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The Air is Thin at the Top

Michael, June 25, 2021


What do the world’s best chess players and astronauts have in common? The air quality of their environment is monitored by state-of-the-art technology.


Analysis and preparation lay at the core of chess. Within a single match a player will have to process thousands of possibilities and execute dozens of crucial moves to win. To operate at such a high level for a sustained period of time the inputs; food, water, and perhaps more importantly the air a Grandmaster is breathing need to be of the highest quality to prevent fatigue and boost health and wellness.


chess copy

Hundreds of years ago at the advent of modern chess, players used to arrive at the chequered table with nothing but their wits and knowledge of the rules to do battle. However, after the first games were recorded and accessible in the 15th century, top players began analysing the past moves and style of opponents to prepare for matches. Napoleon Bonaparte, a General and chess enthusiast was famous for 1. e4 e5 2. Qf3 (The Napoleon Opening) who characteristically sought to end the game quickly. Studious players who knew about their opponents repertoire would have a huge advantage over their opponents going into games. Once high-level games started to be consistently recorded, the art of preparation was born.


Today, top-level chess players exclude nothing in their preparations for elite level tournaments. They draw from every piece of information available to them, both about their opponents and themselves, and this now includes details as specific as air quality. The World Chess Championship contested every two years represents the pinnacle of elite chess and the most extreme examples of preparation within the game. The 12 rounds pit two Grandmasters against each other for the world title.




What do chess players analyze?

Chess players are notorious for taking seemingly obscure knowledge and integrating it into their skillset in order to win.



A prime example of this is the American chess champ Bobby Fischer. Bobby won the 1972 World Championship, defeating Boris Spassky of The Soviet Union. To prepare, he learned all the Russian needed to have access to all the chess literature available to the Russian speaking Soviet players. This enabled him to totally analyze not only Spassky’s past games but a myriad of others which were previously unintelligible to foreign players. Contemporary rivals were often baffled as Bobby demonstrated knowledge of obscure positions only published in tiny regional magazines decades prior.



Similarly, in the1978 World Championship clash, Victor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov employed sports and paranormal psychologists to analyse their thinking patterns and ensure they were in the correct mental state for peak performance. This extra help worked so well, that sports psychologists are now a standard for any high-level player. They make up just one part of a huge backroom of the chess teams.



After IBM’s Deep Blue Chess engine beat World Champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, preparation had officially changed forever.chess computer Players could no longer hope to succeed in an event without extensive computer consultation pre-tournament. Chess engines can draw not only from a database of half a billion games but also avails of modern AI technology to analyze new positions to a depth far beyond even a Grandmaster’s capacity. Since 1997, every World Championship match has featured “computer moves,” which players have memorized in their preparation. They are so dubbed because they are seen as too complex and nuanced for humans to ever find them on their own.

With the help of these computers, players gain experience and knowledge far faster than their predecessors. Now more than ever chess is a younger game with the last three world title matches set between players aged 30 or below.



Diet and Exercise

Essential to this mix of youth and talent are rigorous physical and mental training schedules. The 2018 Championship contender Fabiano Caruana of the U.S.A. went so far as to entirely eliminate sugar from his diet in an attempt prolong his stamina and concentration levels at the board. On the other hand, his opposition and current Champ, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, has employed a personal chef to accompany him to ensure he gets the essential fuel in his diet to perform at the highest level anywhere he travels. It’s evident that the top players in the world have consistently used surprising but effective methods to refine and perfect their game.


magnus chess


Air quality is the latest essential part of the performance for these elite Grandmasters.

Air quality is necessary for staying healthy. Airthings makes products that contain state-of-the-art sensors, used by players to monitor the following air quality metrics, which are crucial to health and performance:




CO2 is everywhere but especially abundant in indoor environments. High concentrations can result in drowsiness, headaches, and poor concentration. The Airthings Wave Plus can detect CO2   levels in units of parts per million. Anything more than 1000ppm would require an immediate alteration to the playing environment.


Temperature & Humidity

Temperature & Humidity are paramount for a player's comfort and stamina. Without accurate readings of these metrics, it would be impossible to decipher what about the playing area needs to change so that the player can entirely focus their on the board and perform in matches that can last up to 5 hours.


Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)

VOC’s are airborne chemical pollutants that can be detrimental to your health. They are up to 5x more prevalent indoors compared to outdoors. Everything from perfumes, cleaning products, candles, and even furniture can emit toxins which pollute your living space. With accurate VOC readings players can remove all sources of these toxins from their playing area.



Radon is a dangerous gas that is emitted from radioactive material, which naturally occurs beneath topsoil. Radon levels in our homes should be monitored not just for chess performance but also because this tasteless and odorless gas can be detrimental to our long-term health if not identified early on.


How does this impact player performance? 

Recently, poor air quality has been scientifically linked[1] to the phenomenon of brain fog which means a decrease in general cognitive performance at the Chess board. A decline in brain power would spell disaster in a World Championship match where a single poor move usually loses you a game and often the title. That’s why many of the world’s top players began monitoring their home air quality when tournaments moved online due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

World #1 Magnus is an Airthings Ambassador and uses their products to optimize his playing environment. Utilizing the Wave Plus, he can identify and decrease sources of VOC’s, minimize CO2 intake through improved ventilation, monitor humidity and temperature for optimal comfort, and finally rest easy knowing his Radon levels are within a safe threshold.


Magnus is joined by several of the World’s top 10 including World Fischer Random World Chess Champion Wesley So, who is equally an air quality advocate and Airthings Ambassador. Carlsen and So are currently leading the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour standings in positions 1 and 2 respectively, a status which both hope to maintain as the Tour boasts a prize pool of US$1.6 million.

2021 is also the year of the next World Championship match. Carlsen is sure to continue closely analyzing and optimizing his air as he duels for the title of World’s best against Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia. The Norwegian will look for any opportunity to gain even the thinnest of edges over his rival when they face off in Dubai in November of this year.


1) Steffen Künn, Juan Palacios, Nico Pestel, IZA, Indoor Air Quality and Cognitive Performance (2019).

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Radon map

Thousands of Radon sensors across the world, broken down by location. See your region's approximate risk level.


Thousands of Radon sensors across the world, broken down by location. See your region's approximate risk level.