come as a surprise to laymen, but chess players are subjected to doping testing.
Naturally, then, the questions follow as to why they are tested, and if they are
really tested (at least, with a level of scrutiny comparable to that which
physically-oriented athletes are regularly subjected).
answer to the first question is two-fold. There is an “official” answer and a “pragmatic”
answer. Regarding the ostensible one, rather typical doping terminology is employed:
certain substances might enhance performance in chess, and thus, they are prohibited.
A layperson might ask: “what substances
are these?” One fair guess could be beta-blockers – those medications which
help reduce heart rates in times of anxiety and thus contribute to clearer
thinking, and which are prohibited inter
alia in shooting. That sounds pretty sensible; however (mainly due of the
lack of scientific evidence on the actual performance enhancing), beta-blockers
are not prohibited in chess. As
far as I know, chess players do not use beta-blockers, and I cannot imagine
that they ever actually will use them to enhance their performance. Nor
do chess players use anabolics, EPO, growth hormones – or any other of the
“classical” doping substances. What might be an issue is caffeine because of
its stimulant properties, but it was excluded from the list of prohibited
substances in 2004.
what are the substances chess players do use? The reigning world
champion Magnus Carlsen drinks freshly squeezed orange juice and many top
players drink either water or coffee, or both… This is “doping” for chess
players. The aforementioned champion was tested several times and said that “there
is not so much point of drugs testing in chess, I must admit. However, if I
must, then I must.”
In 2008 Dresden Chess Olympiad, Vassily Ivanchuk refused to participate in a doping
control and actually no penalties were applied as the whole chess community defended
him. The official FIDE (World Chess Federation) statement was that he
“apparently failed to understand the instructions, especially since English is
not Mr. Ivanchuk’s first language.” Such
a “flexible” formulation employed by FIDE suggests that the anti-doping system
hardly has a real deterrent effect on elite chess players.
to the legal discourse, we should pose some fundamental questions originally
coming from the jurisprudence of European Court of Human Rights. These
questions read as follows: Is the anti-doping system restrictive, and is the
restrictiveness proportionate to the aim that is being sought to achieve? The
answer to the first question is positive: the doping system is undoubtedly
restrictive. Testing might not only be unpleasant, but also, some accidental factors
must be taken into account, and additional time is needed to grasp the medical
instructions in order not to trigger a positive test because of some
inadvertently taken substances. Most people might not know it, but ephedrine and
its form pseudoephedrine (used to treat nasal and
sinus congestion and available as the well-known medicine Theraflu) are
prohibited, as is heptaminol 
which falls into Ginkorfort and/or other herbal products. These medicines are
sold in pharmacy without a prescription. So, all the athletes – including chess
players – should avoid such substances in-competition and some period before
the competition. For instance, although the swimmer Frédérick Bousquet stated that he bought the
incriminated medicine from a pharmacy, he was tested positive for the
heptaminol in 2010, and handed a two month doping ban. Last but not least, each
doping test costs about $400 USD. Therefore, some proportionality test should also
be applied, weighing the costs and benefits of the anti-doping fight. Thus, to
my mind the anti-doping system within the context of chess is not proportionate
to achieve its aim – which is to create a level playing field and a clean game.
leaving the legal discourse aside is necessary to unveil the real (not postulated)
aims lying behind the adoption of an anti-doping policy in chess. Indeed,
political considerations overruled the proportionality test, and all the more
interesting is that the chess community, in turn, “silently” accepted those pragmatic
considerations. Guess what? Chess officials as well as players really want to
get into the Olympic Games. In other words, the chess community would love
being an Olympic sport, and hence, if we must, we would silently accept those unnecessary
tests. To my knowledge, only a few players have ever been caught and punished.
For instance, the games of two players were forfeited, since they refused
to provide a sample to doping control at the Calvia Olympiad 2004. It is
quite a telling indicator of the potential gap between anti-doping rules and
the practical implementation of those rules. And it is not because chess
players are absolutely clean (who knows – perhaps they use cannabis or cocaine
not less frequently than other athletes caught). It is because everyone
understands that the system is designed not for chess, and therefore, “sensibly”
does not strictly implement it.
the title of the blog post: chess players hardly could be associated with
doping, but they are! Chess and doping could be compared to the two ships in
the darkness that are just saying “hello” to each other, but not really communicating.
Hence, we carry the little burden of some inconvenience related to doping
testing, but the sweetness of such burden (that is the utopian hopes for
inclusion in the Olympics, which probably will not come into effect in the
upcoming decade or so) somehow compensates for such discomfort.
By Salomeja Zaksaite, Postdoctoral
at Mykolas Romeris University (Lithuania), and Woman International Chess Master