Is Chess a Sport?

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At the elite level, chess players are routinely treated like athletes competing in a spectator sport. Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images for World Chess

Few arguments in chess get more attention than the debate over whether or not chess is a sport. Despite what some on either side of the argument may think, it’s not a simple question to answer: governing bodies around the world disagree (the International Olympic Committee recognizes chess as a sport, while many national bodies do not), and it could well come down to how you choose to define “sports” as a whole.

Below, you’ll find some of the common arguments for and against chess as a sport. While it may not be the most important debate in chess, it is certainly an interesting one, and there are plenty of passionate views on both sides!

Reasons Why Chess is not a Sport

While there are many ways to frame the argument, there’s really only one way to describe the main argument as to why chess is not a sport. But while it’s just one point, it’s a rather compelling one. Those who say chess is not a sport simply point to the fact that chess is not an athletic activity – and without athletics, what kind of a sport can chess be?

While this may seem like a bit of a simplistic argument, it certainly sits pretty well with the modern definition of sports. While baseball, soccer, cricket and figure skating may each be wildly different, they each include athletic feats that require some level of physical prowess to play.

In contrast, chess can be played without movement at all, if one so desires – they can call out their moves and allow another person to make the moves for them (or even more dramatically, they could use a speech recognition program to speak their moves to a computer, allowing for no moving of any physical pieces at all).

With no athleticism required, then, those on this side of the argument will say that chess is not a sport.

Reasons Why Chess is a Sport

Those who lean towards chess as being a sport look to broad definitions of sport to find a way to fit chess into that category. While they admit that chess doesn’t fit under the umbrella of athletics, they say that sport is a wider category. There’s tradition for this definition dating back to the ancient Olympics of Greece, where artistic skills and more were grouped under the heading of sports.

For those who don’t like that argument or insist on using only the modern definition of a sport, advocates of this side of the debate can point out that athletic prowess may not be required to play chess, but it certainly helps. Modern grandmasters almost universally do what they can to say in shape, as chess players (along with those in other pursuits like poker) have discovered that the mind works better when the body is in shape. Top chess trainers have long advocated physical exercise as a part of training for chess, and elite players from Bobby Fischer to Magnus Carlsen have been known for their interest in sports and fitness.

This fitness can pay off. Those who regard chess as a sport point out that while games may start of as mentally demanding, the stress and fatigue of a six-hour game (and especially after several such games in a tournament or match) begins to make playing physically draining as well.

And while that might not be perfectly analogous to football or track, it is certainly similar to some other activities that are generally considered sports (if not universally so), such as golf, motor racing, and archery. None of these sports requires the same kind of athleticism as a sport where players are constantly running and jumping, and yet being in shape is virtually a requirement for professional competitors, and even more so for the elite in those sports. Certainly, then, an argument can be made that chess is a sport in the same way that those activities are.

In the end, the argument over chess as a sport isn’t particularly important; how chess is classified isn’t critical to the important or prestige of the game. True, calling the game a sport might make a small impact on the opportunities available for players around the world. But on the list of issues facing the chess world, this is at best a minor one despite the amount of time that is spent debating it.