Famous world chess champion Mikhail Tal on one occasion blamed the loss of his lucky pen for the loss of his world title. Another champion, Anatoly Karpov, reportedly refused to wash his hair whenever in a winning streak. These are some of the earliest displays of superstitions from chess players.
Superstitions are something that will be in any competition, this is especially true if those who participate in the said competition are naturally superstitious individuals.
This is the case with chess, I have seen a lot of weird superstitions from my experience of playing.
I want to answer this question, which superstitions do chess players have? This is the topic for today.
I personally find this fascinating since I am not the one to believe in anything supernatural, but I am interested. I will also explain why some people might actually believe in this from my perspective of course. Without further ado, let’s get started.
Famous superstitions from chess players
All the things that I will be listing here are those that I have observed from my years of playing, but I may miss some that I have no knowledge of yet.
But to the extent of my experience I can assure you that a lot of people believe in this, so it is just very interesting to learn these practices from other players.
Here are the famous superstitions from chess players:
1.) Not washing hair during a winning streak.
As I briefly mentioned above, this is something that has been popularized by world champion Anatoly Karpov as a sort of winning streak lucky charm.
World champion Anatoly Karpov was famous for not washing his hair when he was on a winning streak. Probably to avoid rubbing off all the lucky materials that are stuck in his head (or hair in this case).
As you can imagine this is a stinky superstition to actually practice since it requires you to keep the hair dirty. Many of Karpov’s opponents have called him out for this since it is so noticeable.
Grandmaster Nigel Short said of Karpov: “Unfortunately, he had long tournaments where he never lost a game—the guy got greasy.”
Whatever effect that it had on the former world champion it seems that it kind of worked, Karpov has multiple winning streaks in his career that may be possible due to this.
I personally don’t believe that this is the case though since it might be a self-fulfilling prophecy that increased Karpov’s confidence to extend his winning streak without that much fear of loss (due to the assurance of this weird practice).
It is important to take note that Karpov is naturally someone who is conscious about his hair potentially due to his background, so it is only a matter of time before he developed some belief in this part of his body.
2.) Arriving late can help you win in chess competitions.
This is something that I have noticed to be consistently practiced by someone of higher chess rank, a world champion for example.
Tal, Capablanca, Fischer, Kasparov, and even Magnus have many instances where they are late in an important match. This can even be seen in lower-rated tournaments where someone who has a title will purposely try to arrive late for some effect.
There is a video where Kasparov faced the then-young Magnus Carlsen and arrived late.
Magnus played well against Kasparov. He made use of his favorite openings to do well against this legend.
Magnus at this moment is the lower-rated player and has to wait for the accomplished world champion Garry Kasparov. Now I do think that this is just power-play, but some have made a superstition about this.
That if a higher-rated player will face a lower-rated opponent, he or she should arrive late in order to increase the chances of winning (which from my perspective is ridiculous).
3.) Using the same brand of chessboard and pieces.
This is something much more common with someone who has their personal chess set at home rather than just playing online. The belief that using a particular brand will increase one’s strength.
It is a sort of home-court advantage in basketball terms, if you are used to looking at a particular design and color then it is much more comfortable playing with it.
Some will say that playing using a particular brand will really statistically give you an edge, that it is even a cheat code for them.
It is probably because that is what they are used to, and self-fulfilling prophecy will make them perform better by having this belief that they will perform better with a particular brand.
But in the end this is just a superstition since we can’t really say that one brand will increase winning chances more than the other.
4.) Wearing a suit helps a player’s focus.
A suit is not really a necessary wear to participate in a tournament, a player can legally engage without one. However there are individuals who actually prefer this style due to a superstition.
Wearing a suit will cause you to stand out from the rest of the participants making you someone with the right energy to compete. I find this one ridiculous as well but it does exist.
Some will really wear a suit just so that they can feel better, but there are others who formed a supernatural belief out of this. But it’s probably just a confidence issue, that you feel more confident to play when you look good.
On a separate note, you can view the available outfits that you can wear in a chess tournament in my other article (will open in a new tab).
5.) Wearing something colorful can make a player lucky.
Similar to how wearing a suit can make one stand out, wearing something colorful (not necessarily a suit) can make you energized, as they say.
This is exactly what Super grandmaster Topalov seem to apply in one specific tournament:
Topalov house colors that would really catch the eye, it is something noticeable enough that most people would pay attention to you as a player by just wearing this.
It is unclear if Topalov does this because of style or out of superstition, but other super grandmasters like Levon Aronian repeatedly practice this as well. There are certainly some that do this by superstition since it is present even in less privileged tournaments.
This dressing is really dubious since one can argue that it can distract an opponent and present an unfair competitive edge (and there are certainly some that punish this) but it is allowed in most circumstances.
6.) Bringing one’s favorite chess book will increase winning chances.
This is something that I have observed in my first tournament in abundance, there are many who brought their favorite chess book within their bags. Some say that they are just confident if they are around the material.
It is sort of like a guardian angel that spectates the course of the battle and makes someone really comfortable, at least as I have been told.
This is probably another case of self-fulfilling prophecy, bringing an object that is associated with the particular activity so much that it boosts their confidence in performing better.
If this is their favorite book then they are likely to have studied it for a long time, it may have reminded them of that time when they were studying.
The self-esteem from the effort of finishing such a good book may lead to confidence that can be transferred to the game.
7.) Finishing a game early boosts confidence.
This is again, something that I have observed multiple times during my first chess tournament, in which a lot of participants try to end their game as early as possible.
Now you can argue that this might just be an ego boost to tell that they are better than everyone else, but I have seen some try this in hopes of overcoming their performance anxiety.
It is questionable if this can help emotionally, but I definitely have seen a lot of people lose their games just because they want to finish early. And it didn’t work with people who have suffered from a losing streak either.
If these can really increase confidence, then people who have losing streaks that have finished their game early should perform better than their previous self, but this is not the case from what I observed.
8.) Players on board 5 are more likely to win.
My first tournament is actually a team tournament where I am in charge of board 1. Our team has this belief that the one in 5 will convert better than any other board from our group.
I was skeptical at first but results from our previous encounters seem to back this up, board 5 has a lot of conversion in our group (also probably because I only have 40% win rate at the time (not having practiced a lot).
But thinking about this, there might be a reason why board five is much more likely to win than any position from the group.
Those that belong to board 5 are much more likely to play against weaker opponents with a decisive result.
Those with higher board positions are much more likely to draw their games without any decisive result. If someone decent gets a hold of board five, they have the opportunity to crush the weakest players of the event.
9.) Standing during games can make a player lucky.
Players standing during their opponent’s turn is a common sight in stronger tournaments, it can be seen as a form of intimidation to rattle one’s opponent.
However, since a lot of stronger competitors do this, some superstitious people interpret it as a blessing to make someone lucky in their game.
The luck can be in a form where the opponent makes certain overlooks in critical positions that they would not have otherwise, giving opportunity for the player to take advantage.
But again, these overlooks can just be a result of intimidation from the disrespect of standing when one’s opponent is thinking and making them feel pressured to make a move faster.
10.) Bathroom breaks increase concentration.
Some chess players believe that taking bathroom breaks during their games can be a way to reflect on their current match in a deeper way. Something they cannot achieve over the board.
The idea is that the board is a cause of stress, and taking the source of stress away from sight can increase concentration that allows deeper insights.
There is of course no scientific basis to this and really is just a way for players to rest temporarily while being in a stressful situation, making them feel refreshed whenever getting back into the board.
11.) Looking away from the board helps with focus.
This is similar to the one above except that a bathroom break is not necessary, one can just look away from the board for a while to increase their focus.
Some claim that they are less likely to be distracted by other things while playing the game, if they look at other things while thinking about the moves. Again, away from the source of stress.
There is also no evidence of this since there are a lot of players who can focus on their game which doesn’t necessarily have the habit of looking away from the board, and in fact, most of them look at the board exclusively for more concentration.
12.) Lucky souvenirs can help a player win.
Lucky souvenirs are not exactly alien in the world of superstitions, there are some players who have their own souvenirs which they believe bring good luck. An example of this is former world chess champion Mikhail Tal.
Mikhail Tal (who had the nickname “magician of riga”) half jokingly blamed the loss of his World Champion title on the loss of his lucky pen.
He said that he forgot it just for a couple of minutes on the table but when he remembered and returned back it was already gone (probably taken by one of Tals’ numerous fans as a souvenir).
Personally I had dozens of “lucky” pens throughout my chess career and when one of them stopped working (meaning I lost a game), I always had another one! -Mikhail Tal
A lot of people also have lucky souvenirs in their arsenal which they claim have helped them win games, it is a very interesting superstition to explore.
13.) Some choices of drinks are considered lucky.
This is more of a signature drink that mostly only applies to an individual rather than the majority of chess players. One will claim that orange juice works better for them than coffee and vice-versa.
Some will say that energy drinks are lucky, or just plain water is all you need to be prepared in a serious match. I personally prefer plain water but I do not hold it as a lucky charm or whatnot.
There are people who do though, and you can consistently see them choosing that drink in every over-the-board tournament they participate in.
14.) Chewing captured pieces can help concentration.
This one is pretty disgusting for me, this belief is usually held by someone who is used to informal games rather than formal chess competitions. I am talking about chess hustlers.
Along my own street, there are a lot of players that are somewhat above average who constantly do this. They would chew on pieces that have been captured while thinking about their moves.
They claim that it increases their concentration by having something to chew on while thinking something abstract. I of course do not hold this belief but there are certainly others who do so.
Do you now know which superstitions do chess players have?
People will come out with the most bizarre of beliefs in almost anything, chess is not an exception and this list proves this point.
Personally I am not a very superstitious person so I do not subscribe to any of these beliefs myself, but it is much more prevalent than you think.
I would note though that some really do see results in the superstition that they uphold usually because of self fulfilling prophecy, which means that the belief is actually of use to something.
If you believe in any of these and see results then you can continue believing as much as you can, whatever works for you I guess. That is all, sleep well and play chess.