smoke, alcohol, sport and chess

You may have never imagined that some elements which seem to be irrelevant to chess can significantly influence players' performance by affecting their health.

The 8th World Champion Mikhail Tal was reproached for his addiction to smoking. Boris Spassky recollected that Tal once almost lost his life because of smoking. At the midnight when the Soviet team won the world championship, Spassky went to Tal’s room. The door was half-open, and Spassky saw Tal sleeping on a smoldering pillow. There were a lot of cigarette butts, and one was still burning. Startled, Spassky quickly picked up a flagon, got some water and put out the burning cigarette.

Tal smoking

Because of long-term smoking, plus his addiction to alcohol, Tal’s health was devastated severely. His chronic kidney problems were aggravated, which contributed to his defeat in his rematch against Botvinnik in 1961. Botvinnik had thoroughly studied Tal’s style before the rematch, and he commented that if Tal learned to program his life properly, he would become invincible. Tal’s poor health habits caused a slump in his play in the following years. In 1992, Tal was terminally ill, but he fled from the hospital and played the Moscow blitz tournament. His passion for chess propped up his weak body, and he miraculously defeated the contemporary World Champion Kasparov. But this was the last time Tal performed his artistic tactics on chessboard. One month later, unable to withstand the torture of illness, 56-year-old Tal passed away.


Tal on the sickbed

Spassky himself had also been a chain smoker, which resulted in his poor health condition. He had a decisive game against Yasser Seirawan and the game was adjourned. On the way to his room, Spassky collapsed, because his body could not stand so much nicotine. He analyzed the adjourned position on the bed, and on the next day he won the game with his last reserves of strength. But he did not quit smoking until 1975, when he found that his weak body could no longer sustain his mind. He lost to the Austrian grandmaster Andreas Duekstein despite having a good position. After that, he decided to give up smoking. The process was painful, and he often dreamed about smoking. But he had never smoked a single cigarette after he decided to quit smoking.

Spassky Smoking

Alcohol is a perfect companion for chess. Over the past century, advertisements for alcohol used to involve the element of chess. And just like ancient Chinese poet had to drink alcohol before they wrote excellent poems, alcohol can also make chess players imaginative and come up with the most brilliant moves.

Chess in Ads for alcohol

However, immoderate consuming of alcohol is detrimental to players’ performance. As we have mentioned, that Tal suffered from kidney disease largely because of his excessive consumption of alcohol. Another example is the 4th World Champion Alexander Alekhine, who began to be addicted to alcohol since 1930, which aggravated his respiratory disease. He felt that he was not able to think clearly and plan as normal in the World Championship match against Euwe in 1935, and he lost his World Champion title.

This defeat brought Alekhine endless pain, and made him realize that he had to improve his health in order to maximize his strength in chess. He decided to abstain from alcohol for years. His efforts proved to be worthwhile, as he finally retook his World Champion title in the rematch against Euwe two years later. Unfortunately, soon after regaining the title, Alekhine gave up on healthy habits and started drinking again.



Top chess players often lay great emphasis on sports, as doing some sports every day is the best way to release players’ pressure, keep clear minds, and improve their health. The founder of Soviet chess school, World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik also included regular sports inthe disciplines for his students.


Botvinnik’s student, the 12th World Champion Anatoly Karpov was short, thin, and feeble and often got sick when he was young. It was even tough for him to sit in front of chessboard for hours. Botvinnik once commented that there was nothing special in Karpov and he could not see his talents in chess. Karpov realized the importance of a strong physique to his thoughts and endurance during his games. He actively engaged in various sports such as skating, swimming and tennis in order to improve his fitness. In addition, he participated in astronaut training courses every time before important tournaments. By exercising consistently, his mind became sharper and his endurance was improved, which contributed to his excellent performance in many tournaments.

Garry Kasparov believed that chess should be considered as a sport, because it requires considerable endurance and strength. Professional players usually sit in front of the chessboard for hours, and their tournaments can last for weeks, which is a severe test of stamina. Kasparov recollected that he had experienced fevers and allergic reactions during long tournaments due to being too exhausted, but by working out in the gym, swimming, rowing, and playing football on a regular basis, he was able to keep himself energetic and possess enough physical strength to handle long tournaments. He believed that his successes in his late thirties against much younger players partly depended on his physical superiority.

Kasparov playing football

Now it is clear that health is crucial for chess players and can be decisive to their performance in tournaments. If you want to become a brilliant chess player, it is not enough just to study chess multiple hours a day, but also to add this extra edge – health; healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise is definitely one of the greatest advantages that top players possess over players with poor health habits.


Kasparov, G. 2007. How life Imitates Chess.



Young and active tournament player with excellent results including a 1st place at the BSSZ Aranytiz International Master, 1st place at the Chinese Youth Chess Championship G16, and part of the top 10 contenders in two World Chess Championships for girls G16 and G18.

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