Reading about the teenagers who have triumphed in the world of chess has got me thinking about the game’s relationship with sport and whether it is fair to categorise it in this way. The International Olympic Committee has recognised it as a sport since 2000 and it is considered as such in 24 out of 28 members of the EU.
Following the Prague Masters speed play-off on 22nd February, it was interesting to see Iranian Alireza Firouzja, aged 16, beat 25-year-old Vidit Gujrathi from India, winning 2-0. The news preceding this that American Carissa Yip, the same age as Firouzja, defeated reigning world champion Chinese grandmaster Ju Wenjun, aged 29, in the Cairns Cup was also exciting. Even more so when considering her weak start as the lowest-ranked and youngest player. These teenage rising stars made me curious about the status of chess as a sport due to this ostensible correlation between youth and success.
Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘sport’ as ‘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’. According to this definition, chess does not assimilate with the term ‘sport’ as physical exertion is not something the game requires. Chess is played on a board while sitting down, and in order to make a move one must lift a one-ounce chess piece across the board after 15 minutes of strategic thought: therefore athletic ability is not required.
To contextualise, chess is not recognised as a sport in the UK and receives no public funding. In spite of this, as I have mentioned, the International Olympic Committee and over 100 countries recognise the game as a sport. There are a few reasons as to why this could be. Firstly, the game is competitive, two people are fixed in a competitive struggle for a sustained period of time. In this way, each game is thrilling, with the outcome unknown until the very end.
Despite the evident lack of physical exertion, many argue that the peak mental condition required means that one has to be in good physical condition. Players need to concentrate for up to seven hours and with the accumulating stress, blood pressure, pulse and respiration rates all increase. The contenders for the world championships have nutritionists and fitness coaches, which speaks to this need for physical wellbeing that is so often associated with professional athletes.
The behaviour code, another key characteristic of sport, is also a significant component of chess; players are penalised for poor sportsmanship like refusing to shake hands with their opponent and cheating is taken seriously. There is also an anti-doping policy.
It goes without saying that there is a mental component to chess, and we could also see competitive sports as strategy games, the only difference being in their physical manifestation.
It is also true that the player ranking system, which was developed for chess in 1960, has been adopted by many other sports including American football, baseball, basketball, hockey, rugby and golf. This again puts it in the same field, no pun intended, as other sports. So, with all these reasons in mind, why do I still struggle to categorise it as a sport? The bottom line is that sport, for me at least, is characterised by physical exertion which is absent from chess.
The subject sparks controversy for several reasons. Physical capacity aside, other games played on a board require strategy too: however we do not hear about Monopoly being considered in this category. True, chess is more sophisticated and requires intelligence and concentration, but these do not mean that it is a sport when it so evidently lacks what many would consider to be the cornerstone of sport, its physical expression.
Chess is certainly a unique game. Even though the International Olympic Committee regards it as a sport, it is not practiced in the Olympic games. Instead it has its own international league held bi-annually called Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE). This in itself demonstrates the foreign nature of the game in the sporting world. Chess overlaps with sports in many ways and therefore merits funding and respect because just as much preparation and skill is required. That said, this preparation is primarily mental, as brain power is required more than anything else. Therefore, for me, it needs to be considered in its own lane.