Chess is a sport, or not at all?

Generally, as we all know, chess is not regarded as a sport. However, in 1999 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially recognized (1) chess as a sport, yet its authorities still do not agree to include it in the Olympics. So, you might ask, what is going on?

The truth is that the problem lies much deeper. One may consider chess as a mind game which does not require any physical strength, stamina or special skills. Simply, by any means a chess player cannot be called an athlete, even if he or she is definitely a sporty person, like Magnus Carlsen or Timur Gareyev. It can be said that with the very moment of sitting at the chess table, a sporty person becomes a non-sporty man!

Moreover, modern chess requires superb stamina and excellent physical preparation, as the classical, or standard, chess games last even four or five hours. And the better physical stamina, the longer the highest level of concentration can be maintained. Again, Carlsen is a perfect example of this strategy, along with Duda from Poland. They both spend hours at the gym, exercising their bodies to the optimal form.

Let’s go even deeper. The very definition of sport seems to be highly problematic on its own. Maybe it is just a semantics issue? Merriam Webster states that it is “physical activity engaged in for pleasure” (2), Dicitionary.com explains that it is “an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.” (3), and Collins Dictionary states that “sports are games such as football and basketball and other competitive leisure activities which need physical effort and skill” (4).

As we can see, the above-mentioned definitions underline such words as activity, physical and competitive. Thus, we can coin the shortest possible definition of sport which would be confined to these three words: sport is a competitive physical activity. Therefore, if chess is not a sport, it does not fit this definition. Since chess is competitive, the problem lies in the concept of physical activity. Running, throwing or kicking is fine, sitting at the chess table is not. Sitting and thinking at the same time only gets the things worse.

The premise is that chess does not require any physical effort, since it is a mind game like Scrabble, or just a board game like Monopoly. Yes, it is a board game and as such cannot be played, as other officially recognised sports, upon a track, in a pool, on a field, in a court, on a rink or inside a gymnasium. However, I cannot agree with a statement that chess is effortless.

Chess can be extremely tiring and exhausting, no matter what kind of chess you play. In bullet or blitz chess, because of time pressure, your heart pounds like crazy and blood pressure can go up to its limits. In standard chess, you cannot make the slightest mistake in the 4th or 5th hours of play which means you have to be in a perfect physical condition. In both cases, you have to be fit and healthy, as any other sportsman in any other sport.

We can all agree that chess is not a physical event like football, tennis or hockey. It is primarily a game. A game where a physical element is not decisive for the outcome. Undoubtedly, other sports are also games, but with physical activity as the main, or outstanding, part. Thus, classical sports are a combination of different crucial elements like competition, physical activity and game-like features. Chess lacks some of them, nor is a combination of them.

(1) https://www.olympic.org/recognised-federations
(2) https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sport
(3) https://www.dictionary.com/browse/sport
(4) https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/sport

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