When you think of a sport what comes to mind? Football, baseball, basketball, hockey? How about golf, tennis or boxing?
Chess? Maybe not so much…
Let’s look at a few reasons Chess might be considered a sport.
What is “sport” anyway?
Dictionary.com defines “sport” as,
“an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature”.
Further, “athletic” is an adjective,
“involving the use of physical skills or capabilities, (such) as strength, agility, or stamina”.
As a verb “sport” is defined,
“to amuse oneself with some pleasant pastime or recreation”.
Let’s start with the verb. Is Chess a pleasant pastime or does it provide recreation?
Most Chess players would agree that playing Chess is a pleasant pastime and is, for most players, recreational. Chess is a fun break from the work world. It is also a social game, played casually with friends and in organized clubs. Thus Chess easily meets the verb definition of “sport”.
What about as a noun though?
Is Chess competitive?
There’s no doubt that Chess is competitive. There is only one winner at a tournament. Plus, Chess has formalized sanctioning bodies, such as the US Chess Federation which sponsors over 25 National Championship events every year. So Chess meets the “competitive nature” of the noun definition of “sport”.
Next, does Chess require skill?
While Chess is easy to learn to play is difficult to play well, which is true of many sports. Many years of study and practice are required to advance to “Master” levels of Chess. And even though some people have a natural talent for the type of pattern recognition that Chess rewards there is always something new to learn and thus improve skill level.
Here’s the controversial point…
Finally, what about Chess as “an athletic activity”? Does Chess require athleticism?
Here is where Chess, especially at the championship level, gets really interesting. Chess is similar to sports like soccer or tennis where an athlete’s muscles rely on energy from glycogen and fat. The difference in Chess is that that energy is used by the brain, and a lot of it!
The 1984 World Chess Championship was called off after five months and 48 games because defending champion Anatoly Karpov had lost 22 pounds.
“He looked like death,”
said Chess Grandmaster and commentator Maurice Ashley.
Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford Professor of Neurological Sciences, says a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament. That is three times what an average person consumes in a day.
Sapolsky suggests that grandmasters’ stress responses to chess are similar to what elite athletes experience. These include elevated breathing rates (which triple during competition), elevated blood pressure and muscle contractions. In other words, Chess is an extreme workout and requires significant stamina!
Some of the top Chess players physically prepare for tournaments the way that a boxer prepares for a title fight.
They go to training camp.
For instance, reigning number one (as of January 2019) Chess Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen works out for hours; treadmill running, yoga, soccer and skiing before tournaments. His closest challenger, number two American Fabiano Caruana, has a similar regimen.
Additionally, Carlsen hired a personal chef to get the right balance of proteins, carbs and calcium, just like an elite boxer carefully plans his/her diet. This included eliminating his signature orange juice drink to reduce the risk of a sugar crash.
For his part Caruana usually goes into detox mode, giving up something that might be detrimental to performance such as alcohol, before the world championships.
Carlsen’s and Caruana’s first game in the 2018 world championship lasted seven hours.
During matches Carlsen chews gum to increase brain energy. He also taps his legs to stay alert between moves. Going the extra mile Carlsen even analyzed his body posture. He decided to reduce his “lean” over the Chess board to increase lung capacity by 30%.
These are subtle techniques that elite athletes, like Carlsen and Caruana, know can make the difference between winning and losing.
So, what do you think, is Chess a competitive athletic activity, a sport?