DOMINIC LAWSON: No sweat! Here’s how to burn 6,000 calories

Do YOU want to think yourself thinner? Trust me, it can be done. And, since the Daily Mail is such a campaigner in addressing the growing problem of extreme obesity (and its most malign consequence, type 2 diabetes), this is the time and place to reveal the secret: play competitive chess.

Actually, the secret was revealed last week in the world’s leading sports website, ESPN. Normally this outlet covers only physical sports, but, doubtless to the surprise of its millions of followers, it published an article entitled ‘The Grandmaster diet: how to lose weight while barely moving.’

This was based partly on research by Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, in health-obsessed California: he found that a chess player ‘can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day’.

According to Sapolsky: ‘Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners.’

Don’t laugh. I know this is true from my own experience — even at the much lower level of the Central London chess league.

I always need to drink loads of water during every team match, because, as my game goes on (often for several hours) I have a sense of burning up. There is not the full body burn of the long-distance runner: but it is a strong physical sensation of overheating, centred on what feels like my brain.



More from Dominic Lawson for the Daily Mail…

Afterwards, I feel completely drained: though then I can reward myself (or console myself, if I’ve lost) with something stronger than water.

This process was explained in the ESPN article by a neurologist at Washington University, Marcus Raichle: ‘Chess players in competition are subjected to a torrent of mental stress. That, in turn, causes their heart rates to increase, which in turn forces their bodies to produce more energy to, in turn, produce more oxygen.’

I would only add that the exhaustive (and exhausting) mental calculations made by chess players are, in a physical sense, merely the function of blood rushing around the brain — and that process is entirely dependent on oxygen supply.

This was tested in practice last year at the Grandmaster tournament held every October on the Isle of Man: a number of the competitors were monitored by a U.S. medical testing company during their games.


The Russian Grandmaster Mikhail Antipov was found to have used up 560 calories in two hours of sitting down playing chess — approximately what a tennis champion such as Roger Federer would burn through in a tough hour-long set.

Antipov is just 22 years old. And it is no coincidence that the world’s six top-ranked grandmasters, while of six different nationalities (Norwegian, American, Chinese, French, Dutch and Russian) have one thing in common.

They are all in their 20s, generally viewed as the decade of peak physical performance. And, despite the conventional view of chess players as nerdy weeds, they are all very fit specimens.

None more so than the world champion himself, Magnus Carlsen. When I interviewed him in my BBC Radio 4 chess series Across The Board, the Norwegian insisted that chess was a sport above all, and he treats it accordingly.

Chess world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway takes a kick-off prior to the La Liga match between Real Madrid and Celta de Vigo in December 2014

A lot of his preparation takes place on the football field, where he is an equally ferocious competitor. As he told me: ‘I play for a local team, at left back . . . I have definitely deserved to have been sent off, on two occasions. But the referees have too much respect for me.’ Carlsen, in fact, attended the Norwegian College Of Elite Sport, where he was coached by a Grandmaster who also represented Norway at football. And I couldn’t help noticing, when I played a female Norwegian chess international in a tournament in Gibraltar a few years ago, that she came to the board wearing a tracksuit embossed with the national flag, glowing with sporting vitality.

Indeed, I was struck by the number of the strongest Grandmasters — especially from the former Soviet bloc — who arrived for breakfast in the hotel where the tournament was based, wearing tracksuits with the national emblem, looking as though they had just done some hard yards in the hotel gymnasium.

Believe it or not, I too have a fitness trainer, the wonderful Wendy. And as September is the start of the club chess season in the UK, I have been telling her we must step up my readiness for the sporting struggle.

Having trained the likes of rugby players in her time, she jokes a little about it (‘must get your right arm up to moving the pieces with sufficient force’) but in fact she regards it as completely reasonable: if you need to concentrate ferociously hard for many hours, you must have stamina.

If not (as I can ruefully attest) you will make many blunders when your energy levels are depleted and therefore the brain is no longer getting the necessary supply of oxygen.


This is about being fit, not thin, as was demonstrated by the 1985 world chess championship match between the reigning champion Anatoly Karpov and his challenger Garry Kasparov. 

It was abandoned, undecided, after five months: while Karpov was leading, he had lost a stone and a half in weight, and — being skinny to start off with — was by then almost cadaverous and in no state to continue.

Anatoli Karpov faces Garry Kasparov in a 1985 world chess championship match in Moscow. The match was abandoned after Karpov lost a stone and a half in weight

Anatoli Karpov faces Garry Kasparov in a 1985 world chess championship match in Moscow. The match was abandoned after Karpov lost a stone and a half in weight 

So I am not recommending competitive chess as, in itself, a means of becoming fit. But, played with sufficient intensity, the mental effort and tension involved definitely burns up those calories.

Better still, we now know that regular mental exercise can be a way of keeping at bay — for a while, at least — degenerative neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

So, don’t waste a moment: get down to your local chess club to think yourself thinner — and sharper.

So which PM’s the real arfur daley, sir John? 

By tomorrow at the latest we will learn the Supreme Court’s judgment on the claim that the Prime Minister had unlawfully misled the Queen when advising her to prorogue Parliament.

The most remarkable aspect of the case was that a previous Tory PM, Sir John Major, had joined the case against Boris Johnson.

Major’s characteristically down-to-earth argument to the court was that Johnson’s behaviour evoked a spivvy estate agent misleading a customer — that, in effect, we had an Arthur Daley in Downing Street.

It is remarkable that a former Tory PM, Sir John Major, has joined the Supreme Court case against Boris Johnson, writes Dominic Lawson

It is remarkable that a former Tory PM, Sir John Major, has joined the Supreme Court case against Boris Johnson, writes Dominic Lawson 

This immediately brought to my mind a story told by Major’s friend Gyles Brandreth — one which regularly brought the house down when Brandreth used it on tours of his one-man show.

He recalled how when he was a Whip in Major’s 1992-97 administration the PM had come across him in the Commons tea-room looking a bit down in the dumps.

And when Major asked what the matter was, Brandreth explained that his wallet was being too repeatedly emptied by the endless raffles he was expected to enter as guest of honour at fund-raisers by Conservative Party constituency associations.

Brandreth continued: ‘He said: “You do not need to buy tickets at every raffle you attend.” I said: “I do.” He said: “You don’t.”

‘And there and then, in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland fished into his top, left-hand jacket pocket, and there were one, two, three, four, five strips of different coloured tickets.

‘He said: “Gyles, as you arrive at any function, all you do as you walk through that door, you pull out your raffle tickets on display, and they think, oh, that nice Mr Major, that nice Mr Brandreth, he’s already bought his raffle tickets.”

‘Then John Major turned to me and said: “I bought these tickets in 1982.” ’

So which PM more resembles Arthur Daley: Boris Johnson or John Major? 

The Queen welcoming Mr Johnson after he had been elected Tory leader at Buckingham Palace in July

The Queen welcoming Mr Johnson after he had been elected Tory leader at Buckingham Palace in July