Dennis M's Chess Site

This is a blog for chess fans by a chess fan. I enjoy winning as much as anyone else, and I've had a reasonable amount of success as a competitor, but what keeps me coming back to the game is its beauty. And that, primarily, is what this site will be about! All material copyrighted.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Chess Isn't a Sport, Revisited

The ever-active Boylston Chess Club blog has taken on Howard Goldowsky as a guest blogger. Welcome aboard!

Mr. Goldowsky's opening post challenges my earlier argument that chess is not a sport, based, appropriately enough, on his rejection of my definition of sport. On my view, it's a necessary condition of some activity's being a sport that it has an irreducibly physical component, while Goldowsky thinks it's a sufficient condition that its practitioner relies on timing and pattern recognition.

It's clear that the pattern recognition condition fits chess, but it seems to fit universally acceptted sports as well: in football offensive players need to recognize defensive alignments and defensive players various offensive schemes; in basketball, there's the pick-and-roll and the zone defense; in baseball, the batter looks for characteristic arm movements, leg kick and ball rotation patterns from the pitcher, and so on. And certainly timing is important in those sports as well, as the reader can readily confirm for him or herself.

[A brief aside: the meaning of "timing" is pretty clear when it comes to sports, but it may be equivocal when applied to chess. There isn't some physical movement requiring excellence in timing; rather, timing in chess has to do, broadly, with the way in which one attempts to execute some idea - with the order of moves. Thus it's a conceptual sense of timing rather than a physical sense, and one might think that it's the latter sense of timing rather than the former that's appropriate to an activity's being a sport. I'm congenial to this objection, but will let it pass for the remainder of this post.]

That's a bit of the positive case, but now let's turn to critique. Goldowsky says that timing and pattern recognition are sufficient - presumably he means jointly sufficient - for some activity's being a sport, which means that any activity requiring those two conditions will automatically be a sport.

So here's a very partial list of new sports:

(1) Driving. Of course auto racing is a sport, but Goldowsky's definition makes all ordinary driving a sport as well. Clearly there's pattern recognition involved - one learns how to negotiate the roadways without getting into accidents, and preferably without getting into situations in which accidents are reasonably likely to occur. And certainly driving involves timing, too; ergo, driving is a sport.

(2) Poetry. Language use involves tons of pattern recognition - indeed, words are patterns of a certain sort - and timing (including but not limited to meter) is involved too. So, poetry is a sport.

(3) Making music. Recognizing key structures, chord progressions and so on are all clear cases of pattern recognition, and the role of timing in music is obvious. Music is a sport!

Without elaborating the details, we can also include (4) walking, (5) cooking and (6) brushing one's teeth as sports, too. But clearly, I think, a definition of sport that includes (1)-(6) as instances is an overly liberal definition.

Perhaps Goldowsky's definition can be improved by adding some further conditions - a competition condition, for example. That would plausibly render (1), (4) and even (6) as sports, though even then I remain skeptical about (2), (3) and (5).

Even if this is waived for the sake of argument, I think there is another problem. Even if we suppose that it's sufficient for something's being a sport that it involve pattern recognition and timing, that won't show that chess is a sport. The reason is that it's possible for someone or some thing to play chess without recognizing any pattern at all; say, by using a purely brute force approach. God, for example, or some sort of idealized computer [assuming, as I don't, that a computer plays chess at all] is the sort of being who could figure chess out from move 1 through the end without recognizing any patterns at all (beyond those required to involve and interpret the rules of the game).

It might be objected that even if God or some super-powerful intellect could play without relying on pattern recognition, we humans can't. True enough, but I claimed that chess isn't a sport, because the game doesn't necessarily have the conditions required of a sport. Likewise, even if chess sometimes fits Goldowsky's definition, it doesn't always - doesn't necessarily.

In sum, Goldowsky's definition of a sport is too liberal, letting in many activities that clearly are not sports . The definition also fails to include chess per se. So I conclude that while chess has many characteristics of a sport - it's sports-like - it is nevertheless not a sport, strictly speaking.


  • At 7:46 PM, Anonymous mbagalman said…

    I have a simple answer for people who ask me if chess is a sport. "No, it isn't a sport because it isn't played with a ball."

    I just don't say this to people that run track, box, swim, etc.


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