivian munching coca leaves at the board? The point of training, including diet, is to enhance performance, and the point of regulation and testing must be to prevent abuse, i.e. harm. The "unfair competitive advantage" angle is even more fraught, since biochemistry being what is even the most innocuous of substances has wildly variable effects on different people. Caffeine might turn some people into jittery wrecks or cause others to crash into catatonia. It is then unfair that for others a few cups of coffee sharpens their focus and alertness levels substantially, especially in those morning rounds?

The Times article focuses on caffeine's effects on running and other sports far more physical than chess. But many recent items in the mainstream press have pointed out the virtues of various mind drugs new and old that quell anxiety, improve concentration and calculation, and maintain an alert state for longer periods of time. (Click the "drugs" tag above for links to many of them over the years.) Students taking exams and Olympic athletes in sports like shooting (biathlon) are enthusiastic proponents of such drugs. (And journalists, as described in this excellent and funny Slate article from 2005.) Assuming they could be obtained without a prescription (or even with?), and do no harm, is there anything wrong, even on a moral/sportsmanship level, with taking them? The equation should change when you get into drugs with demonstrable negative physiological effects and diminishing returns, such as amphetamines, especially since as with all things, kids are going to do what the pros do, steroids being the best example. You cannot and should not assume moderation will be employed.

The argument often seen in the chess community is that there is no need for testing until there is proof that some drugs actually enhance performance. Apart from the fact that some drugs can obviously do just that for many people, the argument itself is a red herring. "So what?" is the response that must be dealt with. If the answer is because it's potentially harmful to the individual, or to the sport, then that should be discussed in a rational manner. Harmful to the individual is difficult enough because of long-term effects and quantities. Harmful to the sport is incredibly tricky, especially in chess since we have FIDE, national federations, organizers, and the players to contend with instead of one centralized authority entrusted with the commercial outlook of the game. But if elite chess becomes perceived as a battle between the players pharmacists, we've got trouble. On the other hand, new sponsorship from Eli Lilly and Pfizer could be just around the corner.

That complying with the IOC testing regime qualifies some chess federations for additional sponsorship monies is another issue altogether. If they think it's worth it, that's their business (and I do mean business, as the testing industry is quite lucrative).


Now the big question of course is: Which blend of coffee performs best with which opening line?

I dunno, If you want to ban every food product that might be benificial, you gonna be left with bread and water.
There are no drugs that make you smarter, at best there is stuff that makes you more alert, like coffee. I can live with that, and if some want to gamble their health with fancy farmaceuticals that might or might not do something for a normally healthy person, they can be my guest.

This road is not only winding, it's endless. How about players who come to the table early so they can set up with their preferred pieces and clock? It happens all the time in tournaments. Some players don't have an issue with that; some can play using buttons or bottle caps. But, obviously, some people gain a certain " advantage " when they are able to play with a set that is pleasing to them. Maybe, it makes them think better, makes them feel good. Real or perceived advantages can come from anywhere---color of the squares, facing a window or not, height of the table, girlfriend or no girlfriend, etc. As George Carlin used to say, " but...it's oooookay. "

God bless the bean, the source of all life. Without coffee Western civilzation would run to a screeching halt in minutes. And I mean screeching.

"I dunno, If you want to ban every food product that might be benificial, you gonna be left with bread and water."

You mean water *isn't* beneficial?

Try competing without it. Or doing anything without it. Long-term. You'll die.

Water can also be deadly in excess - hydrotoxia. This isn't a ridiculous point in endurance sports. It isn't just for comfort that cyclists have to take pee breaks during long hot races.

(Admittedly it's not likely a chess player will OD on water trying for a competitive advantage.)

I abstain from coffee (I just don't like the taste), use soft drinks in moderation, and have no problem with the idea of chess opponents drinking either one a little or a lot.

By the way, caffeine was once on WADA's banned list. It has been pointed out (here, for example) ...


... that Coca-Cola's position as a major sponsor of the Olympics may have something to do with its removal. Ya think?

There are many historians, serious ones, who give some credit for the Renaissance to the switch from near beer (a common British breakfast accompaniment) and other stupefacients to coffee across Europe.

As for making you "smarter," it depends on what you mean. Permanently increasing your IQ, no. Producing higher IQ test scores (exam scores, shot-put distances, etc.) while under the influence, yes. I forgot to link to this article on Adderall, and there are many more like it, if few as entertaining:


"As an experiment, I decided to take Adderall for a week. The results were miraculous. On a recent Tuesday, after whipping my brother in two out of three games of pingpong — a triumph that has occurred exactly once before in the history of our rivalry — I proceeded to best my previous high score by almost 10 percent in the online anagrams game that has been my recent procrastination tool of choice. Then I sat down and read 175 pages of Stephen Jay Gould's impenetrably dense book The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. It was like I'd been bitten by a radioactive spider."

Ginkgo Biloba and St. John's Wort may be called "natural" remedies, but neither has anything to do with homeopathy.

Good piece, raising some points which normally go unmentioned in this balls-achingly tedious debate.

It's an important matter in many sports. For example, i know several soccer teams use top-nutritionists advice for their pre- and post- matchs. I guess in football they do the same. We still don't have such things in chess, with maybe a few exceptions (the work Krilov made with Kramnik before his match against Kasparov qualifies?) It is undeniable that a well controled diet can help you improve a lot. If it includes caffeine or not, i guess it depends. For some people it may be contraproductive for a long game. It's not the same for 1 0 series on a chess server. Just imagine Ivanchuk with his nerves overdosed with caffeine in wild zeitnot. If it happens, i beg for video recordings!

I didn't know that caffeine was officially (but more or less silently) removed from the doping list. But when it still was on the list, I remember reading that the detection limit was so high that five (or was it even twenty-five?) cups of coffee during a game weren't a problem ... .

Generally I think nutrition is unlikely to become a major issue in chess. Obviously it doesn't really help to be over-weighted - though some GM's are, and my subjective impression is that it is more common at amateur level. But how relevant is the exact balance between carbohydrates and fatty acids, would fooding supplements (when you may already enter the twilight zone between nutrition and doping) help?
Well, maybe I am wrong: the duration of a chess game is comparable to a Tour de France stage, or a marathon run at amateur level. So maybe this is a largely untapped field of research.

It would probabvly be extremely hard to do empirical studies on coffee and how it improves chess playing, since so many drink coffee. How do we know it is not a psychological effect and not an effect of the actual coffee that a player(e.g.) feels more sharp when he had a cup? I could be wrong about this, but in my experience many takes a sip of coffee and just wake up immidiately, when the effect of the caffein doesnt actually kick in until like 15 min after you take it. Then it is not the drug but the habit or association or just to drink something warm that wakes you up.

and to keep this discussion going, what about sugar? Is Carlsens orange juice really that innocent...?

Smoking, nicotine, concentration and memory (taken from Wikipedia):
Nicotine's mood-altering effects are different by report. First causing a release of glucose from the liver and epinephrine (adrenaline) from the adrenal medulla, it causes stimulation. Users report feelings of relaxation, sharpness, calmness, and alertness. By reducing the appetite and raising the metabolism, some smokers may lose weight as a consequence.
When a cigarette is smoked, nicotine-rich blood passes from the lungs to the brain within seven seconds and immediately stimulates the release of many chemical messengers including acetylcholine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, vasopressin, arginine, dopamine, autocrine agents, and beta-endorphin[citation needed]. This release of neurotransmitters and hormones is responsible for most of nicotine effects. Nicotine appears to enhance concentration and memory due to the increase of acetylcholine. It also appears to enhance alertness due to the increases of acetylcholine and norepinephrine. Arousal is increased by the increase of norepinephrine. Pain is reduced by the increases of acetylcholine and beta-endorphin. Anxiety is reduced by the increase of beta-endorphin. Nicotine also sensitises brain reward systems. Most cigarettes (in the smoke inhaled) contain 0.1 to 2.8 milligrams of nicotine.
Research suggests that, when smokers wish to achieve a stimulating effect, they take short quick puffs, which produce a low level of blood nicotine.[21] This stimulates nerve transmission. When they wish to relax, they take deep puffs, which produce a high level of blood nicotine, which depresses the passage of nerve impulses, producing a mild sedative effect. At low doses, nicotine potently enhances the actions of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, causing a drug effect typical of those of psychostimulants. At higher doses, nicotine enhances the effect of serotonin and opiate activity, producing a calming, pain-killing effect. Nicotine is unique in comparison to most drugs, as its profile changes from stimulant to sedative/pain killer in increasing dosages and use.
Nicotine gum, usually in 2-mg or 4-mg doses, and nicotine patches are available, as well as smokeless tobacco which do not have all the other ingredients in smoked tobacco.

Acetylcholine, beta-endorphin, dopamine, norepinephrine. They all do good things. Or make you feel good. Anything wrong with that?

Yes. It proves ones and for all that Kurnosov is a dirty cheater!

Unfortunately defining doping well is very hard. When used in (extreme) moderation nothing is statistically provable bad for you and a person has to use some substances with some moderation that enhance performance to just exist: an eating player performs better than a starving one.

The only solutions I can think of is:
WADA defines a set of n diets a player can chose from. This is inhuman and as long as the set contains more than 1 diet a possible source from unexpected advantage.

WADA's list will always be arbitrary and wrong in some sense. Just hope they are trying to do a good job.

It would be extremely difficult to devise a rational testing regime for psychostimulants (caffeine, methylphenidate, nicotine, cannabinoids etc) in chess.
For one, our knowledge of brain chemistry and brain transmitter mechanisms is still rudimentary and separating effects of ingested chemicals from naturally-occuring ones could be very difficult. Then there's the problem of 'proving' that these substances can cause harm or beneficial effects- it would not be too difficult to design a proper scientific study to measure these but the practical gain would make it unattractive to many sponsors.
I think the development of reliable cognitive-enhancers will make the problem of doping real in chess but that seems several decades away yet. For now, the FIDE testing regime lacks a solid scientific rationale.

That's right. Listening to different kinds of music produces different results in the brain's chemistry. Mozart may cause more serotin, whereas Hendrix may increase norepinephrine.

Listening to Morphine protects you from painfull loses .
Listening to Placebo of course doesnt help you at all.

Hey guys, sorry for the off-topic, but I´m visiting New York on my Easter holiday and I´d like to know if you could recommend me a chess bookshop, like the biggest or the one that has more rare books. Thanks!

If you're looking for older books, a good bet is Fred Wilson - he's been dealing in chess books for a lot of years now and often has some good stuff. He's at 80 East 11th Street (between University Place and Broadway, telephone 212-533-6381 in Greenwich Village, a great place to spend some time anyway.

You can visit the Marshall Chess Club right around the corner on East 10th, and you will also be about 5 blocks (a quick walk) north of Washington Square, famous for the outdoor speed chess (yes, Fischer did play there, and scenes from searching for Bobby Fischer were filmed there).

There are also (used to be?!?) a couple of chess shops/studios just off the southern end of Washington Square, off 3rd street, if memory serves on Sullivan and/or Bleeker. They sell books and sets and people play there as well. Try Mamoun's Falafel House if you see it, great taste experience.

Sorry if you know all this already, but if I can help further, just let me know. Happy hunting!

If they ever ban coffee, I'm permanently dropping out of tournament play.

You never know with FIDE ... but I wouldn't worry too much. As I wrote before, it takes a lot of coffee to become detectable in urine tests. Well, if you drink coffee during the game, they might have to test on the spot if if is caffeine-free as you may have to claim?
End of this 1st April joke. What got a bit lost IMO in this discussion is the distinction with actual doping substances. I had written at an earlier occasion that these are, in my definition
1) not freely available to everyone. You may need a fake doctor's prescription or even connections to illegal circles (and the required money). I am not a specialist, but I think all the substances mentioned by Luke (yesterday 11:43AM) fall in this category.
2) have potential (long-term) harmful side effects. Here one can of course say the same about caffeine, nicotine, cannabis, alcohol, ... .

hahaha THANKS, PARTIZAN! That was a very comprehensive explanation, and I even get to eat good falafel while watching people play! It´s as great a plan for me as it will be devastatingly boring for my dad, so, double check! :) I have really no idea about nothing in New York, so everything you told me was new and useful, and that Fred Wilson shop looks fantastic. Thanks again.

If they ban the bean, I will take up arms and start a revolution

Determination of Caffeine in Human Plasma and Urine by Gas Chromatography Using a Nitrogen Phosphorus- Detector
Toshio HIRAI1) and Hitomi KONDO1)
1) Mitsubishi Yuka Laboratory of Medical Science

A simple method for the determination of caffeine (1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine) in plasma and urine is described. Caffeine was extracted by diethyl ether, together with spiked N-methylphenothiazine (NMPZ) as an internal standard. The amount was measured with gas chromatography (GC) using a nitrogen phosphorus-detector (NP-D). Almost 96% of the caffeine was recovered by diethyl ether. The detection limits of this assay were 1ng/ml of both in plasma and urine. Moreover, good linear relationships between peak height ratios and the concentrations of caffeine were found in the range 0 to 10μg/ml of plasma and 0 to 40μg/ml of urine, and reproducibility was kept within 3%. This method is rapid, sensitive and suitable as a routine method in the clinic.

[ PS ng = nanogram]
[ PPS this is from Analytical Sciences, June 1985 ie nearly a quarter of a century ago!!.....detection limits nowadays are way smaller]

And 1ng/ml caffeine corresponds to how many cups of coffee?
Maybe the source I qouted (from distant memory) didn't refer to the detection limit, but to the concentration level which would be considered doping ... . I don't know if caffeine in urine could also occur naturally, or could be derived from other food or drinks than coffee or coca-cola.

"There are also (used to be?!?) a couple of chess shops/studios just off the southern end of Washington Square, off 3rd street, if memory serves on Sullivan and/or Bleeker. They sell books and sets and people play there as well. Try Mamoun's Falafel House if you see it, great taste experience."

Actually the 200 block of Thompson (positively Third St).

Thanks Bill Brock :)

Thomas, FYI.

1: S Afr Med J. 1988 Aug 20;74(4):163-4.
Caffeine in sport. Urinary excretion of caffeine in healthy volunteers after intake of common caffeine-containing beverages.van der Merwe PJ, Müller FR, Müller FO.
Department of Pharmacology, University of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein.

The presence of a concentration of caffeine greater than or equal to 15 micrograms/ml in urine of athletes participating in competitive sport is a disqualifying factor. A study was conducted to establish how much caffeine needs to be ingested--in the form of coffee, tea or Coca-Cola--to approach or exceed this limit. Nine healthy volunteers participated in a randomised cross-over study and received caffeine in the form of these beverages, ingested within 15 minutes, in doses ranging from 1.52 mg/kg to 17.53 mg/kg. The latter dose is equivalent to nearly 8 cups of ordinary percolated coffee. The maximum caffeine concentration in urine recorded was 14 micrograms/ml, 3 hours after ingestion. A significant correlation was found between the caffeine dose and the maximum urinary concentration. The mean recovery of caffeine in urine was between 0.74% and 0.91% of the administered dose. The nature of the beverage did not appear to influence the degree of caffeine excretion. It is concluded that if a concentration of 15 micrograms caffeine/ml urine is recorded, it can safely be accepted that the athlete purposely ingested large amounts of the substance, in whatever form.

[PS: note date re first sentence]

[PPS:Your best friend if you are interested in pharmacology is Goodman and Gilman's The Pharmacological Basis Of Therapeutics. Up to now I think 11th ed, stood the test of time. Like the Merck Index, always on my shelf.]

[ For added info:
Thorougbred racing of course bans all caffeine and tests rigorously for the drug. For instance this news report from Yahoo Sports :

Winner of All American tests positive for caffeine
Oct 30, 6:46 pm EDT

RUIDOSO DOWNS, N.M. (AP)—State racing officials say the winner of last month’s All American Futurity at Ruidoso Downs has tested positive for caffeine.

That could jeopardize the $1 million purse won by the owner of Stolis Winner. If the finding is upheld by the New Mexico Racing Commission, Jerry Windham of College Station, Texas, could be required to return the purse.

The positive test was first reported Thursday by the Albuquerque Journal.

New Mexico racing regulations do not allow any amount of caffeine in race horses, said Julian Luna, the racing commission’s executive director. He said urine from all 10 horses in the futurity were tested after the race, and only Stolis Winner turned up positive.

Notices for a Nov. 15 hearing on the matter were sent out this week, he said. Because New Mexico has a trainer responsibility rule, trainer Heath Taylor will be served the notice to appear at the hearing.

Windham told the Journal he had heard rumors about caffeine turning up in the test, but had not officially been notified there might be a problem.

He said it’s ludicrous to think anyone would risk a $1 million purse by giving caffeine to a top-performing horse.

“I know this, if there was any caffeine, it didn’t go through his system,” said Windham, a past president of the American Quarter Horse Association.

“It had to be a contaminant” in the test sample from another source, he said.

Caffeine has the same effect on horses as it has on humans—“It jazzes them up,” said Susan Vescovo, vice president of the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association.

Racing commission regulations list caffeine as a Class 2 substance, which has “a high potential for affecting the outcome of a race,” according to guidelines on which the regulations are based.

Penalties recommended for Class 2 violations including a suspension of six months to a year, a fine of $1,500 to $2,500, and loss of a purse.]

[PPPS: Compared to this, chessplayers are a protected species!]

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