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Ten Reasons why Chess is a Sport

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Playing games is a natural part of human life yet it has become fashionable for leaders of the sports bodies to decry the rise of gaming when our young people could be active outdoors. The English Chess Federation takes a more positive view towards games. We advocate strategy games rather than “shoot ‘em up” games where adrenaline may be high but the intellectual content is often low. Chess is a classic strategy game which challenges the finest minds in the world. It is not recognised as a sport in the UK and receives no public funding. It is worth reminding ourselves why the International Olympic Committee and over 100 countries recognise chess as a sport.

  1. Competitive. The objective of a game of chess is to win. Chess involves a relentless struggle against one’s opponent. There is probably no sporting activity in which two people are locked in a competitive struggle of such intensity for such a sustained period of time. One lapse of concentration and suddenly a good position is transformed into a losing one. Each game is a drama in which the outcome is uncertain until the very end. When recently interviewed by journalist Dominic Lawson, the world chess champion Magnus Carlsen said that chess was “definitely a sport”.
  2. Well established. The world championship has been organised since 1886 and our national federation was founded in 1904. Chess competitions are organised at every level: schools, universities, counties, cities, leagues, junior, senior, European, World, etc. Six million people play chess in England each year according to pollsters YouGov. 125,000 children learn chess in school each year.
  3. Physical fitness. Peak mental condition requires being in good physical condition. Players need to concentrate totally for up to seven hours. As the stress and tension builds up, blood pressure, pulse and respiration rates all increase. Contenders for the world championships have nutritionists and fitness coaches.
  4. Behaviour code. Players are penalised for poor sportsmanship e.g. for refusing to shake hands with their opponent. Potential cheating is taken seriously. Mobile phones are banned. Players are prohibited on their move from leaving the playing area. There is an anti-doping policy.
  5. Olympic Recognition. Chess has been recognised as a sport by the International Olympic Committee since 2000. It was an event at the Asian Games in 2006 in Doha and again in Guangzhou in 2010. It is also being considered for inclusion in the Pan-American Games. Tokyo is preparing bids for the 2020 summer Olympics and has invited chess and bridge to apply for inclusion. Russia is trying to bring chess to the winter Olympics.
  6. European Recognition. Chess is recognised as a sport in 24 out of 28 member states of the European Union. The exceptions are the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Sweden. In Sweden, it is likely that chess will be included from next year. Support has come from the Swedish sports coaches organisation which admires the mental discipline of chess.
  7. Global game. Chess is played around the world irrespective of age, race, gender, income or language. People with physical disabilities play chess. Blind people play chess. People with advanced motor neurone disease play chess: Professor Stephen Hawking played chess with his children.
  8. Mental component. All sports have a mental component. Ultimately competitive sports may be construed as strategy games differing only in their physical manifestation. Commentators are prone to similes such as: curling = chess on ice; bowls = chess on grass; snooker = chess with balls, and so on.
  9. National accolade. World chess champions have won their national Sportsman of the Year competition including Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Vishy Anand (India) and Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria).
  10. Player ranking system. The player ranking system was developed for chess in 1960 and has been adopted by many other sports including American football, baseball, basketball, hockey, korfball, rugby and golf. Football and cricket use a related formula.

England should be proud of its chess tradition. The first book printed in English by William Caxton was on chess. All official chess games must use the style of pieces designed in England by Nathaniel Cook in 1849 and named after Howard Staunton who was the strongest player in the world at that time.

England has performed with distinction at the World Chess Olympiads. We had a strong team at the Buenos Aires Olympiad in 1939 during which WW2 broke out. The team returned home where they worked with Alan Turing to break the German Engima codes. England came third in 1976 and regularly came second in 1980s behind the mighty Soviet Union. As recently as twenty years ago, England finished fourth behind Russia, Ukraine and the USA but since then we have declined – in the most recent Olympiad at Tromso in 2014, England came 28th.

All but one of the 27 teams that placed above England recognise chess as a sport. The exception is the USA which funds chess privately. Governments actively support chess as it improves academic performance and symbolises a country’s intellectual strength. China classifies chess as a sport and in less than two decades has gone from nowhere to winning the recent Chess Olympiad and producing the women’s world champion, Hou Yifan. The next open world champion is expected to be Chinese.

Chess has health benefits. There is an emerging awareness of the effectiveness of chess in delaying the onset of Alzheimers. Chess promotes social integration as players travel to a venue and interacting socially. Chess presents a welcome social activity to many children who are on the autistic spectrum. Many Aspergers children find chess opens up for them a whole new world which conventional sport does not. For many adults, chess provides them with meaning in their lives.

Recognition as a sport does not bring any obligation of funding but it would open some doors. Many public funding bodies and foundations only fund officially recognised sports e.g. the national lottery. Chess would be able to obtain shared access to sports facilities as it does in other countries. Our students would no longer be prevented from playing in the European and World University Chess Championships because of the condition that the national sports body should recognise chess as a sport. We would no longer have to look at other countries seek funding from the Erasmus+ sports programme for chess, a possibility not open to us.

Recognition of chess will not open the floodgates to video games. The mindsports (including bridge and chess) are well-established, public-domain, abstract strategy games played competitively throughout the world using one canonical form. By contrast, the video game market has numerous franchises (e.g. Grand Theft Auto) each of which spawns many game titles which are of short-term duration and which typically use proprietary technology.

The English Bridge Union is going to court to have bridge recognised as a sport. We wish them well.

About John Foley

Director, London Chess Conference Member, Education Commission, European Chess Union Promoting chess as a way to develop thinking skills

20 thoughts on “Ten Reasons why Chess is a Sport

  1. Only people who play chess would call it a sport. A computer without moving parts can play this sport. Good luck keeping fit by practising your “sport”. The article says “Peak mental condition requires being in good physical condition”. Ermm, technically ANY activity benefits from being in good physical condition: work, cleaning the house, sex, repairing the car, etc, none of which is considered a sport. And, in any case, surely chess players don’t attain the required good physical condition by just playing chess. Perhaps thrrough cycling, badminton, or any other real sport, not chess. It’s a game, not a sport.

    1. Not a sport. Why not? Football is, as is its counter part in the U.S.. It took over 100 years for Americans, one of which I am, to notice that concussions are a serious matter, and have maimed and killed thousands. Ask the NFL.

      One uses their head in chess while the other literally uses their head, not really, in many contact sports. It would really test the smarts of the IOC to add chess primarily because of time frame issues.

      Now you understand. Testing the IOC is your problem

      WASP

  2. Here is an example of a physical activity in chess. When 2 teams play (4 players per team) with little time left, a player on board 1 may run to board 4 and based on what he sees to decide to go for a win or for a draw. Set up boards far from each other. Whichever team has better runners may decide the outcome. Also, it helps to makes really fast moves with a few seconds left on the clock.
    Regarding Winter Olympics, use ice pieces, make a playing hall really cold and short time control.

  3. I’m an avid amateur chess player but even to me the #3 seems to be the sticking point. Yes, I understand how some Grandmasters need some physical stamina to play a 6 hour classical game but such long games are actually pretty rare.

    The lack of evidence that chess players need physical fitness to be good is the reason whey the IOC keeps chess out of the Olympic Games.

  4. Sorry, but this is not a sport. A sport requires physical skills. Chess is though probably the biggest board game in the world and with more participants than a lot of established sports. If chess is a sport, than many board games would also be sports and Jeopardy and a lot of other things.

    1. Do you know of board games with 1 minute per player for the entire game? How about board games with playoffs? Team vs team where a result on board 1 depends on a result on board 2? I can go on and on. BTW, regarding physical conditions, in USSR where in some parts of the country chess was #2 in popularity behind soccer and ahead of hockey, physical exercises of regional teams, especially youth, were a regular part of overall training. Marketing of chess needs very serious improvement. First step is to elect FIDE president who serious sponsors will talk to. Other steps may include short time controls, random starting setups, etc… Chessplayers have no one else to blame but themselves.

  5. “Shoot me up” games you referred to as having low intellectual aspect just high adrenaline is wrong!!! Most shooters especially online against a team of other players is highly calculated and high strategic… they arnt just running around trying to shoot each other.

    They use the environment, they use baiting strategies, team co-ordination, positioning is all pre planned in order to achieve a goal usually under huge pressure and require split second thinking… in chess the environment doesn’t change the prices don’t change in fact you could calculate every single possible play into a computer… that cannot happen in shooter games as the players take different timings to do certain tasks in multiple environments.

    Do some research!

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