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Study: Dirty Air Causes Chess Players to Make Mistakes

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The findings may have implications for the mental acuity of city dwellers.

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Chess experts make more mistakes when air pollution is high, a study has found.

Experts used computer models to analyze the quality of games played and found that with a modest increase in fine particulate matter, the probability that chess players would make an error increased by 2.1 percentage points, and the magnitude of those errors increased by nearly 11 percent.

The paper, published in the journal Management Sciencestudied the performance of 121 chess players in three seven-round tournaments in Germany in 2017, 2018, and 2019, comprising more than 30,000 chess moves. The researchers compared the actual moves the players made against the optimal moves determined by the powerful chess engine Stockfish.

In the tournament venues, the researchers attached three web-connected air quality sensors to measure carbon dioxide, PM2.5 concentrations, and temperature. Each tournament lasted eight weeks, meaning players faced a variety of air conditions.

Fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, refers to tiny particles 2.5 microns or less in diameter, which are often expelled by burning matter such as that from car engines, coal plants, forest fires, and wood burners.

“We find that when individuals are exposed to higher levels of air pollution, they make more mistakes, and they make larger mistakes,” said Juan Palacios, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sustainable Urbanization Lab and a co-author of the paper.

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