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 November 10, 2016 by Wesley Surber.

Recovering from the World Series

Obviously, this post is not about chess and it is much more heartfelt than a typical Campfire Chess post. Before chess was such an important part of my life, there was the Cleveland Indians and Major League Baseball, yes…in that order. As a longtime fan of the Tribe, I have lived on the razor’s edge with countless other fans watching a team move to the brink of victory only to watch that achievement slip away in the final moments. It happened in the 1997 World Series when the Indians lost to the Florida Marlins in an 11 inning Game 7, much like what happened last week in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series against the Chicago Cubs. Suffice to say that when the final out was recorded at Progressive Field on November 2nd, yours truly immediately switched off the television and sunk into a deep depression. Really? you might ask? Yes, my answer is yes…a depression.

A Deep Passion, a Passionate Love

Sports fans are generally maligned by much of society because sports are often seen as a waste of time, but there is much to be gained from cheering for a team or a sport that speaks to the essence of your being. Baseball has always spoken to me because there is a beautiful perfection in its obsession with numbers, stats, measurements, and finesse. What might seem slow and boring to some people is very powerful for me and for the many fans of the game I have met throughout the years. Just as it is with chess, it is the elegance and intricacies of the game that open up the true beauty and meaning for those of us who have committed our hearts to it. I committed my heart to the scruffy Tribe in their home on Lake Eerie many years ago and have endured countless heartbreaks, but nothing has come close to what I experienced on that November 2nd night when the Chicago Cubs celebrated their first World Series victory in 108 years on the grass at our home, Progressive Field.


Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians (Credit: MLB.com)

Anyone who has experienced a relationship loss or gone through hard times with a loved one knows that people react differently to these kinds of situations. Some people are able to cope with them much more effectively than others. Some shut down, and others never fully recover. For me, losing Game 7 was like having a close lover break some of the worst news imaginable to me, which caused me to shut down. I removed many of the baseball feeds from my Twitter and Facebook accounts while also limiting the news I read related to baseball in general. I was not angry with the Tribe, just incredibly disappointed. Yet, that feeling of disappointment was only part of the more complex picture. What did the Indians have to be ashamed of in this World Series? Absolutely nothing! Game 7 was one of the most incredible baseball games I have ever witnessed and it seems that both Indians and Cubs fans agree. After a day or so I realized that what I was dealing with is much like what happens when someone close to us hurts us and we are unsure of how to deal with it. I realized that my love for the Indians was as strong as ever, but they had hurt me and it would take time to recover, but I would recover. Both of us would recover.

Little Kisses from God

My wife taught me a phrase a few years ago: little kisses from God. It’s when things are going badly, but God puts people or situations into our lives that help to reinvigorate us or to remind us that he is still there. A day after the World Series ended, I received my Indians 2016 American League Championship t-shirt in the mail; that felt like a punch in the gut. Yet, a few days later I started receiving other memorabilia I ordered from the MLB Shop including a mixture of items with the World Series and American League Championship emblems on them. None of these spoke to me as much as my limited edition ALCS Championship photograph with a piece of a ball used in Game 1 at Progressive Field. I realized when that photo arrived that God was using these things to show me that there is much good in what happened despite the hurt.

“Losing can be tough, but if I told you on February 12, 2016 that we would be playing Game 7 of the World Series at Progressive Field here in Cleveland, you would not have believed me.” – Tom Hamilton (Indians radio announcer)

The recovery process is ongoing and this entry is a big part of that recovery process. But, Spring Training is right around the corner and a rested Indians team will arrive ready to try again. The triumphs, pain, and sorrows of 2016 will be replaced with the blank scorecards of 2017 as all 30 MLB teams begin the quest to fulfill their dreams of being on the world’s biggest stage. I congratulate the Chicago Cubs, who had a lifelong devoted fan in my wife’s grandmother. Both teams fought incredibly hard and no loss or victory was unearned. There will be complete healing eventually, but this is the kind of heartbreak that leaves a scar. I only pray that it is a scar that allows me to cultivate gratitude for the good things that have happened and will happen in the future.