Tipping Point: Is chess really a sport?

Quit playing games – using ‘physical activity’ as a definition leaves a lot of wriggle room

Everyone knows elite competition is as much a mental test as a physical one and it has been the basis for a sustained campaign by chess authorities for inclusion in the Olympics.  Photograph: Sebastian Reuter/Getty Images for World Chess by Agon Limited

Everyone knows elite competition is as much a mental test as a physical one and it has been the basis for a sustained campaign by chess authorities for inclusion in the Olympics. Photograph: Sebastian Reuter/Getty Images for World Chess by Agon Limited

 

It’s conker season so here’s an old chestnut – is chess a sport? And if it isn’t, how come darts gets under the sporting umbrella? Sure it’s a test of nerve and skill – but so is pottery. Differentiation can be tricky but most of us usually conclude that if it talks like a game, swims like a game and quacks like a game, then it’s probably a game and not a sport. Except that’s starting to look too straightforward.

The European Team Chess Championships start later this week in Crete. I found this out in the Guardian, an organisation famously hot on both inclusivity and accuracy. Except in this part of the world chess is still officially treated as a game since it fails the “physical activity” test most of us instinctively define our sport by. So, check mate and all that.

The problem is, of course, that “physical activity” as a definition leaves a lot of wriggle room. If sweat is the criteria, how come Tom Daley competes by basically falling in style. Should snooker count if its physical aspect consists of leaning over. What about, perish the thought, golf getting shoved into game while pole-dancing somehow grinds its way into sport.

Everyone knows elite competition is as much a mental test as a physical one and it has been the basis for a sustained campaign by chess authorities for inclusion in the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee actually recognised chess as a sport years ago. But they ruled against its inclusion at the 2020 Tokyo games, consequently reheating the old line about curling being little more than “chess on ice”.

Now the Olympic establishment’s credibility has taken so many blows over the years that its credentials for running a lawnmower are dubious, never mind judging theoretical and linguistic nuances about when “mind games” might tip into sport. This is an organisation that excludes as physical a pursuit as squash while embracing the spectacularly sedentary act of shooting.

Benchmark

If that’s the benchmark then you can see where the chess lobby is coming from. Sure it is not as physical as football or running a marathon but neither is archery. And if the criteria is physical activity then Lewis Hamilton is basically the world champion-elect of going around in circles sitting on his arse.

He has to be in excellent physical shape but it’s not like Russian chess masters turn up for matches sipping vodka and chain-smoking Sobranies. Elite chess players facing tense six-hour sessions have to be physically fit to mentally function under the stress of competition; it is the same justification golfers use for pumping iron.

And I know you are thinking “who cares?”: there’s a bullying bullshit-merchant who probably can’t even play draughts sitting with codes in the White House so what does it matter. Nevertheless, and without wishing to come off like some Breitbart nut, sport generally does face having to get its ducks in a row when it comes to this language of division.

Old certainties about what constitutes identity are being eroded all the time. It is becoming an increasingly fluid matter. People identify as just as much as they identify with. And when it comes to sporting differentiation, simply spluttering “don’t be daft, that’s not sport!” won’t cut it anymore.

It’s hard not to adopt a whatever-floats-your-boat attitude to this but you also don’t have to be any kind of reactionary to point out how questions of definition matter more and more when it comes to the legitimacy, funding, status, self-image, audience, and of course commercial appeal that the sport label can confer.

What constitutes sport is increasingly fluid. It’s only four decades since the triathlon wasn’t far from a freak-show. Two decades ago it wasn’t in the Olympics. Now it’s becoming a more popular method than mooching around a golf course for the middle-aged to try and stave off death.

Fluidity

Hybrids such as MMA are another reflection of this fluidity. For instance did you know there’s such a thing as “chess-boxing?” Competitors alternate between one round sitting at a table in the middle of a ring and the next beating each other to a pulp. No, I’m not making it up and no, I’m not going to tell them it isn’t a sport.

Anyway, such hybrids are nothing new. Nordic sports are basically armed skiing. Maybe it makes sense to Finns anxiously looking east and remembering 1939 but otherwise it is pretty much an arbitrary mix which time has legitimised. But at least there’s movement involved, not like the activity which could ultimately prove a definition too far.

E-sports is ubiquitous. It’s worth a fortune already and that value is only likely to grow. It will be included in the 2022 Asian Games and the push is on for it to be included at the 2024 Paris Olympics with the pay off such competitive legitimacy gives being huge commercial appeal.

The justification is that it’s a mental test under competitive stress that conjures emotions and that it is the Olympic ‘Games’ after all which has a tradition of accommodating pursuits that appeal more to the cerebral than the physical.

And that’s probably when inclusivity will tip over into farce. If gaming – a pursuit that consists of staring at a screen while fiddling with a controller – can’t be safely filed under game then the world really has gone mad.

That’s not an attempt to oppress anyone. Identity as you like, do whatever works for you, create any amalgam you want. It can be pogo-polo or clay-pigeon pursuit running. But just because you insist on calling something a sport doesn’t make it so.

No matter how much convoluted linguistic definitional theory goes into the process of trying to prove otherwise, it is unlikely to convince. And I’m sorry wood-pushers, the same goes for chess.

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