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Take Two Pills and Mate Me in the Morning

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Yet more from the War for Drugs. This is a long New Yorker piece of the sort more comfortably read in print, but it's a good read worth the effort even on the screen. Nothing groundbreaking if you've been following the neurodrug news like we do here in the Dirt, but a good overview with lots of personal anecdotes and stats. They talk with a drug-taking pro poker player but no chessplayers.

Last April, the scientific journal Nature published the results of an informal online poll asking whether readers attempted to sharpen "their focus, concentration, or memory" by taking drugs such as Ritalin and Provigil--a newer kind of stimulant, known generically as modafinil, which was developed to treat narcolepsy. One out of five respondents said that they did. A majority of the fourteen hundred readers who responded said that healthy adults should be permitted to take brain boosters for nonmedical reasons, and sixty-nine per cent said that mild side effects were an acceptable risk. Though a majority said that such drugs should not be made available to children who had no diagnosed medical condition, a third admitted that they would feel pressure to give "smart drugs" to their kids if they learned that other parents were doing so. . . .

And it's not just alertness and concentration drugs anymore. Who wouldn't want to improve their memory, which is what Bobby Fischer famously said was the key to being a good chessplayer?

Among the drugs in the pipeline are ampakines, which target a type of glutamate receptor in the brain; it is hoped that they may stem the memory loss associated with diseases like Alzheimer's. But ampakines may also give healthy people a palpable cognitive boost. A 2007 study of sixteen healthy elderly volunteers found that five hundred milligrams of one particular ampakine "unequivocally" improved short-term memory, though it appeared to detract from episodic memory--the recall of past events. Another class of drugs, cholinesterase inhibitors, which are already being used with some success to treat Alzheimer's patients, have also shown promise as neuroenhancers. In one study, the drug donepezil strengthened the performance of pilots on flight simulators; in another, of thirty healthy young male volunteers, it improved verbal and visual episodic memory.

Some of the research implications are interesting. One, that the closer you already are to high-performing in a cognitive area the less these drugs are likely to help. This is commonsensical, but it's also in the peak performance areas where a tiny edge can make all the difference.

The societal implications are also well discussed, addressing the "so what?" argument that I largely embrace.

If we eventually decide that neuroenhancers work, and are basically safe, will we one day enforce their use? Lawmakers might compel certain workers--emergency-room doctors, air-traffic controllers--to take them. (Indeed, the Air Force already makes modafinil available to pilots embarking on long missions.) For the rest of us, the pressure will be subtler--that queasy feeling I get when I remember that my younger colleague is taking Provigil to meet deadlines. All this may be leading to a kind of society I'm not sure I want to live in: a society where we're even more overworked and driven by technology than we already are, and where we have to take drugs to keep up; a society where we give children academic steroids along with their daily vitamins. . . .

t makes no sense to ban the use of neuroenhancers. Too many people are already taking them, and the users tend to be educated and privileged people who proceed with just enough caution to avoid getting into trouble. Besides, Anjan Chatterjee is right that there is an apt analogy with plastic surgery. In a consumer society like ours, if people are properly informed about the risks and benefits of neuroenhancers, they can make their own choices about how to alter their minds, just as they can make their own decisions about shaping their bodies.

Another way to accelerate our culture doesn't sound very attractive, especially if it's only among those who can afford it. It would add another layer to the better neighborhoods, better schools, and other advantages of wealth. Chess pros with enough money to work more with coaches and seconds have an advantage as well. (Though unlike with drugs, they usually earned that money by doing very well without the entourage first.) And there is no way you are ever going to find a 12-year-old international-class wunderkind whose family can't afford a computer today.

But as dystopian as our drugged-out chess future may sound, I do hope people will be open about their experiences so that at least we get to learn something. They don't have to wear "I'm taking 20mg of Adderall today" stickers to the tournament, but I'm sure the science people would love to hear from chessplayers who play and/or train under the influence.


One major factor involving a less-than-optimum concentration level may actually be caused by nothing more than a lack of sufficient B-complex vitamins in the body, or the inability of one's body to properly process them.

Folks who have had a surgical weight-loss procedure (specifically roux-en-y -- commonly called 'gastric bypass') are no longer able to absorb necessary B-vitamins through their food. They must supplement these through shots and/or sublingual doses. It is very common for them to report significant concentration problems, and significant improvement after a single shot.

The shots require a prescription,I believe, but the tablets are OTC.

Just FYI


I have lots of mixed feelings about this. As a parent I would not feel pressured to give my kids this stuff in pill form.

The question I want to post here is, would you feel worse after a loss if you had been taking such enhancers and your opponent did not? I am not sure I know the answer even for myself. But it might be a natural downside to the practice.'

Very interesting in any event.

Improving alertness: sure. So does coffee. (Does it make you play like the world champion all of a sudden? You do the experiment.)

Short term memory? Not sure if that even helps with chess at all. The very best have exceptional long term memory and pattern recognition (amongst other things), two areas where so far drugs don't do anything.

And btw: the pharmacological industry hypes this stuff because it's a potential goldmine, if it isn't already. 'Sucker born every minute' kind of thing. People _want_ to believe this stuff.

The New Yorker article looks like it was written by someone on a heavy dose of adderall! The "alex" of the article who was quaffing loads of amphetimines is either misreported dumb and/or dishonest. You will feel the downside of taking it like this - some burn out and some risk of physical damage not to mention dependency and withdrawal issues. Still adderall is a hugely better way of taking amphetimines than knocking back benezedrine like Graham Greene used to do in the 50's and without which some of his stuff might not have got finished.

I'm not sure about the analogy from our liberal attitude towards shaping our appearance to a similar attitide towards shaping our intellectual functions. The problem is that intellectual performance is a central aspect of our notion of desert. In other words, whereas we do not find it legitimate for people's holdings in a society to depend on their looks, we do find it generally justifiable for those holdings to be sensitive to how well people perform in certain intellectual tasks. So liberality towards intellectual performance-enhahcement is bound to have much more pervasive social and distributive effects than liberality towards outward appearance.

It seems to me that the problem arises because the general moral case against performance enhancing drugs has not been made really clearly. My intuition is that the case must be basically negative in character: the use of performance-enhancing drugs wrong because it does not fall within what we normally regard as legitimate determinants of success: talent, effort and luck.

Interesting comment, Renaissance -

"the use of performance-enhancing drugs wrong because it does not fall within what we normally regard as legitimate determinants of success: talent, effort and luck."

You may be right. People generally don't want to credit someone for success if the person has access to something that the rest of us don't have. Like a huge inheritance for example.

But, what if a performance-enhancing drug is readily available to anyone, and what if that drug somehow is able to unlock that person's previously hidden talent? Should whatever success results from that newly-opened talent be considered tainted because it was not naturally developed?

Personally I hope that all the crazies out there pop, inject, smoke, drink and in all other ways cram as much crazy substances in their bodies as they can. I don't think any of it really makes much of a difference, and have seen where sometimes they have bad side effects.

One thing that I've observed is interesting though; I've known several individuals who saw their ratings climb 200-300 points very quickly by smoking marijuana, only to hit a ceiling around 2100. Seems that it somehow helps them initially, but then they stall out. Interesting anyway.

Marijuana is interesting when you want to play with a light hand , specially blizt/rapid .IMO it also leads to tremendous blunders and oversights.
But there is another source of enhacements that can give an overall boost to a personĀ“s play :the body.
Endorphin ,for example can be a powerful enhacer ,if you consider its impact on emotions it can have huge influence on a personĀ“s play.
There are also a lot of benefits coming from breathing controling tecniques like yoga or martial arts . I remember when i started playing chess ,listening to Josh Waitzkin lessons and then someone told me that he was also a martial artist.
Brain quemistry is so delicate that it can be enhaced in a lot of different ways , artificial drugs are only one way ,but exercise and emotion-management are important too.
Which of them is more relevant in a chess player?
How many ELO points can come from coffe or smoking or pills? How many from yoga , meditation , running or even therapy?
I dont care , but i am really aware of which one is better for me :
Kidding , really , it would be really interesting to test the chemical impact that disciplines like yoga , meditation , or even big endorfine producers like running or cycling can have on our play .

It would not be too difficult to design a double-blind placebo-controlled study to measure the impact of exogenous chemicals or breathing techniques/yoga etc on chess results as they are readily measurable but the longer term effects of these substances on other aspects of brain functioning is another matter. Harm may take several years to manifest and you'd be hard pressed to justify pharmacological shortcuts over hard work and graft.
Personally, I would prefer the time tested method of improvement in any field- 10,000 hours of work-The book- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell has a detailed analysis of the characteristics of success in any field. Interesting read.

Hardy -

Ugh. Sounds very boring and clinical. But, perhaps that is the correct approach to answering the question.

Unfortunately it is.

a pill and I am better than James Bond.

Can anyone enlighten us on the difference between (legit) vitamins or other such supplements and (non-legit) steroids? I recall that the latter work to block normal neural responses of tiredness and muscle pain, but this feature alone does not seem to me sufficient to explain why we should treat them differently. Why should we allow substances that increase resilience by helping build strength and not substances that do the same by helping block pain and tiredness?

Luke, I agree that cases of unfair access to the drug are easy, but I don't think that fair access solves the problem either. Suppose that neither of two athletes has enough money to buy a performance-enhacing drug. Athlete 1 puts all his effort in traditional forms of training. Athlete 2 gets a second job and raises enough money for the drug. Athlete 2 did not enjoy any unfair advantage regarding access to the drug, but I think we would still regard his use of it illegitimate when it comes to comparing the two athletes.

On the other hand, this objection might actually disappear if athlete 2 takes the drug simply in order to match athlete 1's innate talent (supposing -very controversially- that we could isolate its contribution). Drug-assistance is not deserved, but neither is talent...

"Suppose that neither of two athletes has enough money to buy a performance-enhacing drug."

Suppose that neither have money to buy chessbase...
or books... or to pay the travelling costs for tournaments...

I disagree ,IMO it is like comparing oranges and apples , drug assistance is not a direct rival of effor or talent.
Drug enhacements are just another factor in our evolution/destruction race .
Psychiatrist were allowed to prescribe cocain not so long ago , and cofe was once forbidden , it is always us who decide what is good or not.

When the mental enhancements issue came up tangentially a few years ago while I was drawing up my anti-cheating programme, I indicated then that there was little reason to think it (mind-improvement drugs) was a pressing current problem....But I also said it could well become a practical problem a few years down the line, so was worth the authorities studying it to help formulate policy if the issue should turn into a pressing one in the future.

Seems like we're going through that stage (study and thought) right now.

I don't have an answer. But my current thinking is, best leave the hard-core research (the studies alluded to by other posters in this thread) to practitioners in other fields where the stakes are much higher than chess. It's reasonable to expect those other fields will have a much easier time generating resources (funding), academic interest and (ultimately) policy response - all of which would represent a huge uphill climb to generate in the chess-world context.

I'm talking mainly about areas like academic testing (SAT/LSAT/GRE, and maybe professional exams like the Medical Boards or the CFA exam). Real opportunities and real money are at stake in these areas - not just for a tiny elite of one or two dozen of the world's best practitioners, but for at least hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people the world over.

Whatever ultimately develops from the efforts (to measure the effects of mind drugs on performance, and perhaps regulate or prohibit their use) that I'm sure will be undertaken by rule-makers in those more important fields, almost certainly can be picked up and adapted by the chess world.

Jon -

You've clearly done some thinking on the subject. If you had to guess, which drug do you think is the best for a typical 3 or 4 hour game? Caffeine? Alcohol? Amphetamines? Marijuana? LSD? Something else? Or perhaps nothing at all?

And in what quantity and sequence? Early in the game, in time trouble, etc?

It's only a matter of time before they find 'Chess Steroids'.

Personally, I'm with Stephen Colbert: since the better the performance, the more I enjoy it, I prefer to call these "enjoyment-enhancing" drugs.

Off topic Question:
I am not a mathematician , but i have this question :Why cant be the K factor exactly proportional o the number of games played?
Wouldn t that make things fair for everybody?
I mean not only in 10 15 or 32 , but exactly proportional to the number of games played (ej 17.98) .
My question would be , why do we need to settle to 3 or 4 options (10 , 15, 32) when we can make the K factor fit into the exactly amount of games played?
Sorry if this is incorrect .

Luke, in fact I have not given any thought to which particular drugs are most effective for enhancing chess (or other) performance. I haven't even read much about it, that goes into the kind of detail you're seeking.

The only thing that comes to mind is the cover story in Chess Life a few months back (December 2008, maybe??), called "The Grandmaster Diet." It's primarily about eating, but does discuss caffeine and possibly one or two other non-food items in some detail. And it references a fair amount of medical research.

As for recreational drugs, other than saying alcohol would almost certainly be counter-productive (even in small quantities, I'd guess), I obviously can't comment under my own name. (You've heard of Google, haven't you? Assuming that like me you aren't financially independent - what would happen to your life if you commented about recreational drugs under your real name on a public Web site?) And since it's my self-identified observations you're interested in, that's a bit of a Catch-22, isn't it?

Jon -

Regarding your comment below:

"Luke, in fact I have not given any thought to which particular drugs are most effective for enhancing chess (or other) performance."

I would have expected that you would have thought about it at least a little. I have. But, I don't know the answer.

Anyway, I did not intend to put you into an awkward corner. Sorry about that. I was just asking for your guess, but I understand that there are people who would jump on whatever you said and screech "Jacobs advocates...!"

Purely an unscientific guess on my part, but a little bit of alcohol may be good. Same for caffeine, especially in time trouble. LSD? Definitely not. Nicotine and marijuana...perhaps.

I'd think alcohol (even a small amount) would mostly hurt chess performance. Caffeine has proven to help (see that Chess Life article), and it's fairly obvious nicotine would help - smokers always report feeling sharper, more focused, after getting their fix. As for the illicit drugs you mentioned, I don't necessarily agree, but can't say more.

My concern isn't with chess people or others picking up and broadcasting anything I say - I'm not THAT influential or even known, after all - but rather with the risk of career damage if unfavorable associations showed up alongside my name in engine searches. Don't I have enough worries from my late namesake who co-authored that book on "different" loving? (Hmm, I used to tell people I was glad he died in 2004 because now no one will confuse my identity with his. However, a few days ago I suddenly felt a pang of sadness for him...even wished I had met him. Don't ask me why; I don't share his predilection.)

I've found that a very small amount of alcohol (half a glass of wine, or just a very small sip of something stronger, like single malt scotch whiskey or even vodka or gin) sometimes relaxes me a bit and actually helps my play a little bit. Any more than that however, and there is a noticeable deterioration in results... OK, to many this wouldn't be noticeable... lol

The only thing that helps me is a very relaxed frame of mind, usually after refreshing sleep. Oh, and an obliging opponent.

That certainly helps. A good night's sleep is always the best. Obliging opponents are few and far between. Also, when playing online, a little alcohol. However, no booze when playing otb, although I've done that too.

One of my opponents once came to the board (in an equal ending) with a glass of whiskey. That's cool, I thought. So, since it was happy hour at the hotel bar, I came back with two bottles of beer. A few moves later, we were down to King vs. King.

That was a very interesting point. I would love to share mine too.

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