Drugs and Chess
The 2008 post-game press conferences of the World Chess Championship were delayed by more than half an hour as each player, Viswanathan Anand and Vladimir Kramnik, had to take their mandatory drug tests. Anand called it completely pointless and said drug testing was made for other sports, but not chess. On October 21, 2008, the two players had to have two separate press conferences as Kramnik finished his drug testing before Anand, who had trouble producing a urine sample.
Even the seconds (assistants) for the two Grandmasters were tested for drugs, even though they were not playing. Their drug tests were considered out-of-competition tests.
The drug testing in chess is part of the FIDE chess deal (supported by FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov) to make chess a sport recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) so that chess can be part of the Sports Olympics. Currently, the IOC does not accept chess or other “mind sports” as part of the Olympics because they entail no physical exertion. They are also reducing rather than increasing the number of Olympic sports. Bowling, racquetball, water skiing, polo, ballroom dancing, surfing, billiards, and squash are currently rejected as an Olympic sport.
Chapter 14 of the FIDE rules deals with doping and drug use.
FIDE, in close collaboration with the National Chess Federations, the International Olympic Committee and the National Olympic Committees dedicates its efforts to ensuring that in chess the spirit of ‘Fair Play’ prevails, leads the fight against doping in sport and takes measures in order to prevent endangering the health of competitors. FIDE has accepted the World Anti-Doping Code and its international standards. Within FIDE the body responsible for this policy is the Medical Commission.
The Commission will agree from time to time, with the International bodies, on the list of prohibited substances and methods of doping that are applicable to chess players. The Commission will be responsible for the Anti-Doping regulations and their execution.
No drugs have ever proven to enhance chess performance by chess players. And so-called memory drugs (if there is such a thing) are not even tested. Research carried out by the Dutch Chess Federation has not produced a single substance that could be considered performance enhancing. Dr. Helmut Pfleger, a Grandmaster and medical doctor (internist and psychotherapist) from Munich, has been conducting experiments of chess players for over 30 years. He says, “Both mentally stimulating and mentally calming medication have too many negative side effects.” Pfleger tested the effects of drugs such as beta-blockers on himself in 1979, in a match with Boris Spassky. Pfleger said, “My blood pressure and pulse plunged, and my game fell apart completely.”
Chess players are tested for drugs that appear on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned list. There are more than 100 substances on the banned list. This includes steroids, Erythropoietin (EPO), amphetamines, diuretics, tranquilizers, beta blockers, cocaine, Ventolin inhalers, etc. This list also includes excess levels of alcohol and cannabis, and, at one time, coffee (caffeine was removed from the WADA list in 2004
Some countries do not recognize the drug testing for chess players. The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) does not consider chess a sport and their chess players are not tested.
The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) also rejects chess as a sport. Mandatory or random drug testing is prohibited at all USCF-rated events. USCF’s FIDE representatives are instructed to campaign against the practices of requiring drug testing at any chess tournament or match.
The first country to support drug testing for chess players was Germany. In 1992, under pressure from the German Sports Federation, the German Chess Federation introduced doping rules in order to qualify for financial assistance for chess.
In 1999, FIDE enforced drug testing in all major FIDE events such as the world championship, Chess Olympiad, or national championship.
The Spanish Chess Federation receives around $320,000 a year from the Council of Sports to test chess players at random during team tournaments and their national championship.
In 2001, a drug test during an Italian tournament resulted in a positive test for an Italian player. He had been taking a common asthma drug. Months later, he was cleared of any wrongdoing after he showed a medical reason for taking the drug.
The 2002 Bled Olympiad was the first to test for drugs through a urine sample. All 802 players passed. GM Jan Timman of the Netherlands refused to play in protest to the drug testing.
In 2004, two players had their scores erased at the 36th World Team Championship (Chess Olympiad) in Calvia, Spain, because they refused to comply with a random drug tested demanded by FIDE. Immediately following her win in the last round, Susan Polgar was “randomly” selected to take a drug test. She had just won the best performance award of the entire Women’s Olympiad in Calvia.
In 2008, Grandmaster Manuel Rivas-Pastor, a three-time former Spanish national champion, was disqualified from the Spanish Chess Championship for refusing to take part in a drug test.
The current FIDE Medical Commission chairperson responsible for enforcing the drug testing is Dr. Jana Bellin, a Woman Grandmaster.
Historically, drug testing in the Olympics came about after an incident. At the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, a cyclist died of an overdose of amphetamines. Afterwards, an IOC Medical Commission was born to test athletes for drugs.
Perhaps the only death attributed to drugs is the case of British player Jessie Gilbert. She was a 19-year-old chess prodigy who plunged to her death from her 8th floor hotel room in Prague. Organizers of the chess tournament she was playing in (Czech Open Chess Championship) believe she committed suicide. She left no note, but medication for depression was found in her room. At age 12, she won the Women’s World Amateur Championship, the youngest player ever to do so.
In 2008, at the Dresden Chess Olympiad, there was a high proportion of drug tests that were scheduled during the last round. GM Vassily Ivanchuk (ranked #3 in the world at the time) lost his last round game and refused to take a drug test. He was threatened with a two-year ban by FIDE. It was later learned that there was a lack of personnel to administer the drug tests and there was not a designated Doping Control Officer present at the match. Due to a procedural error, Ivanchuk was not penalized.
Several years ago, GM Robert Huebner stopped playing for the German national chess team in protest against doping tests. He considers doping tests for chess players to be a bureaucratic show of power, and that the tests are degrading.