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.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Is Chess a Sport?

Q. Is chess a sport?

A. It might at first seem that chess is a sport. First of all, it's clearly a competitive activity, which seems to be a necessary if not sufficient condition for something's being a sport. Second, the same sorts of general mental and physical disciplines needed by the sportsman (e.g. mental toughness, strong self-confidence, endurance, etc.) are required for chess players to succeed. To take a prominent example, Karpov's (then-) frail physique nearly cost him twice in big matches against Korchnoi (one for the world championship, the other in a final candidates match) and quite possibly did cost him the title to Kasparov when he lacked the endurance to finish him off in 1984.

Yet despite the above, I think that chess is not a sport. Here's why:

1. I take the following to be necessary conditions of being a sport:

a. That it's a competitive activity.
b. That the performance of the activity have an intrinsically physical component.

2. Chess fulfills (a) but not (b). As far as the nature of chess is concerned, it could be played by disembodied spirits using mental telepathy or by conscious computers.

(Whether either exists is a question for another time; I'm inclined to think the former do exist and to be skeptical about the possibility of the latter, and I'm sure some of my readers think I have it exactly backwards. No matter; the point here is just that either sort of being could play chess either without any physical activity whatsoever, or without the physical activity's being an intrinsic part of the fulfillment of the exercise.)

What I mean by an "intrinsically physical component" is easy to grasp by considering a paradigmatic case: in football, players score touchdowns by using their bodies to move the football across the field and into the end zone, field goals or extra points by sending the ball through the goal posts using only their feet. A physical object must be moved through physical space using particular bodily means.

Not so with chess. Moving the wood or plastic pieces isn't an intrinsic part of the game - one could play an online game by moving one' s mouse or better still, not move anything to play a blindfold game. (One has to move something to state one's move, but the expressing of a move isn't itself a move.) What counts is the production of a move, and that is not an intrinsically physical activity.

3. Thefore, chess isn't a sport.

Now, if one chooses to define a sport merely as some sort of competitive endeavor, then chess would be let in - but so would many other activities, like put-down contests and job interviews. Nor is it enough to add to the competitiveness condition the further requirement that it's an activity where physical prowess can make a substantial difference to one's potential success: one candidate for a job may succeed due to his enhanced fitness (his healthy appearance impressed the hiring committee, his superior conditioning enabled him to successfully work longer hours at his previous job, improving his qualifications, etc.), but that still wouldn't turn job interviewing into a sport.

In sum, while chess is in some significant ways sports-like, and physical and mental training are of great value to ambitious tournament chess players, chess is not a sport - at least if an activity only counts as a sport if it includes some intrinsically physical component.



  • At 11:19 PM, Blogger David Glickman said…


    Re: your question about chess diagrams, I posted the following reply to your comment (re-posting here for your convenience) -

    My approach is almost certainly not the most efficient, but it works:

    I create the diagram using a little program called "ChessPad" (it's a free download off the web). Then I copy it as a bitmap to Microsoft Word. Next I save the word file as a web page. This creates a folder which contains a couple of files including one named "image001". I rename this file to the name that I want, e.g., "BCF-Don9". Now, I go to my free Yahoo! Geocities account (15MB of free web hosting space). I upload the image (BCF-Don9) and move it to the desired directory. Then I view the image and copy its URL from my browser's address window. Finally, in blogger's posting GUI using the Edit Html function, I paste this address into an < img> tag, e.g. < img src="http:\\\BCC-Don9.html" alt="BCC-Donchenko after move 9">. [Note there should be no space between < and img, but without it this commenting program treats it as an actual html tag.]

    After I'm done, I take a nap :)

  • At 3:08 PM, Blogger Jens said…


    Your blog is a dynamite read, please keep up the good work! I have posted a comment to this particular entry at my own blog and also placed you in my sidebar.

    Blog on!

  • At 11:04 PM, Blogger Dennis Monokroussos said…

    Thanks for the comment and your remarks on your own blog, Jens. I really like its visual style, too - it's very catchy! Finally, I appreciate your putting a link to my blog in the sidebar - my next project is figuring out how to incorporate sidebar links as well.

  • At 10:27 PM, Blogger pruittcommunications said…

    I use the RSS reader extensively on Firefox. I keep up on all the blogs I read that way. But your blog I have put in another section rather than the blogs, you go to the "Games and Sport" tab. I hope you don't mind being grouped that way. :-) You share the space with Geocaching site and the President's Challenge (a fitness log to record my exercise time). I have been looking for some good chess sites to put there that I can frequent. I think I have found it. So a game it is but a sport it is not.

  • At 10:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The brain is an essential part of the human body. Producing a move without making your brain work is impossible. So physical action is needed to play chess.
    Only if you separate body and mind completely - an old philosophical question - you can support DM's argument.

  • At 1:02 PM, Blogger Dennis Monokroussos said…

    I'm not aware of any philosopher who thinks (or thought) the mind and brain are completely separated - for Descartes, for instance, that would mean that we were dead. He does think the mind and brain are distinct, a position also held, but with some important differences (from Descartes and each other) by Aquinas and contemporary philosopher William Hasker.

    I'm inclined to agree with them, but my argument against chess's being a sport doesn't rely on dualism, but on the nature of chess itself. The game could be played by non-physical beings, whereas games like soccer and baseball could not.

    I do agree that chess is very sport-like: it's a competitive activity of an artificial sort with many of the same conventions and attitudes applying to it as apply to "normal" sports. Further, if one isn't in good physical condition - if one is lacking in stamina, for instance - then one's results will suffer. (This would not apply, obviously enough, to any wholly nonphysical beings playing the game.)

    Sport-like...but not a sport.

  • At 9:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    OK, let me formulate it in another way. I do not think materialists like La Mettrie and Feuerbach can backup your argument.
    The nature of chess is thinking. There are quite a few philosophers - not the ones you have mentioned - who state that thinking is only a product of a physical process. So non-physical beings do not think and can not play chess.
    It is not necessary to take such an extreme point of view though. As soon as physical processes are a necessary, not sufficient condition for thinking, chess could not be played by non physical entities.
    It seems, as if only religious people can support DM's statement. In my opinion they do separate mind and body completely - how could they go to heaven elseway, leaving their body behind on earth? Here I have to admit, that I have never understood the difference between mind and soul.
    Atheists will consider chess a sport. They do not acknowledge the existence of a soul.

  • At 11:41 PM, Blogger Dennis Monokroussos said…


    I'm not here arguing that dualism is true, though I think it is and think there are good arguments to support it. My point is an in-principle one: reflecting on the nature of the game, there's nothing intrinsically physical about chess, while, say, football played by disembodied beings is a bit harder to swallow. The problem isn't that there couldn't be such beings, but that it wouldn't be football!

    P.S. The soul and the mind, in historic dualist usage, either refer to the same thing but in different senses, or to a part-whole or aspect-whole relationship (the mind is a part or aspect of the soul).


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