It’s a forbidding expression and a touch fatalistic, emphasising the unforgiving nature of the game.
Chess is often considered as a battle of wits, a kind of mental jousting or non-contact boxing in which bad moves can prove, retrospectively, to be knock-out blows.
But surprisingly, the game – which many of its players believe should be considered as a sport – has a strongly physical side.
Among players, there is a growing understanding that physical fitness can improve mental fitness, cognition and stamina – qualities that are essential to succeed in gruelling duels over a board.
Many professionals work out, especially during competitions, and have rigid routines emphasising exercise and healthy eating.
Australia’s top-ranked player is grandmaster and medical graduate Zhao Zong-Yuan.
“In the lead-up to a tournament, you’d certainly have a bit of a plan to improve your endurance capabilities because chess in many ways is a marathon game,” he said.
During a tournament, they can compete in up to 11 games in as many days, meaning fatigue is often a factor.
“I notice on average after a tournament [losing] anywhere between two to four kilos,” Zhao said.
“Through that tournament, if anything, I would be eating slightly more than usual. I really feel like I need the extra calories.
“I’d try not to eat immediately before the game because the digestion would affect my ability to concentrate.”
Zhao said he is not surprised by the number of players with blood pressure problems.
He said games today tend to go much longer than in previous decades and are often stressful experiences which are quite literally brain-draining.
“Your brain is one of the organs that uses so much of the metabolic energy that you generate,” he said.
“There are definitely adrenaline rushes. When you’re incredibly nervous for example, when the game is clearly coming to a finish.”
Grandmasters get into shape with fitness instructors
Chess coaches are becoming increasingly aware of the evolving demands of the game and many now advise up and coming players on how to physically prepare for big matches.
“If you look at most of the top chess players in the world today they are younger and fitter than in years gone past,” Zhao’s former coach Manuel Weeks said.
“Rarely do you see a top player over 40 in the major tournaments. Vishy Anand is one famous exception, a vegetarian who does not touch alcohol.”
A few years ago, Weeks helped British grandmaster Gawain Jones get into shape.
“A normal UK diet of too much comfort food and a daily intake of beer with friends in the evening was holding him back,” he said.
“He gave up alcohol and kept a strict diet for an extended period of time and his chess results improved.”
Weeks said current world champion Magnus Carlsen, a keen and talented soccer and tennis player, was incredibly fit and strict about his diet.
“He is an excellent example of someone who is willing to literally grind his opponents over very long, manoeuvring games where his fitness levels and heightened levels of concentration give him an edge,” he said.
The Russian former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik was one of the earliest players to understand the benefits of psychological and fitness training for chess play.
Zhao said it is no longer unusual for professional players to have small entourages in tow at major tournaments.
“In the last world championship, [Carlsen] brought along with him a masseuse, a physical trainer, a cook that cooks his preferred foods and two or three players to assist him.”
Chess, drugs and boxing brawls
Chess may seem an unlikely candidate for doping scandals, but the issue of drugs in the game has been raised, albeit in a way that is mostly tongue-in-cheek.
Zhao said it is an issue players occasionally speak about amongst themselves.
“We always thought that performance enhancing drugs, at least the ones that we’ve heard of, would hurt your chess,” he said.
“The only one we thought potentially could [give] some help, at least in certain types of chess situations, would be something like a beta blocker.
“There’s been some talk of cognition-enhancing drugs but I’m not sure of their precise effects.”
The president of the Australian Chess Federation, Gary Wastell, said for a while, players were being drug tested at some major tournaments.
More than a decade ago, the World Chess Federation sought admission to the Winter Olympics “on the basis that chess is largely played indoors”, he said.
While that never came to fruition, players were temporarily obliged to submit to tests to meet IOC standards.
“I don’t think there was any real belief that there was a genuine possibility that people were using these things to enhance their performances,” Mr Wastell said.
“I suspect the drugs that were being checked for might not have been those most likely to be of any benefit to a chess player.”
While he was emphatic that any attempt to seek an advantage through chemical means would be considered cheating, he said he did not believe it was a serious concern.
“I don’t believe there are any players even at the top level who would be indulging in it,” he said.
“One day they might come up with something that actually works in which case it’ll go up the cheating commission’s agenda quite rapidly I would think.”
Of the many chess spin-offs, the most physical is undoubtedly chess-boxing, in which players alternate between rounds in the ring and at the board.
But how do mainstream players feel about it?
“I must admit I have never fully taken it seriously,” Zhao said with a laugh.
“It seems a bit weird because I would have thought, if you really enjoy chess, you’re probably not the type of person who enjoys the physical effects of boxing, and vice versa.”