What Is Chess, Exactly – Sport, Game, or Somewhere in Between? We Analyze Both Sides of the Debate.
Two opponents face off across a field of play. Strategic moves will be made and players will be lost as the clock ticks down, but that’s all part of the game. Steely-eyed, their only goal is to take down the other side and be named as champion.
Does this sound like a sport to you? If you said yes, you may be surprised to learn that we’re talking about a chess tournament. For years, players and chess theorists have debated the eternal topic: “Is chess a sport?” Do any amount of internet browsing and you’ll see the argument playing out in articles, online forums, and on social media pages. Each side has impassioned points to make in order to build up their stance, and both sides can be quite thorough in their arguments.
At the end of the day, however, which one wins out? Is chess a sport or is it simply a game? We’re here to take a look at each side of the debate in order to see where the true answer lies.
Is Chess Considered a Sport? Why Some Say No.
Let’s start with the naysayers who insist that as competitive as chess might be, it is in no way a sport. What arguments do they use to back up their opinion? Here are a few we’ve heard.
It Takes Place on a Board
The most commonly-used argument to discredit chess as a sport has to do with where the action takes place. A sport happens on a field, a pitch, or some sort of arena, while the action in chess all happens on a playing board. This makes it no different from a game of Monopoly or Scrabble, some insist.
The Dictionary Agrees That It’s Not
When asking “Is chess a sport?” the first place most people turn to is the dictionary. We were curious about some people’s assertion that chess should be defined as a game, so we turned to our trusty old dictionary and looked up the definition of “board game.” Oxford defines it as “a game that involves the movement of counters or other objects round a board.”
We decided to get more technologically advanced with our definitions and looked to Wikipedia, which reminded us that a board game is a game that involves counters or pieces moved or placed on a pre-marked surface or ‘board,’ according to a set of rules.”
Well. That certainly puts chess squarely in the “board game” category in terms of its definition.
A Sport Requires Physical Exertion
Think of the activities we define as “sports.” From football and baseball to swimming and skiing, when someone says “sports,” you typically think of physical activity. Even activities that don’t have a specific set of rules like recreational skiing or swimming for fun are defined as sports.
For many people, chess and sports don’t fall into the same category because of the perceived lack of physical exertion when you’re sitting behind a chess board. Those who feel that chess players don’t physically exert themselves have never seen two grandmasters face off in a tense and lengthy game. We’ll discuss more about the physical requirement of chess later.
Many People Don’t Believe Chess Is a Sport
Does public opinion matter in terms of whether or not something gets categorized as a sport? If you think so, then chess may not be a sport, after all. YouGov, a UK-based data analytics firm, conducted a survey in 2017 in which they asked if chess should be considered as a sport. Only 23% of respondents said yes, with a whopping 73% replying in the negative.
Why Is Chess a Sport? An Argument for Yes.
Now for the flip side. If chess is a sport, what makes it so? Here are some perspectives on why chess should be considered among the world’s greatest sports.
The Dictionary Agrees That It Is
Since we took time to reference the dictionary in favor of the “no” argument, we thought we’d take another look to see if there’s evidence to back up the “Why yes, chess is a sport!” perspective. Let’s look at the Oxford definition so we’re comparing apples to apples, here. They define sport as “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”
Could it be that chess is both a board game and a sport? The answer to that depends on whether or not you think chess requires physical exertion. Let’s move on to that next.
Chess Requires Players to Be Fit
We all know that chess requires lots of mental stamina, but what about physical stamina? While it may seem that simply sitting behind a chess board doesn’t demand a great deal of physical fitness, the truth may surprise you. Sitting for an hour or two could get arduous for an average player, but the most elite players in the world often face off with opponents for several hours or more.
Consider this: in the 1995 Colorado Open, Todd Bardwick and David Lucky started a match at 5:00 p.m. on September 5 and didn’t finish up until 12 hours later. It’s the longest continuous game played between chess masters in the United States.
Even the late Bobby Fischer discussed the need for serious chess players to be in good physical condition. In an interview with Dick Cavett, Fischer pointed out that when someone gets physically tired after sitting for hours on end, their concentration begins to fade – allowing their opponent to quickly swoop in and knock them out.
Discipline and Training Are a Must
While most people who play chess simply play it for fun, those who play it to become champions have to train just like players in any other sport. While many elite players are secretive about their exact training routine, we know that the effort that goes into becoming a truly great chess player is just as much of a commitment as the time and training put in by star players of football, cricket, baseball, and other sports.
Like physical sports, chess requires having a coach who is a master at the game. It requires maintaining a good level of physical fitness (as we mentioned above). Elite chess players typically wake early and spend hours memorizing complex concepts such as opening variations and endgame positions. They work hard to hone their logical thinking and problem-solving skills. They also spend hours analyzing the games of famous chess players, as well as past games of their opponents in order to know what they’re up against.
It’s a Gift
Chess is a game for everyone, and anyone can improve with practice. Becoming a true great, however, is an elusive combination of practice and simply being born to play chess. In the Fischer-Cavett interview that we mentioned above, the host asks Fischer if a player who is simply good can become great with enough practice. “Great, no,” Fischer shrugs, “he could be good, though.” He insisted that many of the good players out there don’t have born talent; they just “work like dogs.”
Similarly, in athletic sports, the expectation is that while many players will practice and become exceptionally good, only a few will become extraordinary superstars with a seemingly natural-born talent for the game. Not everyone can become a Michael Jordan, a Muhammad Ali, or a Pelé.
The International Olympic Committee Says So
Nothing makes an event any more a sport than being recognized by the grandest association of all sport: The International Olympic Committee. In 2000, it formally recognized chess as a sport. It’s even been included as an event at various Olympic Games (we got to see it in 2006 at the Asian games, as well as in Guangzhou in the 2010 Olympics). Will it be a part of future Olympics around the world? Time will tell, but there’s a good chance we’ll see chess make an appearance at the 2020 Olympics.
Is Chess a Sport? Our Take on the Matter
Given all of this, is chess a sport or a game? If it’s the former, why is chess considered a sport? What do we think?
In our opinion, there’s room for chess to be both a game and a sport, similar to other sport/games that have rules, an objective, and can be played professionally or for fun. The fact that physical and mental training are required to be at your best as a chess player is important. It also doesn’t hurt the cause that the International Olympic Committee has come down on the “chess-as-a-sport” side of the debate.
While it may not matter to the casual player who is simply out to have fun, categorizing chess as a sport matters deeply to those who take it to superhuman levels and seek to conquer the world’s greatest tournaments. Out of awe and respect for them and the game, we insist that chess is most definitely a sport of the highest degree.