Nutrition is a vital factor for brain performance. Thus, it matters a lot when you think about performance in Chess.
While I neglected this fact for a long time, after working with a Sports Nutrition expert I was able to feel the huge differences in my own body.
In this article, I want to share the most important insights of Nutrition in Chess.
Breaking things down very easily, it comes down to three points:
- Hold your blood sugar levels steady
- Eat light & don’t experiment on tournaments
- Don’t threaten your sleep by over-eating in the evening
I wrote the article with my OTB classical games experience in mind. All the tips & information also apply to online games and everyday life! If your brain does not work well, you will not be able to show your best Chess, no matter the time control.
Disclaimer: I am no nutrition expert and this is not health advice. This is for informational purposes only. Every person is different and I encourage you to talk to a professional if you want insights into your personal situation.
My Experience with Nutrition in Chess
Nutrition Before A Chess Game
I have already seen everything in Chess tournaments.
I remember an instance when a Swiss IM came to the first round of the Swiss Championship with a piece of Pizza. With his stomach in full work mode & an energy-deprived brain, he quickly lost that game without a real fight.
When it comes to Nutrition mistakes, double-round tournaments are definitely a blunder festival!
With potentially only an hour between two games, Chess players just grab the food that is closest to the tournament hall. Be it a nice Burger, a kebab, or a sausage, your brain will not thank you with good moves.
What is even worse, some tournaments offer lunch meals in between games that resemble the food you can grab at a football match: Burger, Sausage & anything that will keep your stomach busy for the next 2 hours.
I don’t exclude myself from the list of Chess players grabbing some quick food before games. I vividly remember winning a great game after eating a kebab. As my friend won as well, we decided we have to get a kebab before every afternoon game.
You can get lucky once, but not your whole life… Needless to say, we both lost the next 2 afternoon rounds ????.
Just because eating crap worked once for you, doesn’t mean that it is the right thing! Ever thought that you might have played even better if you would have eaten better?
Nutrition During The Game
Not only is the food before the game important (& usually the choice of Chess players a total catastrophe), also what you eat & drink during your game matters.
Again, you can just walk through any tournament hall to find a great list of Not-To-Do’s. You’ll find energy drinks, Coke’s & a bunch of sugar-dense snacks on the tables.
When I read things like “Thank’s to the red bull (or fifth coffee today) I could focus extremely well” on Twitter, my whole body cringes. After a quick energy boost will follow a long period of low blood sugar levels where you will have trouble finding even easy tactics.
Now that I have established what most players (including myself some years ago) do, let me explain to you why these foods are bad for your focus and what you can do better
Hold Your Blood Sugar Level Steady
The most important thing to remember is that your blood sugar level should be steady throughout the game.
You don’t want any big spikes, because after going up it has to inevitably go down again…
That is why anything that gives you that quick boost is actually really dangerous. You will feel extremely alert for 10-20 Minutes, before dropping into a low for the next hour or two.
Avoid Quick Sugar Mainly In Soft Drinks & Energy Drinks
As a first rule, avoid any direct sugar that you find in soft drinks. They are not only bad for your general health, but also bad for your performance at Chess tournaments!
Especially Red Bull & other energy drinks are the true nightmare for concentration! The combination of caffeine + sugar will turn your brain on hyper-vigilance for a quick period before putting you into a mental comma for a longer period to follow.
If you don’t checkmate your opponent while your brain is in over-power mode, you’ll most likely make a mistake later on.
Some of you might say: but there are many sportsmen sponsored by RedBull that drink it during their performance. But that is wrong. This is only a marketing stunt. I know first hand that these RedBull’s are mostly filled with Water.
Both RedBull and their sportspeople know this is a horrible drink to consume during high-performance activity. But Money rules the World…
Talking about Caffeine, I will also have to bring you the bad news that Coffee is not that great a drink either!
Once drinking coffee is a habit, your body needs caffeine in order to fully focus (or feel awake). This dependence is not what you are looking for. Having too little or too much coffee during a game will be a problem for you.
The less you need to feel ready the better! Tim Ferriss, an avid coffee drinker, even went as far as to say, “Cutting out caffeine can have the same effect on your brain as meditation.” Which is absolutely wild if you think about it!
As a quick fix if you are drinking daily coffee, just make sure to bring the right amount of coffee that you like to the game.
Just ordering coffee whenever you feel like will most likely lead to you drinking too little or too much coffee which is what you absolutely want to avoid.
Back to the blood sugar level.
Several Smal Bites Instead of A Big Meal
Instead of eating big before the game and then stopping eating until you finish the game, you should eat a little before the game (1.5-3 hours before the game starts is best!) and then keep on eating small bites in each hour of play.
This comparison might seem weird at first, but you should eat similarly to a Tennis Player & or cyclist. Both are endurance sports and if you watch carefully, they eat & drink small bites every now and then.
As explained in my article on the subject if Chess is a sport, we actually burn a LOT of calories during a Chess game. From that point, we aren’t that far away from these two endurance sports.
You won’t see Federer eat a whole Banana in between two sets because he feels hungry. He will take a bite of the banana every time he sits down in between games. The same applies to Chess.
The more regularly & smaller you can take some energy to you, the easier it will be for you to digest it.
That means your stomach won’t require much energy to work and your blood sugar levels stay the same throughout the game! Once you feel a big “low” in energy or blood sugar levels, it is already too late! It will take some time to bring the level up again and in this period of time, you will be extremely vulnerable to oversights.
I’m not letting you go without a nice list of food & drinks I can recommend and a list you should avoid.
Great nutrition during games:
- Sports Bars (low quality bars usually have quick sugar, while high quality bars have complex sugars that go slowly into your blood, just what you want!) –> For the past 2 years I stuck with Hammer Nutrition Bars, recommended by my Nutritionist
- Protein drinks or isotonic sport drinks (again complex sugar, not immediately going into your blood system)
- Tea (spice teas are especially good for your brain!)
- Dark Chocolate (70%+ and low sugar)
Avoid During games:
- Energy drinks
- Soft Drinks
- Chocolate with lots of sugar & milk
Now that your blood sugar levels are stable, you need to watch out for your stomach. Eating heavy food will give your stomach tons of work. During that period, the stomach takes a lot of energy which would be needed for your brain.
I am sure you remember many instances you eat a great but very heavy meal (Thanksgiving, Christmas & other festivities are a great example) and then crashed on your couch and wanted to… SLEEP.
Your stomach was so busy that you had no energy whatsoever. “Recovering from a meal” is something I hear often. It is insane that some Chess players do the same thing to their body before a 6-hour game. Like WHAT THE ****.
No wonder you will mix up your opening prep or blunder a piece. You basically checkmated your brain before the game, how do you expect to find good moves then?
There are two rules for any meal during a tournament (yes also dinner, more to that later on) that can change your performance drastically:
- If having the choice, take the lighter meal
- Do NEVER experiment on tournaments
Eating light does not mean simply eating less. It means eating food that your stomach can easily digest.
Saying no to sweets & dessert before games is mostly a smart move. Also, avoid big chunks of (red) meat (especially if it contains lots of fat), heavy sauces, and cheese.
Eat good quality food that is not processed a lot. My standard meal for tournaments was some chicken with rice. This gives me great nutrients that hold for a long time and don’t bother my stomach.
The opposite would be eating a sausage with an onion & beer sauce with fries. While you might be happy while eating it, you will pay for it in the coming hours.
Note that all your hard training at home can be in total vain if you decide to eat some junky food before a game.
Being at a new place can induce some temptations to try out new things. While I very much understand the wish, I want to urge you to refrain from making experiments on tournaments.
The risk is simply too big. You do not know how your stomach will react to food or drinks you never had before. Stay one or two days after the tournament to try out whatever you wish.
As explained in my article on tournament preparation, buying the food & drinks you want to consume during your games is part of a pre-tournament routine.
This might seem excessive, but there are thousands of sports bars. Some are good, others are horrible. If you find one that you like & react well to, stick with it!
This is especially true if you travel to different countries and continents. But also in your hometown, you don’t want to run the risk to forget buying your snacks and then starving during the game.
Again, tournaments are not the place to try out new things. Stick to what you know and your stomach & brain will thank you with great chess moves.
Don’t Threaten Your Sleep By Over-eating In The Evening
One point that is crucial but I was oblivious to for a long time is that dinner actually matters a lot too.
One might think this is the moment to go out with friends and enjoy a big chunk of meat combined with some beers.
While this sounds like a lot of fun, I want to encourage you to also pay attention to what you eat & drink in the evening.
Eating too late, too heavy or too much in the evening is one of the main reasons for bad sleep! Your body can’t fully recharge if the stomach has still hours of work to do at your bedtime.
This is proven scientifically. And I realize it every time I eat late or heavy in the evenings. I’m tracking my sleep score with the amazing Oura Ring (I can wholeheartedly recommend that, the best investment in the last 2 years!).
One pattern that is very consistent is that I get a lot less Deep Sleep if I eat late or heavy!
In most cases, the app will even signal that by itself saying something along the lines of: “you did not get enough deep sleep tonight. Did you eat late or heavy yesterday? Try to eat earlier & lighter to improve deep sleep tonight”.
Especially alcohol & heavy meals including red meat can be problematic for your sleep.
I know you are most likely not a professional and this sounds as if no fun was allowed.
Try to think about it in this way: you spend a lot of time & money on Chess and then you impede your development by not refraining from a piece of cake or some beers.
You absolutely owe it to yourself to give yourself a shot to play your best Chess in every game you play. I’m sure you will enjoy the experience much more if you actually play good Chess.
At least give yourself the chance to do so!
Again, try to stay one or two days longer to go out partying & do whatever you feel like. But during the tournament, stick to a healthy routine and be careful about what you eat.
Your decisions off the board might cost you more points than you can imagine!
Summary On Nutrition In Chess
Nutrition plays a big role in Chess improvement. If you want to play your best Chess, you should feed your body like a Ferrari. Make sure to:
- Keep your Blood Sugar at a similar level throughout the game(s)
- Eat light & easy digestible food
- Pay attention to your nutrition in the evening, it might impede your sleep!
Make sure to experiment at home. Find out which nutrients are best for your focus. You can use different snacks & drinks during training sessions and rate your focus. Whatever works best will probably also work best during the game!
Once you found out what works, buy it in advance. This is part of pre-tournament preparation.
Refrain from the temptation to go broke in the evenings if you have a game the next day. Your body will thank you with a bunch of better chess moves, more energy, and maybe even some extra years to your adventure here on earth.
To quote one of the most inspirational thinkers these days (check out his Twitter!):
All self-help boils down to “choose long-term over short-term”.Naval Ravikant
Ps: If you enjoyed this article, make sure to check out my Chess Training Planner. Organize your Chess training and start improving like you never did before!