Posted on October 12, 2017 by Wesley Surber.

Caffeine, Psych Medications, and Chess

It seems common these days for the mainstream media to relentlessly scrutinize every facet of society in some desperate and misguided attempt to break news of the next big scandal. Unfortunately, chess has never been immune to scandal or to media witch hunts. A recent trend in professional chess discussions, in fake news mainstream media, and in recent years in online communities like Reddit has focused attention on chess game influence from stimulants like caffeine and medications like Adderall, which is an amphetamine used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

The Straw Man Setup

Mental Health suffers (no, really…it does) from unshakable stigmas brought on by media portrayal of psychological conditions in addition to the very real (and horrific) ways in which psychiatric patients were treated in the science’s early days. You do not have to look further than one of the world’s largest group of psychiatric patients, the Church of Scientology, and its Psychiatry: Museum of Death to see that the science of repairing and sustaining psychological wellbeing has experienced its share of dark days. Mass media tends to project this perception of Mental Health through books, movies, and video games set in dark psychiatric hospitals designed as gothic cathedrals (think: Outlast). The days of massive, cathedral-like psychiatric hospitals are mostly gone; replaced with advances in psychiatric medications and behavioral therapies. Yet, controversies have also followed recent advancements in psychiatric management via medication.

Psychiatric Medications as Performance Enhancers

The use of medications or therapy to restore a patient’s functional ability is often viewed as a means of returning that person to lifestyle levels on par with much of society. When a person experiences a debilitating psychiatric condition, the same philosophy is often used to restore that person to a normalized sense of function. In some instances, these people surpass their prior cognitive functions. Countless books and movies have been written about miracle mind drugs that unlock the other 90% of our brain function (think: Limitless). But what happens when the stigma and misconceptions surrounding medication-based psychiatric care give rise to the idea that these treatment methods are on par with performance enhancing drugs like steroids?

Longtime readers and friends know that I am just as obsessive about baseball as I am about chess. Unfortunately, my beloved sport was rocked a few years ago by a steroid scandal that tainted its image for the foreseeable future. Greats like Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds will likely never see their names in the Hall of Fame because of their association with the scandal. The drugs that they allegedly took were steroid cocktails designed to improve their physical performance on the field, not prescription medications for treating a debilitating illness. Steroids are prescribed for some patients, but those prescriptions are carefully controlled and no doctor in their right mind would prescribe them to help someone perform better on the baseball diamond. But what happens when someone takes a medication designed to affect mood, concentration, and memory?

Medication in the Ultimate Mind Sport

The subheading says it all: chess IS the ultimate mind sport. The only physical requirement is the ability of a player to move pieces around the board, but technology advances have even removed that barrier with voice-activated boards available for a variety of computers. Media focus is often on prodigies and eccentric personalities in chess, but anyone willing to put forth a little effort can be successful at playing the game.

ADHD and other psychiatric medications can have a significant effect on a person’s ability to concentrate for extended amounts of time. The misconceptions about these drugs are that they unlock or enhance the brain’s overall functioning and can raise a person’s intelligence level. There are no compelling studies that show Adderall or similar psych medications actually improve cognitive performance beyond focus and concentration. An person with ADHD without an interest in chess is not going to rise easily to Grandmaster levels of play.

A Personal Insight

This topic is of great personal interest to me because I suffer from ADHD and regularly take medications. Long before I was diagnosed with the disorder, I was adamantly opposed to the idea of ADHD and dismissed it as pseudoscientific propaganda. After being thoroughly evaluated by specialists and prescribed medication treatment a few years ago, I am a firm believer and advocate for treatment.

Yet, after years of medication and therapy for my ADHD, my chess skills have not improved a sizeable amount beyond the time and attention that I have been willing to invest in the game. Even with ADHD support medications, sometimes chess (or writing about chess) is of no interest to me. It is my belief based on personal experience and correspondence with other ADHD sufferers that this is true for most people. It allows us to focus our attention more like a normal person and less like the mass of scattered noise we tend to be, but it does not increase our skills at chess or ability to read the minds of our opponents.

Final Thought

In my amateur opinion, professional chess doses not have the same problem with caffeine and stimulants that baseball has with steroids. The community should take time to educate itself on these disorders, treatment, and how that treatment affects (or does not affect) their study habits and game play.

Posted on by Wesley Surber.

lichess.org on iOS Is Mobile Chess At It’s Finest

Editor’s Note: This review focuses exclusively on the iOS (iPhone/iPad) version of lichess, but the Google Play version contains all of the same features as it’s Apple counterpart. Performance and compatibility will vary depending on the device used.

Not long ago you could find me singing praises of the Chess.com app on iOS. The app received a major update a few months before the site’s V3 design went live. But this entry is not about Chess.com or it’s mobile app. This is about an app that has emerged as a serious competitor to the largest chess website on the internet: lichess.org.

lichess.org is a 100% free and open source chess platform that offers many of the same features you would find on major competitors, but with some noteworthy differences.

  • Zero advertising! In an age where the internet seems more saturated with advertisements than meaningful content, lichess strips away the advertising model and relies on user donations to fund its operations. There are no premium or exclusive memberships although certain donation levels can get you a special identifier showing that you sup port the site.
  • Unlimited free access! In keeping with the earlier line about advertising, all of lichess’s puzzles and training aids are free to all users. This is definitely an attractive feature for players not wanting to pay for tactics and puzzles.

These are great features, but lichess really shines in its mobile offering, especially on iOS. The lichess iOS app is one of the most polished and useable chess apps out there!

The home screen displays a random Puzzle of the Day along with quick options to start a new game. Simply click the board to access the lichess puzzle repository and begin your training with access to thousands of free tactics.

Clicking the Create a Game button brings up a mobile version of the lichess game creation screen. Users can then link up with thousands of other lichess members and try their skills against more than a dozen different chess variations.

Bullet and Blitz seem to be very popular with many of lichess’ higher-rated players. Personally, I enjoy the 15+15 classical (rapid) time control because it has a nice balance of requiring chess experience while allowing for some time to conduct a deeper positional analysis. Regardless of your personal preference, the lichess app has nearly endless options for setting up the chess game of your dreams.

The lichess app also comes with an analysis board and local engine analysis for reviewing your games. I have also found this helpful for playing the game on the app with a person sitting next to me. Additionally, the Openings Explorer is a feature you will find on most chess websites, but I love how lichess’ version is almost seamlessly integrated into the analysis board. This way a user can easily switch back and forth between local Stockfish engine analysis and the Openings Explorer. This is an invaluable tool when conducting post-mortem game evaluations.

Final Verdict

These days it seems like the world of internet chess is growing faster and faster. New services crop up regularly and existing ones continue updating and refining their products. lichess is not new, but it is one of the more recent services to make a splash in the digital chess world. In my opinion, lichess is set apart from others in that it is a labor of love for its developer and those who maintain it.

Combine these small differences with the depth of features and the price (free), lichess’ mobile app is easily the gold standard for playing the royal game on the go.

Campfire Rating: ♟♟♟♟♟

Download the lichess mobile app from the App Store or Google Play.