Described by The Guardian as “Netflix’s unlikeliest hit of the year”, The Queen’s Gambit follows the story of orphaned Beth Harmon as she rises to stardom in the chess world. Not only has the series created an impressive increase in the demand for chess sets, it has also helped to raise awareness of drug addiction in competitive settings.
While xanzolam - the name of the little green pills featured in the film - does not exist, the book on which the series is based makes reference to librium or chlordiazepoxide – a type of benzodiazepine. Beth’s addiction stems from her childhood when xanzolam was prescribed to the children in her orphanage as a tranquiliser. But after a law is passed to ban their use, Beth turns to theft and more to fuel her addiction.
In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth does not use xanzolam to improve her game - her addiction had already begun before she discovered her love of chess. However, there are drugs which have been proven to boost chess performance, as a groundbreaking 2017 study showed. Here, we delve into what this study covered, how these drugs impact on a player’s game, and the implications for the world of competitive chess.
What did the study test for?
The study - Methylphenidate, modafinil, and caffeine for cognitive enhancement in chess: A double-blind, randomised controlled trial - was published in the European Neuropsychopharmacology journal in March 2017. It sought to establish whether the use of methylphenidate (an ADHD and narcolepsy drug), modafinil (a narcolepsy treatment) and caffeine could lead to cognitive enhancements that could improve chess play.
Participants were given a controlled dose of either one of these substances or a placebo, before playing a quick-fire series of chess games - each limited to 15 minutes - against the Fritz 12 chess programme, which had been set to match their playing strength.
The results revealed that all three of the substances increased the time the participants spent thinking before they played their next move. Because the study focused on timed, 15-minute games, this meant participants given one of these three substances lost more games, as they ran out of time. However, when the results were corrected to remove the games that were lost because of the time issue, researchers found both methylphenidate and modafinil significantly increased scores, while caffeine offered a slight, but not statistically significant, improvement.
Professor David Nutt, ex-President of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, commented on the study: “We have known for decades that stimulants improve sustained performance through reducing fatigue effects on attention and vigilance. So these current data provide new and controlled data in chess - a test of complex cognitive function. It’s likely that other stimulants could do the same so this does raise interesting issues for regulators of these activities. Clearly more research is needed.”
What is the impact on drug testing in competitive chess?
This study was carried out in order to establish whether substances such as these, which have been shown to enhance cognitive performance, should be tested for by competitive chess bodies. Not only could their misuse improve a player’s performance, but they can have harmful side effects. Modafinil can cause psychological dependence, while methylphenidate can also have similar effects to crack cocaine and amphetamines when abused intranasally.
In January 2015, The World Chess Federation (FIDE) introduced an anti-doping code, based on WADA best practices and the World Anti-Doping Code. FIDE’s anti-doping rules use WADA’s Prohibited List, which lists both modafinil and methylphenidate as prohibited substances. Caffeine, meanwhile, is not prohibited. The FIDE anti-doping code states both random and with-cause testing can be conducted - and both in-play and out of play. As yet, however, no single chess player has been convicted of substance misuse.
What could the future of drug testing in chess look like?
It may well be the case that no more will be done to make drug testing procedures in competitive chess more rigorous unless good reason is given. This is exactly what happened in the world of video gaming when, in 2015, top gamer Kory Friesen admitted to taking ADHD medication Adderall during a competition. This prescription-only substance can sometimes be used illicitly to reduce reaction times and increase concentration.
As a result of his admission, the Electronic Sports League promised to work with WADA to create an anti-doping policy for the league: a league with prizes of over $500,000 and sponsorship deals to be made for the top players.
In 2019, after the anti-doping programme had been run for a few years, Sporting Integrity consultancy founder, Michele Verroken, described how a combination of player surveys and drug test results suggested that players were moving away from the use of Adderall. In an interview with Reuters, she said, “The trend is to say ‘yes, we thought that Adderall was the problem but actually we’re beginning to now think that the testing has had an impact and people who might have been considering it are not doing it.”
With concentration and focus key to competitive chess, it is easy to see how some players could be lured by substances that promise to give them a competitive edge. With WADA anti-doping rules in place, and with an ongoing campaign to make chess an Olympic sport, the game’s governing bodies need to carefully monitor any substances not currently on the prohibited list that could have an impact on its players’ games.
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