Richard G. Petty, MD

Banquo’s Ghost

“Chess is the game which reflects most honor on human wit.” — Voltaire (a.k.a. François-Marie Arouet, French Writer and Philosopher,  1694-1778)

For anyone with even a passing interest in chess, a re-unification match for the World Championship is currently taking place in Elista, the capital city of Kalmykia, a small region of the Russian Federation that is Europe’s only Buddhist country. Though I’m sure that some would quibble about whether it should be in Europe or Asia.

The beginning of the match between two of the world’s top Grandmasters – the aggressive Bulgarian gambler Veselin Topalov and the conservative Russian, Vladimir Kramnik – has led to and 2-0 score in favor of the Russian.

So why am I mentioning this is a blog dedicated to Personal Growth, Healing and Wellness? Because the current one-sided score line has a lot to do with each of these topics. This match is not just about chess playing ability: it is also about psychological and emotional strength, character and resilience.

There was a time when chess masters were unfit, often over-weight and the majority smoked. When I first started playing in tournaments in England, it was quite normal to have ashtrays beside most of the boards.

Oh how things have changed!

Now the players prepare physically, psychologically and some even spiritually with prayer and meditation:

  1. Very few players smoke, not just because of long-term health risk, but because the deleterious effects of lowered oxygen levels on cognition outweigh the short-term improvement in attention caused by nicotine.
  2. Aerobic exercise is essential to ensure that the brain is perfused with oxygen, and if you are physically unfit you cannot expect to survive a number of games that may each last for five or six hours.
  3. Strength training is also essential to overall fitness and physical and the maintenance of psychological resilience. Topalov is going to need that now.
  4. Posture is extremely important. According to Chinese and Ayurvedic physicians and chiropractors, bad posture results in a restriction in the flow of Qi, Prana, or blood. Whether or not you believe in the flow of Qi in the body, it is easy to demonstrate that bad posture has bad effects on cognition.
  5. Flexibility is also an essential part of physical wellness that affects you psychologically as well as physically. Daily stretching should be part of everyone’s life.
  6. Relaxation and meditation: one or other or both are essential tools for maintaining your balance while under stress, and for building resilience.
  7. Diet: a carefully balanced nutritious diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (without any added mercury!) and fiber is essential for optimum mental functioning.
  8. Fluid intake: the current recommendations are for a healthy person to drink between 80 and 120 fluid ounces of pure water each day.
  9. Avoid alcohol: A former World Champion – Alexander Alekhine – lost his title after turning up drunk on a number of occasions during a match to defend his title.

Looking at the pictures from the match, in both games Topalov looked intense and Kramnik far more relaxed. It could have been an illusion: I would need to be in proximity to be sure. In the first game Topalov took a needless risk in a dead level position. In the second, he had an absolutely won game. I’m no grandmaster, but even I spotted a win in three moves. How could he have failed to find it and then lost?

What is the explanation? Chess players have to play a certain number of moves in a specified time, so not only are they playing their opponent, they are also playing against the clock. The biggest prize in the game is on the line, for which both players have been preparing since childhood. And there are hundreds of thousands of people who are watching and analyzing their every move.

I know from personal experience that it can be hard enough to be interviewed on a television show being watched by millions of people, where any false statement would haunt me forever. Imagine having a battle of wits with one of the finest chess players in the world in the knowledge that every move will be analyzed for the next century, and computers are already analyzing every permutation of every move that the two players have made.

The stress on the players is unbelievable. Both have prepared for it, but it is also a matter of who has prepared best: that is a mixture of temperament and training. Just today I read an article talking about ways of avoiding stress. This is silly: stress is part of life and it can provide the motor in motivation. The trick is how we learn to respond to stress.

There is also another stressor that has only been felt by world championship contenders on two or three previous occasions. This match is being played in the shadow of the retirement of Garry Kasparov, who, in the opinion of most people, is the strongest player who ever lived, with the possible exception of Bobby Fischer. The difference is that Bobby became World Champion all by himself, with little help and by inventing a new approach to chess. It is a great tragedy that his life has apparently been blighted by mental illness, and that he has played only a few recorded games in the last 34 years.

By contrast, Garry was the strongest player in the world for twenty years, and in the opinion of most experts would probably still beat both of the current contenders. So whoever wins wants to prove himself a worthy champion. Garry’s specter remains like the ghost of Banquo in the Scottish play.

The final essential is that both players have to detach from the results of the first two games. Kramnik will obviously have his tail up now, but he is too smart and too experienced to give in to complacency. Topalov has to completely forget about the first two games and focus on what lies ahead: I’m sure that he has someone on his team working on simple techniques to stop the past from populating his psychological present.

Whatever lies ahead for these two men in the next few weeks, we shall see that chess is a microcosm of life in general.

“What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it.”
–Jiddu Krishnamurti (Indian Spiritual Teacher, 1895-1986)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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