Diabetes and Chess

by Bill Wall


Diabetes mellitus, or simply diabetes, is a condition in which the body cannot properly store and use fuel for energy.† To use a sugar called glucose for fuel, the body needs a hormone called insulin, which is made by the pancreas.† Diabetes develops when your body canít make enough insulin, then the body has high blood sugar.† Type 1 diabetes (a disease) develops when your body makes little or no insulin.†† Type 2 diabetes results from insulin resistance in which the cells fail to use insulin properly.


Last year I found out the hard way that I had Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for over 90% of all cases.† All the signs were there that indicated diabetes.† There was increased urine output since the kidneys were trying to flush the sugar out.† I was urinating up to 20 times a day.† Then there was the extreme thirst from dehydration.† I felt sick, was losing weight (30 pounds in less than 30 days), and was soon vomiting my food and water up.†

I went to my primary care doctor and he recognized the problem and got me to the emergency room of a large hospital.† I was completely dehydrated and was rushed to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) where they gave my lots of IV fluids and insulin for several days.† †My elevated blood glucose level was 400 (normal is 80 to 120).† My pancreas was not producing enough insulin.† I spent Halloween in ICU, almost becoming a Zombie.† After four days in the hospital (and a $20,000 hospital bill), the doctors and nurses stabilized me (blood sugar level down to 173) and I was discharged under the care of my wife, who is a registered dietician.† I have always been healthy, played tennis four times a week, and worked out on a treadmill.† But no matter how much I exercised, it looks like I inherited diabetes and it finally triggered and caught up with me at age 62.† I had to give myself 5 insulin (basal and bolus) shots a day for 6 months before moving to pills.

While in the hospital, to keep my mind active, I thought about chess Ė the games I played the tournaments I played in, and the chess people I have met.† I started wondering if I could play in any more OTB chess tournaments or if diabetes affected my chess play online.†† If we didnít have insulin, diabetes would be a fatal disease.†† Diabetes can make you disoriented and affects the concentration in many cases.† Depression in patients with Type 2 diabetes is another significant risk factor.† Diabetes is manageable, so as long as I take my insulin and watch my diet, I should be OK.† The question is, can I stay alert and attentive for games that may last several hours?†† If I had my Kindle Fire, I probably could have played chess online at chess.com while recovering, but my wife had it, playing Candy Crush.

In pre-insulin days, several well known chess players died of complications due to diabetes.† Louis Paulsen (1833-1891) died of complications due to diabetes mellitus at age 58.† Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908) died of advanced and untreatable diabetes at age 57.†

Gordon Thomas Crown (1929-1947), a promising chess master from the UK, died when his diabetes caused complications during an operation.† He was only 18.

More recently, Tony Miles (1955-2001) had Type 2 diabetes and died of a heart attack brought on by diabetes.† He was only 46.† Jerry Hanken (1934-2009) died due to complications of diabetes.† He was 74.† Bent Larsen (1935-2010) suffered from diabetes and died at the age of 75.† Baruch H. Wood (1909-1989), who founded the magazine CHESS, suffered from diabetes.

In 2006, Jonathan Rowson (1977- ) won the British Chess Championship despite a last round low blood-sugar level attack (hypo) of his Type 1 diabetes.†

Bobby Fischer (1943-2008) died of degenerative renal (kidney) failure, possibly caused by diabetes, since renal failure is most commonly caused by diabetes.† Fischer refused to be treated for anything.

Grandmaster Lajos Portisch (1937) of Hungary has diabetes and suffers in a game of chess when his blood sugar is bad.

My good friend, FIDE master and chess author Eric Schiller, had a foot amputated due to type 2 diabetes.† Diabetes runs in his family.

So there are a lot of analogies of diabetes and chess.† Diabetes management is like a game of chess.† In both cases, there are potential dangers or complications at every move, ready to cripple the player (patient).†† In my case, insulin saved the chess king (patient) from being checkmated, ending the game.

My advice to all chess players is to please check your blood sugar level.† Have a doctor take a blood sample to check for glucose in the blood.† Buy a home glucose kit, prick your finger for one drop of blood, and have the device measure your blood sugar level.† Think about a diet (and seeing a dietician) with not too many carbohydrates (I canít take more than 60 grams of carbs per meal).† Check your weight and keep it down.† Get some exercise in Ė walk or play an easy game of tennis.† Check and checkmate.