Chess team rotation: what can we learn from Manchester United? 

“I need a 6-month holiday, twice a year”

Alireza Firouzja’s t-shirt.

The 2021 European Chess Team Championship is currently underway in Slovenia and the French Chess Federation has been posting a series of very interesting ‘Behind the scenes’ Videos – we gain insight into the team dynamics, and the ups and downs of the performances. 

The format of this team chess competition is the following. Each team match is 4v4 so the team coach/captain has to select 4 players among the 5 team players available  – in the case of France: Firouzja, MVL, Bacrot, Lagarde, Moussard. 

Ideally the strongest players should play as much as possible, but there may be stylistic factors to adapt to another team. This is the realm of the chess choices for the team captain. 

But players get tired. Football (soccer) teams face a similar problem where most of the players will play every game but there will be a degree of team rotation 

Fatigue management at Manchester United

For eight seasons, during Alex Ferguson and Louis Van Gaal, Dr Robin Thorpe had the role of Head of Recovery and Regeneration.In a fascinating interview he explains the method to develop a monitoring framework for players. The end goal is very simple: give a simple colour scale (imagine a green/orange/red) according to the tiredness of the player. The aim is not to replace the coach or to have a ‘system’ that automatically selects players, but to empower the coach and help him make better decisions. The assessment is made by combining several factors:

  • Subjective ratings (does the player feel tired?)
  • Anatomical measures (range of motion is a great recovery indicator)
  • Heart rate measures (Heart rate variability, heart rate recovery and submaximal heart rate)
  • Force producing metrics (not measured all the time).

The detailed combination of these is proprietary, but the framework makes a lot of sense and  Manchester United has been a very successful team

A chess Fatigue Management 

We have many tools at our disposal to quantify fatigue and recovery. Heart Rate Variability is a prime indicator and empirically is a great indicator of mental and physical fatigue. This is a Kubios HRV measurement (Bluetooth 100Hz 5-minute measurement) of an elite chess player when rested :

This is the same player the day after intense exercise during off-season:

And after a long tiring game at the 2021 chess world cup

HVR shows the accumulated mental and physical stress in a very practical way. 

Asking the player how he or she feels is paramount. You never want to blindly trust the numbers only: you would not drive your car into a lake if your GPS guide you into it! I would create a combined  green/orange/red fatigue indicator for the chess coach by combining the following elements:

  • Subjective player fatigue (questionnaire)
  • Heart Rate Variability (daily measurement and/or average)

Possibly other factors are to be taken into account, but from a physiological point of view they are the main ones. I don’t see why the chess world should not embrace such practices which have been used in other sports for almost two decades now. This could help the team captain to select the most ‘fresh’ player in a crucial last round game.  

There is an edge to be gained in chess for the teams that adopt an innovative mindset.

I plan to do a dedicated longer post on identity and team cohesion. Stay tuned and for any comment please do get in touch. 

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