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.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Why Chess Still Isn't a Sport

In a number of posts (most recently here), I have both offered my own view as to why chess is not a sport (though I'm willing to acknowledge that it is like a sport) and have critiqued others' attempts to claim that it is a sport. Briefly, my reason for thinking it's not a sport is that, in my view, it's a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for an activity to count as a sport the activity must include some intrinsically physical component. Chess need not include such a component (if it's even conceptually possible for immaterial beings to play chess, then chess does not have an intrinsically physical component), however, and thus it's not a sport.

One can of course deny that a sport must include an intrinsically physical component, but it seems to me that that's how the term has traditionally been understood, and unless widespread usage shifts, I'd prefer to say that chess is sport-like, but not a sport.

Howard Goldowsky thinks otherwise, and in an initial post on the Boylston Chess Club's blog, he suggested that chess or any other activity is a sport if it meets two conditions, roughly:

G1: It involves pattern recognition.
G2: It involves timing. (Defined in a very broad sense.)

I suggested that if G1 & G2 are jointly sufficient, then virtually any activity counts as a sport - walking to the mailbox, reading, eating, writing poetry, etc. Surely those don't count as sports, but then if that's the basis for including chess as a sport, it's insufficient to the task.

Next, I proposed an improvement on Goldowsky's scheme that rules out some but not all of my counterexamples:

G3: It takes place in a competitive context.

That rules out walking to the mailbox and reading, but it's still insufficiently restrictive, to my mind: applying for a job or playing in a piano competition now count as sports, which seems clearly wrong.

Goldowsky has since replied, and he's not impressed. Why aren't these activities sports? I haven't really defended that claim, and so, if his definitions suggest that they're really sports, then by gum, they're sports, even if no one recognizes it!

Now, I'm not completely unsympathetic to this line of reasoning. Suppose, for example, that everyone agrees that it's wrong to kill innocent human beings and that a human being is defined a living organism which has the genetic code of a human being and is either a mature member of the species or will, ceteris paribus, develop into a mature member of the species. If everyone accepts such a definition, then if some large segment of the population also accepted the permissiblity of abortion, then it would be fair to criticize their beliefs: if the definition they accept implies that abortion is wrong, then their views are inconsistetnt, even if they don't recognize it.

Unfortunately, this defense doesn't help Goldowsky, because it presupposes agreement about the definition. If G1-G3 represented the mainstream understanding of the nature of sport, then that would be one thing, but his definition is contentious at best. [An aside: Goldowsky has included a fourth condition, that "[l]uck is not inherent in the rules of the competition", but this condition isn't relevant to the ensuing discussion.]

Let's be (very) generous and suppose that, a priori, his definition and the more mainstream definition are each exactly 50% likely to be true. What do we do to figure out which of the two better captures the concept of sport shared by English speakers? I think the answer is to look at examples. A putative definition of "sports" should do three things:

(1) Include in its extension all clear cases of sports.
(2) Exclude from its extension all clear cases of non-sports.
(3) Be such as to account for the vagueness of vague cases.

Does Goldowsky's definition achieve this? (1) isn't any problem at all, but I think it fails on (2). No one not in the grips of a theory - at least no one I'm aware of - considers applying for a job or composing poetry for a contest as sports. These activities are not sports by any common understanding, and since the meaning of ordinary words comes from usage, not fiat, that gives us reason to think Goldowsky's definition is flawed.

Thus Goldowsky has still not provided us with sufficient reason to label chess a sport. He can call it a sport, or he can stipulate that whenever he utters the word "sport" he means an activity featuring G1-G3 (which is to say, G3, as G1 & G2, as he defines them, seem to apply to any action).

But I will not follow suit.


  • At 9:20 PM, Blogger Rakshasas said…

    Hey Dennis,

    Instead of writting a big long reply to this, I'd ask you to take a look at

    My biggest complaints to your attempts is that they exclude field events -- falconry, fox hunting, hounding and a whole host of other activities that have a long tradition of being referred to as sports which are not intrinsically physical. Granted you can't be a complete quadrapallegic and be a falconer, but the physical component is exceedingly limited.

  • At 11:50 PM, Blogger Dennis Monokroussos said…

    A strange criticism: I require a physical component for something's being a sport, and the counterexamples are all physical activities. The problem, apparently, is that I don't say just how great the physical component needs to be.

    Now, I don't really think I'm obligated to get into the fool's errand of trying to quantify how physical the activity needs to be, but I don't really believe I need to. Further, I find the examples involving human-animal team hunting unconvincing, as even though the human component might be relatively low on the physical activity scale, the animal's contribution most certainly is not.

    In sum, I don't see any reason to think that the physical component isn't a necessary condition for an activity's being a sport.

    (Necessary, but not sufficient, either alone or in conjunction with a competition condition. [About the latter; I do think it might require qualification - perhaps some fringe cases are characterized by a goal which may not be competitive in the most obvious way.])

    The etymological argument on his website shows that the adjectival form of the word is used in a broad way, but it doesn't follow that the noun form is similarly broad.

    Finally, rakshasas' definition of sport will come as good news to couch potatoes everywhere: watching TV is an activity that constitutes a diversion.

    Indeed, things are looking promising here. If I turn off the TV and start reading a book, then engage in a session of blogging, and if I do all three of these with proficiency, am I rightly labeled a 3-sports star?

    Providing a set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions is not easy to do - and I haven't tried! If rakshasas (or Goldowsky, for that matter) can succeed in doing so, and if he can go further and show (or at least plausible argue) that chess is a sport, then more power to him. But at least on the basis of what has been offered so far, rakshasas' definition isn't soup yet.

  • At 1:38 AM, Blogger Rakshasas said…

    Dennis, I think I see where I've misunderstood you, you neither require the physical component belong to a human participant nor require any actual skill.

    But in that case, how is a falconer holding one's arm up for a bird to land on it greatly different from moving a pawn with the same arm?

    Sure, the bird weighs more, but we can solve that with sufficiently large pawns.

    Your criticism amounts to my definition is very loose. Yes, it is. But I think the problem with tightening the definition is shown with Howard's attempt.

    All my argument is stating is that it is misguided to contend that sports are necessarily athletic in nature given a large number of counter-examples that have a long association with the term.

  • At 3:14 AM, Blogger Dennis Monokroussos said…

    Not all sports involve humans: greyhound racing, for example. The examples of falconry, fox hunting, etc. have a larger human component, but it seems to me that the "sportsness" of such cases is primarily due to the animal's physicality.

    I am inclined to think that paradigmatic instances of sports are athletic in nature, and to the degree that the activity departs from that model, its status as a sport gradually shades into vagueness. That fits my third condition for a good theory: it accounts for the vagueness of borderline cases.

    Finally, it seems to me that both rakshasas' definition and Goldowsky's are plagued by a similar looseness. Goldowsky's definition reduces sport to competition, so that anything done with competitive aims is ipso facto a sport, while for rakshasas it's enough for an activity to be a diversion. It's possible to be too strict in a definition, of course, but to define sport in a way that lets in reading, watching TV, picking one's zits, and daydreaming is to go much too far in the opposite direction.


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