Peter Zhdanov
27 April 2022

Should You Play Chess When You are Ill?

If you are following the Oslo Esports Cup (don’t tell me you aren’t!), you have surely noticed that Magnus Carlsen has been struggling with some health issues throughout the event. He looks weary and is sometimes on the verge of falling asleep over the board, has a nasty cough and walks around shakily, trying to speak to the reporters as little as possible.

Unfortunately, sicknesses are an unavoidable part of a tournament player’s routine. Let’s say you find out before or during an event that you are ill. How do you handle this dire situation?

Decide whether to play on or withdraw

In a perfect world, you should seek medical help and then decide whether to continue or not. However, quite often the symptoms are not that scary, and you have no possibility to consult the right doctor in due time, so you have to take risks and make decisions on the spot.

We have had a long discussion on this topic in the 2000s with Natalia Pogonina. I was arguing in favor of withdrawing when you are sick. My points were that when you are ill, you might worsen your condition by playing on. Also, you tend to perform poorly, hurting your rating and not winning any prize. Overall, the whole process feels more like a torture than entertainment. Moreover, even when you are not ill, some players, for instance, participants of open events in the US, routinely drop out of the tournament if they start poorly. The reason for this is that the prize fund there typically has a pyramid shape, and only finishing in the top spots allows you to reap tangible rewards. Therefore, if you start with, let’s say, 2/4, you are out of contention and may as well save yourself some time by withdrawing from the event.

Natalia, however, disagreed and pointed out that one should have a fighter’s spirit and be ready to play on even if things are not going your way. What she said was essentially “Winners never quit, quitters never win”, even though she doesn’t like such simplistic motivational quotes. As far as I remember, regardless of the issues she has been having, she only withdrew from one tournament in her life. And that was in the Russian Women’s Superfinal in 2009, when the doctors stated that playing on was an absolute no-no.

I can see where she is coming from. Once you start nurturing your inner weaknesses, you will eventually fall apart psychologically and be giving up on tournaments not only when you are seriously ill, but when you feel tired, distracted, burned out, demotivated and so on. This is a slippery path that can lead to quitting competitive chess in general.

Also, she has this attitude of a player who regularly competes at the most prestigious individual and team women’s tournaments and/or gets appearance fees. The responsibility in such events is on a different level compared to someone who plays local open events just to have fun. Of course, one does not simply bow out of a World Championship or Chess Olympiad after catching a cold.

Overall, I believe there is some truth to both her and my arguments. A lot depends on whether you are an amateur, semi-pro or pro player. For most of us, our wellbeing should arguably be of a much higher priority than tournament standings or FIDE ratings. For pros who live by the “chess is my life” motto, the conclusion could be different.

In 1961, Mikhail Tal was scheduled to play a rematch against Mikhail Botvinnik. The conventional narrative is that in the 1960 match Botvinnik didn’t take his opponent seriously enough and lost the title, 8.5-12.5. Then the Patriarch of Soviet Chess did his homework, revamped his openings, and came back in style, convincingly defeating the Magician from Riga, 13-8. This story has another plot as well. Mikhail Tal generally had fragile health and therefore died young. Before the rematch, he was having serious issues with his kidneys and asked for a postponement. Mikhail Botvinnik, a formalist and someone who argued that one should never do your opponents any favors, demanded that Tal undergo an extensive examination in Moscow. Indirectly, he was hinting that the illness was a cover-up. Tal was insulted and, according to his coach, Alexander Koblentc, blurted out, “Even if I am half-alive, I will still beat the old fart!” As a result, aged 24, Misha Tal became the youngest Ex-World Chess Champion and never got another shot at the title.

Bobby Fischer visiting Mikhail Tal in a hospital in 1962

Sharing is not caring

I have known some selfish chess players who made such decisions based only on their personal wellbeing and even joked about "evening the odds" by infecting the opponents. However, if you believe the illness you have may be contagious, there is an important aspect of caring about other participants.

At the FIDE World Cup 2021, Levon Aronian, who was the #3 seed, forfeited both games in the second round of the event for health-related reasons. As far as I know, his decision was based not only on his personal problems, but also on the unwillingness to put other participants of the tournament at risk.

Learn from the Zen master

Let’s say you have weighed all the pros and cons and made a responsible decision to keep playing on.

Interviews with Vladimir Kramnik have been eye-opening for me when it comes to dealing with illnesses as a chess player. His tips are especially useful for people like me, perfectionists and control freaks, who try too hard to perform well.

According to Kramnik, in general, no matter how well you prepare for an important event, there are no guarantees that everything will go smoothly. There is always some magic involved. Sometimes you do everything “right”, and the result is terrible. In other cases, you are facing one obstacle after another, but the outcome is favorable.

Kramnik has been known for playing tournaments with an extreme fever, sleep-deprived, experiencing pains in his body and so on. According to him, especially as you become older, you are getting used to the new norm of not feeling totally OK on pretty much any day. If you embrace it and treat it as an exciting challenge that is part of every person’s life, it is much easier to deal with the issues. Moreover, it is a good way to shake off the stress and tension that haunts some people who are obsessed with their tournament performances. In other words, if you let go of the burden of performing at your best and focus on (literally) surviving the day, sometimes your results even improve! In fact, Kramnik has won some tournaments feeling extremely poorly, and his opponents were not even aware of this!

Some friendly trolling from the 14th World Chess Champion

Adapt to the circumstances

If you are experiencing health issues, think how to make life easier for yourself.

In 1985 in Tilburg, Tony Miles was going through severe back pains. To soothe them somehow, he took painkillers and played while lying flat on a massage table. One of his opponents, Roman Dzindzhichashvili, said that in return he will stand throughout the entire game! He also smoked over the board, which was not forbidden back then. It is hard to say whether Miles’ decision was justified or not. As far as I know, his doctor lamented that lying on his belly with such a condition was the worst thing he could have done. Still, from a chess perspective, it was a lifehack that allowed him to play on in the tournament. Notably, Miles shared the first place there with Robert Huebner and Viktor Korchnoi, scoring 8.5 points out of 14.

Play safe and solid openings

When you are feeling sick, it makes sense to fall back upon your solid, bulletproof opening repertoire that you know from a to z. That is, if you have it, of course! In contrast, experimenting with openings and trying out new sharp lines that you haven’t mastered yet can lead to a disaster. When you are sick, you need to minimize the amount of calculation required, because blunders are much more likely to come as compared to when you are your normal self.

You would normally not expect Magnus Carlsen to make such blunders. However, when you are sick, everything is possible!

Cut down on opening preparation

If you are one of those people who spend hours rehearsing their opening lines before the round, it may be a way of shooting yourself in the foot when you are ill. If your head is dizzy, you are unlikely to memorize the lines well, and getting yourself tired before the match even starts can become your undoing. However, if you play your trusted openings (see the previous item), you are less likely to need a lot of time for rehearsing.

Consider making a few short draws

This tip is particularly useful when you are struggling with a short-term issue that lasts only a couple of days, such as a cold. When you face a friend or someone lower-rated than yourself, there is an option of trying to make/offer a quick draw to save some precious energy and buy yourself some time for recovery. Of course, you had better not show weakness by desperately begging for a draw after the first few moves. Otherwise, the opponent might figure out that something spooky is going on and turn down your offer.

Back in the XXth century, so-called “Grandmaster draws” were quite popular. In long round robins, players would make early draws with opponents whom they knew well and respected and focus on beating the underdogs. Bobby Fischer was particularly mad about this practice since the Soviet GMs would regularly draw each other, saving energy, and target the rest of the field.

I recall sitting next to a guy who had the habit of showing up at tournaments drunk. This time, he was so under the weather that he could barely move the pieces. He started out with 1.d4, made a couple more moves and, shaking his head and scratching his long beard, squinted through his glasses and muttered: “The position is so CLOSED. I guess it is a draw!” The opponent knew him quite well, had a lower rating and was Black, so he agreed. The arbiter, who was observing this spectacle all along, finally intervened and lectured the first guy, warning that he will be excluded from the tournament if this happens again. As a result, I have added another catchphrase to my arsenal about the position being “closed” and hence drawn. Of course, you should use it for comic relief when the situation on the board is as far from this description as can be.

That being said, I wish you to stay healthy and be able to play your best chess!

Let’s return to the Oslo Esports Cup. So far, Magnus 10 has proved out to be a formidable opponent for some of the best chess players in the world. Can you do better than them? Download the Play Magnus app and give the challenge a try!


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