Is chess a sport? The old debate.
Although chess has officially been recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee since the year 2000, opinions are still divided. Some people agree that it should be considered a sport, while others think otherwise. Both sides bring valid arguments, but let’s start with the beginning.
What makes a sport a sport?
Let’s see what various dictionaries have to tell us. The Oxford dictionary states that sport is “an activity involving physical exertion and skill, esp. (particularly in modern use) one regulated by set rules or customs in which an individual or team competes against another or others.”
The Cambridge dictionary gives a similar definition: “a game, competition, or activity needing physical effort and skill that is played or done according to rules, for enjoyment and/or as a job”.
Definitions vary very little between different sources, but they basically agree on a few things: a sport requires skill and physical ability, is competitive, and is played under a set of rules. While there should be no doubt that chess requires a lot of skill, is played competitively, and has many rules, the debate is generated by whether chess also requires a physical ability that leads to exertion, as stated by the Oxford dictionary. But more on this, later.
Chess is also referred to as a “game”, so let’s take a look next at what a game means and where the difference between sport and game lies.
The difference between a game and a sport
Let’s start with the definition of a game, given by the same dictionaries above. The Oxford dictionary defines a game as “an activity that you do to have fun, often one that has rules and that you can win or lose”. The Cambridge dictionary agrees: “an entertaining activity or sport, especially one played by children, or the equipment needed for such an activity” and lists board games as an example.
Chess is a board game, hence the confusion – is chess a game or a sport?
One difference between the two definitions (sport versus game) is their purpose. A game is meant to be a friendly encounter and is played for entertainment, for fun, while sports are competitive.
If we think about chess, even if a certain game is not played as part of a competition and is just a casual one between friends, the competitiveness is there. The two opponents fight against each other and each one wants to win.
Nowadays the two terms are often used as synonyms, but generally the main difference between the two is that sports require some sort of physical effort, while games don’t.
Here too, the debate about chess is open.
Does it really require a physical effort or not? Sitting at the board and pushing wooden pieces on a chessboard definitely doesn’t look like it, but I believe the debate is more complex than that.
Is chess considered a sport?
As mentioned above, chess is in fact recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee, although it is not one played in the Olympics.
Let’s see why chess can be considered a sport:
- It requires skill. This is one thing chess has in common with sports. Every sport requires skill and each athlete trains to develop the ones they need for their specific branch. This also happens in chess. People get better by practicing and practicing. Top players need to put in hours of hard work in which they study all parts of the game – openings, middle game, and endgames. Every chess player who wants to play competitively and improve has to study and learn openings, solve tactics, study typical sacrifices and attacking ideas, look at the main strategic ideas and last, but not least, study the different types of endgames and know their main rules.
- It is competitive. When approaching the game, each player has the desire to win it. In a tournament, this desire is obvious – each player wants to win the big prize. As a bonus, you also get some hard-worked rating points. Even when playing casual games, each player wants to bring the point home, no question about it.
- It has a set of rules. Obviously, chess is played by rules – each piece moves in a certain way, there are certain special moves and the purpose of it is to deliver checkmate to the rival king. Apart from these, there are certain etiquette and tournament rules. Especially in FIDE events players are required to adhere to a certain dress code and keep a respectful attitude towards each other.
I’ve left the part about physical exertion last, as this is where the debate begins. Most chess players agree that playing a whole chess tournament is exhausting.
It is not “just sitting at the chessboard and pushing the pieces on the board”.
You have to do this for many hours, while investing a lot of energy in finding (or at least trying to find) the best moves at all times. I can say from my own experience that a long game of chess is extremely exhausting mentally.
And by the end of a tournament, this exhaustion only increases. This is why many top players (and not only) have understood that physical training is very important and useful for chess players. It improves stamina and helps you manage the stress and tiredness of a tournament better.
Why is chess not considered a sport?
Here I’m going to stop directly at the “physical exertion” part. Although chess takes a lot of mental effort, it doesn’t technically involve any physical effort. This one is limited to moving the pieces, which is obviously far from exhausting. You don’t get physically tired; you get mentally tired.
And that can translate to exhaustion, high-calorie expenditure, and even weight loss at the end of a one-week tournament, let’s say.
It is true that getting in shape makes you better prepared for playing along, exhausting tournaments, but it doesn’t make you better at chess, per se. Studying will make you better at chess. If you take a well-trained, ripped athlete, he/she won’t become a World Champion without studying chess.
In the same way, I’m sure that a slightly physically out-of-shape Magnus Carlsen won’t become a patzer. He will still be incredibly strong, but will most likely get tired easily in a tournament, which will show in his games.
Is chess a form of eSports then?
An eSport is a form of competition using video games, especially among professional gamers. If we think about the current pandemic situation, chess has most definitely migrated online and it has become a form of eSport.
Most chess players have started streaming their games and most tournaments have been organized online. Many eSports organizations have recently brought onboard chess players.
In the past year, chess could only be played as a form of eSports, but this was only due to the lack of physical chess tournaments and the impossibility of organizing them. Most chess players prefer the “offline”, original chess version, and are very excited to come back and fight it out over the board.
Why is an eSport not a sport?
Again, what makes the difference is the physical aspect of eSports. While they do call for skill and coordination, the physical effort is minimal.
It’s the same as with chess – gamers can improve their skill with training, but it doesn’t involve full-body movements and coordination. It can be exhausting, for sure, but it doesn’t provide health benefits in the way that physical sports do.