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Chess? A Sport?

Chess boxing

Chess boxing

Over 30 years ago, the United States achieved a Miracle on Ice. Today they achieved a Miracle on the Chessboard. The 1980 US Men’s Hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the Olympic games. The 2012 US Chess Olympiad team defeated the Russians at their beloved game of chess, despite being outmatched in the four board team event. Both American squads faced pretty long odds to beat their favored opponents, but are the two events that similar?

Of course, chess is not hockey and hockey is not chess. In hockey, teeth are frequently broken and slap shots can reach speeds of over 100 miles per hour. Chess requires significantly less physical activity, but games can last many hours. My longest game was about 8 hours (108 moves), and was certainly more draining than any sports game I’ve ever played. And yet chess is certainly not recognized as a sport by the public, instead viewed as a nerdy game. Today’s contest between the US and Russia got me thinking — how does one define a sport?

There are some pretty straightforward reasons to exclude chess from the list of sports. Focal points include the fact that chess players sit in a chair for a long period of time rather than exert themselves physically and that they generally don’t appear to be in “great shape.” Those are understandable arguments, but can easily be countered. Mentally exerting oneself over a period of many hours is incredibly tiring and does take endurance. Chess players may not all be in good shape, but nor are a number of football and baseball players. Overweight NFL linemen are often excused as being incredibly strong. But being extremely large in stature does not mask poor health, so the poor physical shape argument is also a poor one.

According to Oxford dictionaries, sport is defined as follows:


an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment:

Strictly under this definition it is up for debate whether or not chess should be considered a sport. Many fail to recognize the need for physical endurance throughout a chess game. All other components of the definition hold true to chess — skill is undoubtedly necessary, there are individuals competing against each other, and, to many, the game is entertaining. Sure, some will say “chess is boring.” So is curling, and we watch that in the Olympics every four years.

The most pertinent point may revolve around hand-eye coordination. This may be the key factor in determining if an activity is a sport or a game. Basketball, baseball, soccer, etc. all require much hand-eye coordination.  Admittedly chess does not require much of that, not much more than picking up a piece and moving it to a new square. But what about kickball? Paintball? Extreme Ironing? That last one sounds made up, but makes many lists of strangest sports (note chess boxing on that list). Chess, on the other hand, seems to fall short.

Despite being a chess Grandmaster, I feel no inherent need to proclaim chess as a sport. Truth be told, I’m not sure if it is. The debate is up in the air.

What do you think?

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