On Cognitive Doping in Chess (and Life)
The Atlantic Magazine (online)
March 21, 2017
Have you ever wanted to play better chess? To think and work more effectively, seeing moves 10 steps ahead? Vanquishing opponents with mental energy to spare? Well now you can, with cognitive-enhancement drugs.
That’s how the first half of the pharmaceutical commercial might go. The small-print, fast-talking second half would say that limitations apply. Some of the drugs are addictive and likely to alter one’s sleep habits and heart rate and general sense of self. The drugs don’t work if you don’t know how to play chess.
For professional chess players, though, medicinal “neuro-enhancement” (as it’s sometimes dubiously known) could bring in somewhere between 6 and 15 percent more wins. That’s according to the first large study of “highly skilled tournament chess players” comparing their performance in states of medication and sobriety—a study that the World Chess Championship’s publication World Chess has called “landmark” and “groundbreaking.”
A collaborative experiment from researchers throughout Germany and Sweden led by psychiatrist Klaus Lieb at the University of Mainz found that two prescription medications improved chess-winning rates: modafinil (sold most commonly as Provigil) and methylphenidate (sold as Ritalin).