Why Is Chess A Sport?
- The International Olympic Committee considers chess to be a sport.
- Chess requires physical exertion as mental exertion manifests itself physically.
- Chess has rules and etiquette which are officially recognized internationally.
- Chess is competitive as the participating players feel the drive to win.
- Chess requires skill as a deep and serious chess training is necessary to become good at chess.
Is chess a sport? Is it a game? Is it a pastime? Why are the answers to such questions even important?
Apart from it being a matter of pride (some chess players seem to fancy themselves as “athletes” despite having never set foot in a gym), the question of “is chess a sport?” has important implications for funding.
Several charitable foundations and government grant programs only give financial aid to officially recognized “sports”. If chess is a sport, it opens the door to much-needed outside assistance for clubs and chess coaching programs. Whenever money is involved, the answer matters.
Let’s look at the arguments, one by one.
Chess Is Competitive
Like sports, chess is competitive. The participating players feel the drive to win in a tough struggle against a motivated opponent.
The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat, as Jim McKay from ABC’s Wide World of Sports, put it.
Unfortunately, this argument fails to hold water. Many activities can be competitive, including Monopoly, gin rummy and tiddly-winks. No-one is arguing that these are sports, just because they happen to be competitive.
Chess Requires Skill
Another thing chess has in common with sports is the fact that it requires skill. Just as the footballer must learn to master running, passing, tackling, and positional game sense, becoming adept at chess requires deep and serious study – memorizing openings, reading books, taking lessons, and becoming familiar with the finer points of endgame play.
Again though, further consideration reveals that while chess requires skill (in common with sports), this is also not enough.
Many actions which are unquestionably not sports require skill – driving a tractor or painting a picture, for example.
Chess Has Rules And Etiquette
The official rules of chess are recognized internationally, in the same way, they are for sports like tennis and cricket. Protocol dictates that chess players ought to shake hands before the game, treat their opponent respectfully by not overtly distracting them, and the losing player shouldn’t tip the board upside down and storm off in disgust (however strong the urge).
But once more, a code of rules and etiquette is not the defining mark of a sport. Assembling furniture has a code of rules. Dining at a fine restaurant involves etiquette.
Being competitive, requiring skill, having rules and etiquette doesn’t make an activity a sport. So what is the litmus test? Is chess a sport
Chess Requires Physical Exertion
Let us go to the Oxford English dictionary for help. It defines a “sport” as being: An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.
This definition is regarded as the decisive blow by those who argue that chess is not a sport. Can sit in a chair, in silence, in front of a chess board for hours on end reasonably constitute “physical exertion”?
Actually, as any chess player knows, there is physical exertion involved and not just the basic motor skills of picking up a piece and moving it to another square. The trouble is, it is impossible for people to understand how physically taxing chess can be unless they have played it themselves.
Think back to your last intense game: when the outcome rested on a knife-edge when the complications made your mind burn when you had to concentrate every fiber of your being into making the correct move, and when you deeply cared about the result.
After hours of combat, you would have finished the game feeling drained in both mind and body. Mental exertion manifests itself physically – a tough game of chess can elevate the heart rate, heighten a player’s blood pressure and cause perspiration, even though chess hardly involves much kin-aesthetic movement beyond furrowed brows and nervous trips to the bathroom.
Top chess grandmasters recognize the need to keep their bodies in peak condition to perform at the highest level.
World champions Bobby Fischer and Magnus Carlsen are both well-known for their demanding exercise regimens to allow them to compete for the necessary long hours without lapses in concentration.
Fischer was surprisingly broad-shouldered, played tennis and swam. In an interview with Dick Cavett in 1971, Fischer explained the need for peak chess performers to have good blood circulation to the head.
Carlsen does his opening preparation on a treadmill, is a keen and talented football player, and brings his own personal chef to chess tournaments in order to maintain his strict diet.
Former World Chess Champion Vishy Anand, for example, did a lot of sport, especially swimming, before his first World Championship Match against Magnus Carlsen in 2013. He lost a few kilos and wanted to be in excellent shape in order to compete with Carlsen, who is more than 20 years younger than him.
The 2016 World Chess Championship between Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin was tied at 6-6 after the regulation 12 matches, so entered a four-game tie-break phase to determine the winner.
Though Karjakin had pushed the defending champion Carlsen all the way during the longer matches, the Russian challenger faltered during the rapid games and lost 3-1.
When asked about why Carlsen won out, Karjakin replied: “It was perhaps a mistake that I prepared for both the Black and the White portions. I looked at many varieties. But in rapid chess, it’s better to be in good shape. And I was not in good shape.”
There you have it – the defeated player in the World Chess Championship blamed his loss on his lack of physical fitness. Is chess a sport? That’s a pretty good argument to the affirmative. If you want a shortcut to improving your chess, consider improving your diet and exercise!
Maybe what the naysayers really mean is that chess players aren’t physically exerting themselves enough to call chess a sport. However intense a chess game, it cannot be argued that it’s as physically taxing as completing a marathon, or emerging battered and bruised from a game of rugby.
But what if we compare chess to throwing a javelin, or playing golf? Surely the intensity of mental concentration in chess results in physical exertion which is at least as great as at least some universally-recognized sports.
The Official Line: Is Chess A Sport?
People’s opinions on the matter of physical exertion vary, so what we really need is an official arbiter.
Fortunately, we have exactly this: The International Olympic Committee is surely the authority whose opinion matters most on such matters. To them, chess is considered a sport.
Because of the physical exertion (which is unquestionably there, though not easily seen), and the International Olympic Committee’s word, we have our answer to our original question: Is chess a sport?
Yes! Chess is a sport!
Still, the image and status of chess varies strongly from country to country. In the former Soviet Union and today’s Russia, for example, chess has always had a high status.
Many former World Chess Champions like Botvinnik, Spassky, Karpov, Kasparov, and Kramnik came from the Soviet Union, respectively Russia.
China is another country in which chess enjoys a very high-status today. The government grants plenty of financial support for the country’s best chess players. Therefore, it’s no surprise that China won the penultimate Chess Olympiad in Tromso 2014.
Several Chinese chess players like Ding Liren, Wei Yi, Li Chao, and Yu Yangyi managed to join the 2700-club within the last few years. The current world’s best female chess player, Hou Yifan, also comes from China.
Although chess is recognized as a sport in almost all countries of the European Union, countries like Germany only spend very little money on the promotion of chess. For this reason, it is tough to compete with countries like Russia or China when it comes to training the country’s best chess players.
Is chess a sport or not? Let us know your thoughts on this highly debatable question in the comments below.
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