Is Chess a sport? This question has haunted me since I first started playing chess.
I vividly remember my first day in the sports class in high school. When walking home that day, a now very good friend said to me “I’m not talking to a nerdy Chess Player”.
It is only one of many anecdotes of people diminishing the value of chess as a Sport.
Others include journalists telling me before the interview they don’t believe chess is a sport, my interview being printed in the culture and not the sports section, or endless social media debates about chess being a sport or not.
In this article, I want to try to answer the question if chess is a sport and give you my point of view.
In short: I believe Chess is a sport and that it gets underrated by the wide public. But I acknowledge some limits to Chess as a sport.
Yes, Chess Is Officially A Sport But…
Chess is internationally recognized as a Sport.
I’m not writing this as my own opinion. I’m writing this because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially recognizes chess as a sport.
Strangely enough, this doesn’t mean chess is recognized as a sport in every country. Most notably, the UK does NOT recognize chess as a sport.
This is not only bad for the image of chess in the UK.
In most countries, financial support to federations depends largely on them being recognized as a sport. Thus chess in the UK receives no public funding.
An even more absurd situation evolved in Switzerland. The national governing sports body (Swiss Olympics) is recognizing Chess as a sport. Thus the Swiss Chess Federation also receives public funding.
But now some politicians of the Canton of Bern (one of 26 districts in Switzerland and the one I live in) decided that Chess is no longer considered a Sport inside this district.
That means Chess Players in the Canton of Bern can get national funding but aren’t seen as sportsmen inside the Canton.
Or put differently, I could theoretically be voted national sportsman of the year, without being recognized as a sportsman where I live. WTF?
The Biel Chess Festival gets supported as a cultural event, but not as a sports event.
I wish politicians would stick to what they knew…
Definition Of A Sport
These differences in recognition come from a lack of official definition as to what a sport is. In a Wikipedia article, I found a link to the Sport accord federation.
The definition of Sport of this federation is apparently widely seen as the most precise out there. And it goes as follows:
“With regard to new applications, SportAccord uses the following definition of a sport. The Sport:
- proposed should have an element of competition.
- proposed should in no way be harmful to any living creatures.
- should not rely on equipment that is provided by a single supplier.
- should not rely on any “luck” element specifically designed into the sport.”
As I see it Chess ticks all these boxes. We have a competitive scene, we’re not hurting anyone (but our own psychological stability sometimes…) by playing chess and there is no single chessboard manufacturer.
Sometimes people compare Chess with Poker and claim that Chess entails this element of luck. But that is wrong.
The main difference is that Chess is a game with no unknown variables.
The rules are clear and the “hand” of the opponent is also clear during all points of the game. In poker, you don’t know the cards of your opponents, AND additional cards are added to the game (on a random basis (=luck).
These 2 differences make Chess viable as a Sport and Poker not. That is also what disqualifies most other board games as a sport. Throwing dice and picking cards always entails an element of luck.
In my opinion, this also disqualifies most E-Sports as “real” sports. Weapons spawning differently has luck involved. Thus any game that depends on RNG (random number generator) is not a sport if you follow the above definition.
In most cases where Chess is not recognized as a Sport, the definition entails an additional point: physical exertion. In the Oxford Dictionary, sport is defined as:
“An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or a team competes against another or others for entertainment”Oxford Dictionary
That was always the killing argument for journalists and kids who teased me with chess not being a “real” sport. But is it really?
“As one doesn’t have to physically move during a chess game, there is no way this activity is physically exerting!” they would say.
Most people that ever played in a chess tournament would not agree with this standpoint. Even if Chess doesn’t require a lot of physical activity, it is still physically exerting.
A classical game can take up to 7(!) hours. These hours are filled with full concentration, nerves, and a lot of sweat. Just read this fascinating story from ESPN on the training rituals of the Number 1 and 2 of the World.
I just want to elevate the following:
Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Stanford University, says a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day.Aishwarya Kumar, ESPN.com
If you still don’t believe it, ask a Grandmaster to smell his armpit after a 7-hour game or a day filled with 15(!) Blitz games. Yummy!
While all the above criteria can be dealt with and prove that Chess should be recognized as a sport, there is one killer criterion.
Importance Of Correct Motoric Activity
The biggest Swiss sport supporting program (Youth&Sport) has recently added “The importance of correct motoric activity” as a rule for sports that want to profit from the program.
What this definition means is that the “how to make a move” should have influence on the chess performance. This is definitely a K.O. for chess.
No one can argue that Ng1-f3 played with only two fingers of the right hand is stronger than played with the whole left hand. Or that a rook lift from e1-e8 is more decisive if you travel with the rook through the air, instead of touching all the squares (e2-e7) physically.
Knowing what to do is enough to make the right move.
This is a major difference from other sports. Even if you know you should hit a long-line shot in Tennis, chances are you miss it. Knowing is not enough. You need to make the right motoric activity in order to hit the shot.
Why Does It Even Matter?
Some of you might be thinking: but why does it even matter? Let’s just stop that silly discussion and enjoy our beautiful game/sport!
I do feel sympathy for that thought.
But sadly it is not that easy.
As I explained in short before, recognition as a Sport is a key element in order to get state funding in many countries.
But it is not only about direct financial help from the state.
As a matter of fact, I would have had absolutely NO chance to make an income, without Chess being recognized as a Sport in Switzerland. Here is why:
As a member of the national chess team, I profited from things like:
- Free entry to one of the biggest gyms in Switzerland (value 1500$)
- Free contact lenses (value 500$)
And that is the fewest an athlete can get, as our federation is ranked very badly. If the federation would do a bit of a better job, athletes (and the federation) would profit even much more. This additional support includes:
- Up to 25’000$ yearly support for the career (per player)
- Possibility of joining the Swiss Sport Army, which basically pays you for doing training
- Financial Support for sport psychology, nutrition, diagnostics etc.
- Payment of a national Coach (FULL TIME) for the federation
Talents under 20 get a platform to search for a sponsor. I profited for 3 years in the early days of my career with around 2200$/year.
Besides the financial impact, this was the first outside financial help for me. It was a great feeling to have somebody believe in me beyond my family and friends.
From 2015-2021 I got supported by many foundations that support young SPORTS-PERSONS. Over 6 years I have gotten more than 100’000$(!!!) in support for travel, training, doctor appointments, and much more.
Needless to say, I am forever grateful for their amazing support. My career would have not been the same without that insane support.
The Fritz-Gerber-Stiftung has supported me with more money than ALL other sponsors, foundations & federations together.
All of the above would jump back to 0$ if chess was not recognized as a Sport in Switzerland. This is why it is so crucial for the whole chess community to work towards an ever wider recognition of chess as a sport.
Dream Of Joining The Olympic Games
Joining the Olympic games is obviously only possible if chess keeps its status as a recognized sport. While this might seem like a utopia at the moment, it would definitely change a lot.
The attention Olympic sports get is insane. And because the country holding the Olympic games can choose some sports to be part of, there is still a slim chance.
Just imagine Fabiano Caruana winning the World Championship title before the 2028 games in Los Angeles. With the hype of the first American World Champion since the Legendary Bobby Fischer, it does not seem that crazy to think about that possibility.
I know there is a lot of ifs. But I believe in the attraction of Chess competition and the possibility of Chess joining the Olympic games. And I am absolutely certain it would change many things for the better.
Let’s keep the dream of Chess as an Olympic sport alive and work towards it day by day.
Conclusion: Chess Is A Sport, But…
Below I have answered some of the most frequent questions in short:
Yes, chess is recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as a sport. More than 100 countries recognize Chess as a sport as well. Surprisingly, the UK is one of the countries not recognizing chess as a Sport.
As chess is recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it could be part of the Olympic games in the future. The hosting country can add some sports to be part of the Olympic games. Countries with a big Chess tradition could make the dream come true.
Chess is mentally AND physically exhausting. According to Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Stanford University, players can burn up to 6’000 calories a day while playing in a tournament.
What do you think? Should chess be widely recognized as a sport? Or do you like the “importance of correct motoric activity” as a definition?
Let me know in the comment section.
Are you dreaming of being a part of a future Chess competition at the Olympics?
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CHESS IS SPORT NO DOUBT, YOU NEED FITNESS TO PLAY.
As a chess player I also have to deal with endless debates about this, I wanted to read some facts about why chess is actually physically exerting and use them next time someone tries to argue that
Huh, wait, I didn’t know about the not being harmful criterion.
What about boxing and American football and more where there’s plenty of physical trauma directly caused by the sports
I interpreted it in a way that is is not harmful to anybody else. But honestly, I still can’t get why you would do a sport where you beat up your opponents or get beaten yourself… 🙂
I get beaten up in chess all the time!
that is proof enough that Chess is a Sport!
Laufen war Teil deines Trainings, oder Noel? Bist Du auch jeweils vor Wettkampfpartien 30 Minuten easy joggen gegangen, um Dich mit dieser Sauerstoffdusche optimal aufzufrischen?
All sports are games but not all games are sports. A board game simply isn’t a sport. The most defining aspect of sports is the development of athleticism to accomplish even the most fundamental skills of the sport. None of that is required in chess. A quadriplegic can play the game of chess, albeit with the aid of technology. It is a competitive pursuit that can be mentally grueling and physically demanding in the sense that sitting for up to 8 hours strait is physically demanding. Again it takes no athleticism therefore its not a sport. There may be an argument for speed chess because not just anyone can move pieces that quickly and accurately without a lot of practice and training requiring a level of athleticism.
Athleticism is not required for a sport… The definition of sports includes that it is physically demanding and what you just stated is extremely demanding
I do agree. There are activities that are physically demanding but don’t require big movement. For the untrained eye, or someone who doesn’t know that much about chess, this might seem odd though.
Efim Geller once said that succes in chess is not only a question of understanding but also a question of energy. Maybe Fischer was the first one who invested in physical preparation. Botwinnik rather took care for a healty lifestyle..in Switzerland the chess federation struggled hard to get recocnized as a sport. Hoping for access to some money. The results where rather troubles such as dopingcontrol instead of considerable support..personaly, I think there are definitely elements of sports in chess. Still I feel the nature of exhaustion is a different one compared to physical exercise..
Absolutely, energy is key in Top Level Chess. Nowadays, physical preparation is getting more important with every World Championship Match. I think Anand said he invested 2+ hours daily in his training camps for the Matches against Carlsen on his physical shape. Not bad!