Sleep Can Improve Your Chess
- Dr. James O’Brien
The life of a working adult brings many responsibilities. Work, children, house, bills, and community activities among other things fight for our precious time.
Somewhere in there we also try to get in some chess training and playing! Often, this comes at the cost of our sleep. After a particularly hard day at work, getting the kids to bed, and cleaning up the house, I often want to stay up to and watch some television, surf the internet, or play some blitz on ICC to "unwind."
However, sleep deprivation or loss of sleep can have a negative impact on our lives in general but particularly on our chess development and ability. In this article we will be discussing the following:
- The benefits and function of sleep
- The effects of sleep deprivation
- How to get better sleep
After reading this article, hopefully you will appreciate the importance of sleep in our lives and consider it part of your chess training!
Why Do We Sleep?
Sleep serves many important functions in our life. There are some key physical and biological benefits:
- Physical renewal
- Hormonal regulation
Being healthy physically of course is important for both chess and life, but there are also some important cognitive benefits of healthy sleep that directly help us with chess.
Sleep seems to be integral in converting short term memories into long term memories. Think about those new opening lines in the Ruy Lopez or the Lucena or Philidor endgames. Besides repetition and practice, sleep may be the most effective method to remember them!
There has been some research as well into sleep's role in creativity. Some of this may be related to sleep's function for memories, but some research has shown that people's problem solving skills improve after "sleeping on it." This is critical for chess, where we need to take various concepts including space, king safety, pawn structure, initiative, and material imbalances and interpret and combine them on the chessboard.
When We Don't Get Enough Sleep
There are some consequences when you don't get enough sleep. Interestingly, many of these are particularly detrimental to your chess play.
Lack of sleep can affect the following negatively:
- Working memory
- Long term memory
- Decision making
In addition, when you are deprived of REM (deep) sleep, it is more difficult to concentrate on a single task. Research has shown that it is harder to pick up nuances in discussions or negotiations. Hopefully, we can see how this inability to focus and missing details can effect our ability to evaluate a chess position.
When you are lacking sleep, it also can reduce your vigilance - the ability the keep watchful for possible danger. It reminded me of a recent late night blitz chess session. I started out really well, winning my first five games, but as I got tired, the blunders came quickly and often, and I lost my next five!
Here's a short video talking about these and other negative effects of sleep deprivation.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
Much of the research I've read on the topic generally say that most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep. Some research has shown sleep deprivation effects for people who regularly get less than six hours of sleep.
Sometimes life will not afford us a solid eight hours of sleep all the time, but fortunately, we can catch up on sleep. The concept of "sleep debt" is like monetary debt. We can "repay" it by adding a little extra sleep when we can at night and even through naps.
Getting More and Better Sleep
Here are a few tips to improve your sleep:
- Avoid caffeine later in the day. It can take many hours for caffeine to leave the system.
- Try to sleep in a darkened room.
- Sleep in a restful environment. A cluttered room for example can be distracting for sleep.
- Keep a regular schedule for sleeping - e.g. go to bed around the same time each night and wake up around the same time each morning.
- When possible, try to wake up without an alarm clock.
- Get regular exercise. Regular exercise improves how quickly you go to sleep as well as length of sleep.
- Avoid alcohol and heavy meals before sleep. Alcohol can effect to reduce the amount of deep sleep we receive each night.
Sleep helps improve your memory and creativity for chess. Lack of sleep can effect your decision making, attention, and vigilance. I believe our sleep is a greatly underestimated factor in our improvement in all areas of life, including chess. Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night and follow the tips above to get a great night's sleep. You might just improve your chess strength as well.
I researched many sources in creating this article. Besides the direct links I included within the article, here are a few more that I drew from.
- Sleepdex.org: A general site about sleep. I found a lot of helpful information here.
- Why Sleep is Important: An article from the American Psychological Association.
- Why Sleep is So Important: An well-written article from Harvard Business Review with a lot of information and references to scientific research.
- Sleep deprivation: Impact on Cognitive Performance: A thorough academic article on sleep deprivation and cognitive impairment.
- Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson: 21 techniques for optimizing your sleep.