Is chess mentally exhausting? From my experience

Chess that last for long periods of time (classical time format) have been known to cause fatigue and mental exhaustion. A healthy amount of faster time control can be mentally manageable though.

There has been some fuzz online about chess fatigue, basically that playing the game will naturally lead to some sort of headache or dizziness. This is of course about mental exhaustion, the tendency of a game to be mentally tiring.

Are the ones who speak of this exaggerating the toll of chess mentally? Are there any grounds for this description and should people who are interested in the game be concerned?

Playing classical chess (long time format) consecutively is a trademark of a professional chess player. You can imagine how exhausting this must be.

This topic is pretty close to me since I have experienced a lot of fatigue in my own games and I’m willing to share those with you. 

This is really just to vent out my emotions, but is also just an interesting discussion for those who are interested in this topic.

If you are into chess then you must have been mentally exhausted at some point because of playing, this article will explain everything thoroughly.

Chess, mental exhaustion, and longer time controls

The time control plays a huge role in determining how much a player can possibly be exhausted in a game of chess. The longer the time control the much more likely the players are going to be drained after their matches.

Chess can be mentally exhausting in longer time controls (I’m talking about classical) since the game is likely to be decided by the endurance of the players rather than their actual skills.

Most classical games end after a player cannot withstand playing any longer and has made a blunder, this means that most classical games are concluded of who has the better mental endurance.

The players have to concentrate on each second to not make a blunder.

The players will be on high alert for an extended period of time and will be wary of every moment, there’s usually no moment where the player can afford to be lazy in calculation even longer time controls.

The longer the game of course the longer someone has to use their brain, classical chess is extremely notorious for making players mentally exhausted even days after the actual game.

The length of the time control will determine the player’s likely mental exhaustion after.

Faster time controls in chess may not be mentally exhausting

For longer time control yes, the mental exhaustion even with endurance usually can’t be eliminated. But how about faster time controls? Are there instances where such time formats don’t necessarily lead to mental exhaustion?

If we are talking about faster time controls (bullet, blitz, rapid) then there might be a healthy amount where the games are not mentally exhausting.

Playing 1-5 blitz games can even be fun and entertaining in my experience, games where I can continually practice without being mentally drained. In these faster time formats you usually don’t have to think much and can use your intuition occasionally.

This means that hard calculation is not much of a requirement (the thing that causes mental exhaustion in chess in the first place) so faster time formats are definitely for you if exhaustion is an issue.

Faster time formats can be mentally exhausting sometimes

In general, chess can be draining (even on faster time controls) if you are playing it consecutively for days without any sign of stopping.

I have stated above that I can play 1-5 blitz games everyday without being mentally tired, though for me this might be true for me, it may not be the case for everyone else. There’s an amount of tolerance that is unique to an individual based on their expertise.

I can tolerate playing that much because I have been playing for years, something like that is not much of a big deal since competing in chess is just second nature to me now.

However if it may not be the case to you since you have just picked up chess and are still learning all of the complicated ideas, then it is understandable that you are getting mentally exhausted by just 1-3 games.

It is actually normal, my point is that chess can be mentally exhausting not because of the time control only, but also on the amount of tolerance you currently have as a player.

The complication of chess is mentally draining

As a beginner you are most likely to be tired after playing only a few games since your mind is still adjusting to the movement of the pieces along with their complication.

When I think of things that make me exhausted in chess it will usually involve something around tactics, a defense, or some endgame position that is more advanced. 

When a beginner thinks of things that make them mentally tired of playing chess it usually involves something much more fundamental, like the movement of the pieces, planning, or general attack and defense.

Do not worry if this describes you since this is perfectly normal, what a beginner sees as a problem can be different from someone who has experience. My point is, it will still be exhausting no matter your level and the problem will just be different.

Chess seems to present more mentally draining concepts as you get stronger, it will still apply in some form no matter your level!

Even if you are already used to the movement of the pieces and have a lot of experience it can still be tiring, there are just positions in chess that require a lot of thinking. To a degree, it will still be tiring though can be minimized with endurance.

Chess professionals have coped with the mental exhaustion problem

There are chess competitors out there that can play the game consecutively for a ridiculous amount of time compared to a regular player (these are usually professionals that have endurance training as their preparation).

It is the same in every other field where professionals have gone beyond their limits to perform the tasks that they need in their chosen career. Pro chess players have seen the mental exhaustion problem and countered it with endurance.

This is the same with NBA players that can accommodate a ridiculous amount of playing time well beyond the limits of a regular hooper. 

Professional chess players may not seem to be too exhausted even with a classical game since they have overcome the limits of a regular chess competitor.

Do not be fooled though, it is impossible to completely eliminate the exhaustion since it is a part of the game.

You can cope with it though with enough training, just be aware that you will still be tired just not as much if you have some endurance.

Losing streaks in chess is mentally draining

Now this might not be the case for everyone but it certainly is for me. I notice that the more I lose the games that I play, the more mentally tired I eventually become.

What I mean is that losing streaks played a role in magnifying the effects of mental exhaustion.

The exhaustion that I have encountered a lot in chess has to do with my continuous losing streaks. Playing the game will be more exciting if I can win every single game.

This makes sense, chess is a game where you can be very proud of winning but can be severely depressed if you are losing. This is because of accountability, since chess is an individual activity all the blame will be on the player.

So if you are losing a lot of games then it is not a good experience for you, the games would probably be boring. I can bet that you can play twice as much if you’re winning the chess games that you compete in.

But that is the case, you don’t win every game that you play. And if you have the opposite which is a losing streak, it can be more mentally tolling since the result is not in your favor.

What I mean is, the result plays a factor in determining whether a game will be more mentally exhausting for you or not.

Personal responsibilities, mental toll, and chess

There are people out there who claim to be very tired of playing not because the game is exhausting, but because they are already exhausted from their natural responsibilities before even trying to play.

A lot of people who play chess are obviously not doing it full time, meaning they have other obligations to attend to other than the game that they are playing. 

This includes me, this means that some of us are already exhausted from the things that we are doing outside of chess and are playing on a rough start. 

It might not be that chess is mentally tolling on your part, it might just be that you are already exhausted before you even play.

Of course all other factors that have been discussed above will still apply to you, but the effects will be magnified by other stressful things in your life.

I personally am tired of school work for example and just want to slip in a blitz or two, depending on the results of the game my emotions can be heavily affected. 

Maybe you have a job and just want to play here and there, it can be mentally exhausting on your part since you are already exhausted before you even play.

Elo rating and mental exhaustion

The level of exhaustion that you can get from playing chess can also depend on your Elo rating, the higher Elo rating you have the greater the competition (therefore needing more calculation/brain power on your end).

See a simple explanation on how elo ratings work in this article.

With a higher Elo the games become more complicated, simple combinations could no longer convert a win in some cases. 

There will be instances where the game lasts for 65+ moves in a hard-fought endgame with one side being of a pawn, something where the margin of error is small. Higher Elo players also have a tendency to escape losing by some drawing mechanism.

The point that I am getting at is it is just harder to play in a higher rating bracket, it is more mentally exhausting to compete in this level. 

You will find that the stronger you become the more entertaining lower-rated games could be. Easily-fought games are usually more entertaining since the game is not as stressful and tiring. 

It is unlike playing against a higher-rated opponent where the game is guaranteed to be hard and probably mentally tiring.

Length of the chess game and mental exhaustion

At the top I have discussed the role of time control in making chess games tiring, but there is another factor other than just a time format which is the actual length of the game.

Primarily, a game of chess will be draining depending on how long it is played before ending. It doesn’t matter as much that the time control is rapid if the game lasts 100 moves with a lot of critical moments.

The longer the game lasts the higher it’s requirement for calculation, more brain power will be involved in the making of the game. Granted, a 100-move rapid game is not the same as a 100-move classical game but both will be mentally exhausting for sure.

Even in faster time formats, (blitz for example) the game can still be mentally draining if it reaches 100 moves. The point is, the length of the game is also a factor if the game will be exhausting for the player.

Final thoughts

Chess is really mentally exhausting in my experience if the circumstances are wrong, however, it can also be rewarding under the right situation. It can reduce stress if played in moderation (keyword, moderation).

You don’t have to worry about this, for the most part this wouldn’t change your life or anything crazy like that. Just be aware that it can be mentally exhausting just as how basketball can be physically exhausting after some time of play.

With the right discipline you can enjoy yourself without being mentally tired at all, just be honest when you are feeling the toll and take a break or two.

You don’t have to quit just because you are feeling exhausted right now, maybe you just need to relax for the moment. At least you have awareness that you are not alone now, cheers! Sleep well and play chess.