Should Chess be considered a sport?

By Lars Thomesen  @LarsHT @TLE_Sport

This November the World Chess Championship was held in Sochi, Russia.  For the second year running Norwegian Magnus Carlsen was crowned World Champion, but on home soil, the 23-year-old’s achievements are debatable on a sporting level.

In Norway, chess is not recognised as a sport by the official federation.  It has become an undefined game, even if Norwegian sports journalists voted Carlsen as Norway’s 2013 Sportsman of the Year.

That was the first time a chess player had ever received that award and it was a questionable decision because chess is not a part of the The Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports (NIF).

On a global level however, chess is recognised as a sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).  The World Chess Federation (FIDE) has in fact been a part of the IOC since 1999.

So why is there a debate in Norway, the home of the best chess player of recent times? Even if the IOC considers it a sport there is still widespread scepticism across the globe on whether chess can be defined as such.

The answer is simple.

Call me nerdy.  Call me patriotic.  Call me whatever you want.  When Magnus Carlsen played India’s best chess player, Viswanathan Anand, for the World Chess Championship earlier in November I was watching vigilantly.

It was the same battle as the previous year (Carlsen was the defending champion) and obviously, Norwegian as I am, I was rooting for him.

It was exciting.  At times it was long.  But first and foremost it was impressive, inspiring and exciting.  In my humble opinion, that is what sports is all about.  It is meant to excite people – the viewers.  It is meant to inspire, impress and leave you thinking; “I wish I could do that”.

The main arguments against chess being a sport are that “there is no obvious form of physical skill involved” and “it is just a board game”.  Neither is it actually included in the Olympics; it has its own separate Olympic event.

To dig further into this debate I decided to look into the word “sport”.  The Oxford Dictionary defines sport as “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment”.  Digging further into this definition, the “physical exertion” aspect becomes key to understand why chess in fact should be considered a sport.

Defining “exertion” gives us the answer “physical or mental effort”.  Chess is definitely a mental effort.  I would also argue that it takes a lot of physical effort sitting in a chair for anything up to 6-8 hours day in day out for two weeks analysing the millions of different options available on a live chessboard.

In the World Chess Championship the athletes even have rest days to recover, much like the cyclists of Tour de France.  Chess is a different type of effort than cycling, but it is still an effort that in one way or another is draining and, at least for the top players, requires them to get enough rest to perform at their best in the following match.  Surely that alone would indicate that there is a physical exertion, as well as a mental exertion, aspect to the game?

The “entertainment” part of the definition is also important.  You may need a niche interest to follow chess but for its supporters, chess is most definitely entertaining.  Liking chess is a subjective opinion of course – just like enjoying watching a game of football – and likewise many people do enjoy watching a game of chess.

Another argument for chess being a sport is that you actually compete for points.  Key for all sports is that you compete for a result and the target is to be the best in either that particular match, domestically or worldwide.  Chess players compete for prizes and trophies just like any other sport.

Chess is a difficult game.  Many may consider it a board game you play with your granddad on dark winter nights as a kid – but it is so much more than that.  It is mathematical.  It is complicated.  It twists your brain back and forth countless of times and it challenges your bravery, creativity and patience.

Carlsen, who is arguably the best chess player of modern times, can spend a good 20 minutes moving a pawn from A2 to A3; that is when you know it is a difficult game.  Yes it requires concentration but also plenty of skill – like all other sports.

I honestly believe that chess should be considered a sport at the same level as team sports like football and rugby, as well as individual sports like tennis, 100m sprint and golf.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.  If you do disagree with me I want you to ask yourself this: Do you consider the Darts World Championship a sporting event?  In many ways it started as the same thing; something you do on a recreational level down the pub on a Friday night when having a few pints with your mates.  If Darts is now accepted on the sporting scene (thanks in no small part to its coverage on Sky Sports), why can’t chess?

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