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Chess and Doping: Two ships passing in the Night? By Salomeja Zaksaite, Postdoctoral researcher at Mykolas Romeris University (Lithuania), and Woman International Chess Master (WIM)

It may 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).


The 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.[1] 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.[2]


So 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.”[3] 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.”[4] Such a “flexible” formulation employed by FIDE suggests that the anti-doping system hardly has a real deterrent effect on elite chess players.


Returning 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[5] (used to treat nasal and sinus congestion and available as the well-known medicine Theraflu) are prohibited, as is heptaminol [6] 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.


Perhaps, 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.[7] 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.


Regarding 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 researcher[8] at Mykolas Romeris University (Lithuania), and Woman International Chess Master (WIM)



[1] Beta-blockers are prohibited in Archery (WA) (also prohibited Out-of-Competition), Automobile (FIA), Billiards (all disciplines) (WCBS), Darts (WDF), Golf (IGF), Shooting (ISSF, IPC) (also prohibited Out-of-Competition), Skiing/Snowboarding (FIS) in ski jumping, freestyle aerials/halfpipe and snowboard halfpipe/big air, http://list.wada-ama.org/prohibited-in-particular-sports/prohibited-substances/.      

[2] In 2004, WADA took all caffeine products out of the prohibited list, in spite of the fact that some caffeine products, such as Animine, can induce serious heart problems and even death if taken in high dosages (de Mondenard, 2004). Quoted from: Paoli L., Donati A. (2014), The Sports Doping Market. Understanding Supply and Demand, and the Challenges of Their Control. Springer New York Heidelberg Dordrecht London, pp. 8.

[3] Venkata Krishna “Now, even Chess players subjected to dope testing”, 20 November 2013, http://www.newindianexpress.com/sport/Now-even-Chess-players-subjected-to-dope-testing/2013/11/20/article1899989.ece .

[4]Decision of the FIDE Doping Hearing Panel, Wijk aan Zee (NED), 21 January 2009, http://www.fide.com/component/content/article/1-fide-news/3704-decision-of-the-fide-doping-hearing-panel

[5] Ephedrine is classified as a specified stimulant (S6) and is prohibited in-competition in all sports, http://list.wada-ama.org/prohibited-in-competition/prohibited-substances/.

[6] Heptaminol is classified as a specified stimulant (S6) and is prohibited in-competition in all sports, http://list.wada-ama.org/prohibited-in-competition/prohibited-substances/.

[7] Actually, the events at Calvia Olympiad are the most known to the chess community. One of those players wrote a blog post accusing FIDE of somewhat “highly flawed” disciplinary hearing.  Shaun Press “FIDE gets it right on drug testing”, 29 November 2008, http://chessexpress.blogspot.nl/2008/11/fide-gets-it-right-on-drug-testing.html. Yet, of course, there were more attempts to test and sanction chess players for anti-doping violations. For example, 2013 WADA report indicates that there were 3 adverse analytical findings (AAF) within those tested (80 samples were taken), however, to my knowledge, the outcomes of these AAF are not publicly available. 2013 Anti‐Doping Testing Figures Samples Analyzed and Reported by Accredited Laboratories in ADAMS, http://www.wada-ama.org/Documents/Resources/Testing-Figures/WADA-2013-Anti-Doping-Testing-Figures-SPORT-REPORT.pdf, pp. 6.

[8] Postdoctoral fellowship is being funded by European Union Structural Funds project ”Postdoctoral Fellowship Implementation in Lithuania”, www.postdoc.lt.

Comments (2) -

  • Clifford

    7/24/2015 9:37:43 AM |

    You fail to consider that abiding by the testing regime may actually be damaging for the health of, particularly older, chessplayers.
    Hans Ree reported that one GM retired after health problems made worse by  abiding by the doping code and avoiding the best drugs for the illness.

  • CLEM REYNOLDS

    12/12/2015 10:02:38 AM |

    "certain substances might enhance performance in chess, and thus, they are prohibited"

    This is not really the case. The general WADA list of banned substances is used (though w/o the beta-blocker appendix), independent of whether such substances might actually enhance chess performance. WADA has repeatedly rejected arguments (in all sports) when a competitor tries to plead that a banned substance isn't really performance enhancing. The Anti-Doping Code is specific about this.

    FIDE had two people refuse tests in 2004 largely for political reasons (and a large number of grandmasters not compete in the first place), and the 2008 Ivanchuk incident, with a related refusal case in a national championship. Back then they might have been able to skirt it, but 10 years down the road, WADA will slap them as being non-compliant if they don't follow the protocol.

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Asser International Sports Law Blog | International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – September - October 2020 - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – September - October 2020 - By Rhys Lenarduzzi


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