Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

A check on chess as a sport

What sort of topic would make a level-headed girl like me willing to enter an argument with my friend Julia’s dad? It would have to be a high-stakes topic, probably pertaining to something noble like justice or equality. It would have to be captivating, so interesting it would have everyone on the edge of their seats. It would have to be about chess. 

To my chagrin, the International Olympic Committee classifies chess as a sport, a decision I wholeheartedly disagree with. In my view, rather than a sport, chess is simply a strategy game. The Oxford Dictionary defines sport as “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or a team competes against another for entertainment.” While both sides of the argument would agree that chess is a competition that provides entertainment, the physical exertion aspect is where the sides split and I begin my case that chess is not a sport. 

Those in favor of chess as a sport cite the extreme exertion grandmasters experience while playing chess. One Stanford study found that grandmasters burn up to 6,000 calories during a game of chess, often leading to weight loss. There is no denying that chess can take a toll on a player, but I would argue that mental exertion should be placed in a different category than physical. After all, sitting in a chair for seven hours can hardly be considered exercise. Rather, the constant mental stress from a game causes high heart rates and, in turn, leads to weight loss and calorie burning. 

Take the 1984 World Chess Championship, which was called off after five months of intensive chess games because competitor Anatoly Karpov lost 22 pounds and, as one commentator put it, “He looked like death.” This “looking like death” is not from physical strain but a symptom of prolonged mental stress, as evidenced by the way I look every time I walk out of Hes at 2 a.m. Anything that causes extreme stress cannot be considered a sport just because it burns calories. After all, if stress was a sport, then having a heart attack would be like winning a gold medal, which doesn’t seem right. Chess-as-sport debaters cite how the seven-hour-long games are filled with strategy, nerves and lots of sweat. But if strategy, nerves and sweat are all it takes to be considered a sport, then suddenly the socially awkward and kinda smelly guy who asks every girl he sees out is a top-tier athlete. 

Another common chess-as-sport argument is done by carefully extracting aspects of sports and showing how they can be found in chess. For example, like sports, chess is competitive and universal, requires skill and sportsmanship, inspires national fervor and has anti-doping regulations. This is all true, but just because chess has these elements does not mean it is a sport. It is easy to cherry-pick aspects of two things to make them seem comparable. To prove my point, I'll claim that professional soccer teams are drug cartels. Soccer teams, like drug cartels, are composed of individuals who come together for a common purpose. Both groups work together to dominate their field, and the better they perform, the more money they make. They are both especially popular in Latin American countries. Rivalries between competitors are also common in both, and they both have a leader (a coach or a drug lord) who supervises the people in the group and plans strategies. As shown, they have quite a bit in common, but no one would go as far as to say Messi is scoring drug deals. 

When we stretch the boundaries of what it means to be an athlete, it becomes harder to see where to draw the line. Extreme crafting, puzzles, climbing the ladder to get into my lofted bed at night: could these be the next big “sports"? We have to draw the line somewhere, and personally, I would like to draw it before we start calling teenagers on Chess.com, hunched over their computers munching on Doritos in their basement, top athletes. 

At the root of this debate is the fact that people want to be athletes. There is no real reason that chess needs to be considered a sport other than a desire for prestige. I believe this is a result of the societal importance placed on sports over mental games and talents. Sports are a dominant form of entertainment, especially in America. The posters hung up in children's rooms are favorite athletes, not famous astrophysicists whose work they really admire. People flock to the stadiums to see the biggest sports rivalries. It seems to me chess players just want a small piece of this reverence. My message to any chess player turned aspiring athlete is this: just do your own thing. Chess is an impressive game that takes far more strategizing and patience than I am personally capable of. Be proud of your classification as a strategic game, and don’t try and be something you are not!

Allison Abplanalp is a sophomore Finance and Accounting major. If she could change one thing about the English language, she would make "a lot" one word. Her least favorite month is March because every year she is devastated when she fails to pick the perfect march madness bracket.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.