by Charles Wenger

Talk to a group of chess players for long enough and sooner or later the question of whether chess is a sport or merely a game will come up.


Google tells us that on Chess.com alone there are more than 18,000 mentions of chess as a sport:

Further evidence that this is a popular topic of discussion.

And while it might be impossible to come up with a truly definitive answer, in this article we hope to present as many arguments as we can find to help tip the scales in one direction or the other.


This could take a while, so let’s get started with some definitions.

The Dictionary Definitions

When I was on my high school debating team, we were instructed to begin our research by consulting the dictionary to gain a thorough understanding of the terms of the debate.

So that seems like a reasonable starting point here too.


The Oxford dictionary defines a sport as:


An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment

The Collins dictionary defines a sport as:


Games such as football and basketball and other competitive leisure activities which need physical effort and skills

If we’re to accept these definitions as gospel, it looks like that for chess to qualify as a sport we need three things:


  • Physical exertion
  • Skill
  • Competition

Chess has skill and competition in spades, but what about physical exertion? That one’s a little trickier.


You could argue that chess doesn’t involve physical exertion since moving the pieces around requires next to no exertion over the board and zero exertion over a computer.


On the other hand, many people have argued that chess does require physical prowess. These people would happily admit that moving pieces around doesn’t constitute much work, but physical fitness is required to play at your peak for several hours.


Magnus Carlsen is known for flying his personal chef with him to tournaments and has a strict fitness protocol to keep him at his peak.


Bobby Fischer said that playing chess can tire you out and when you get tired you tend to make blunders. He was also known for playing tennis and swimming to keep himself in good physical shape.


If we’re going to consider the dictionary definitions the gold standard on what constitutes a sport, it’s tough to come to a clear conclusion here.


That chess involves skill and competition can’t be questioned, but whether or not chess has a physical element is up for debate.


It looks like we have some more work to do.


Hemingway’s Opinion on Chess


Ernest Hemingway has been quoted as saying:


There are only three sports; bullfighting, motor-racing and mountaineering, and all the rest are merely games

While Hemingway doesn’t seem to have an explicit opinion on chess, it seems that he would consider it a game rather than a sport.


Why is this?


Looking at the three sports Hemingway mentioned, it seems that in his mind, an element of danger and personal risk to one’s safety is required for an activity to be considered a sport.


If Hemingway is to be considered the arbiter of what is sport and what isn’t, then it would be hard to convince someone that chess is a sport.


Chess is a game of skill and it’s up for debate whether or not chess requires physical exertion, but it is hard to argue that chess is a game of danger.


In any case, Hemingway may be one of the most respected authors in the English language, but he’s not one of the most respected people when it comes to figuring out what is and what isn’t a sport.


We’re going to have to go a little deeper to figure out the truth.


The Rise of eSports


Even if you’re not a gamer yourself, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of eSports; competitive computer gaming.


If chess cannot be considered a sport on the basis of it having little physical exertion, then the same argument would be made for eSports.


Yet, when it comes to being considered a sport, eSports has come a lot further than chess.


Perhaps it has something to do with having “sports” in the name. Perhaps people wouldn’t think of eSports as a “real sport” if it was known as “Professional Computer Gaming” instead.

But there are other things that weigh in eSport’s favour at the present.


Some have argued that the sheer number of participants in eSports makes it a game. As of 2019, there are 100 million monthly users of the popular game League of Legends.


If this is a valid argument, then chess should be classified as a sport as well. Estimates extrapolated from surveys suggest that maybe 600 million people worldwide play chess.


Chess.com has proudly announced that they have 20 million members, so even if 600 million is an exaggeration, there’s nothing to suggest that eSports have numbers that dwarf chess.


Others have argued the United States Customs & Immigration department’s decision to grant eSports participants P1-A visas upon entry into the United States as evidence of its status as a sport.


The P1-A visa being the visa handed out to athletes.


And if this is a valid argument, then it’s another positive for chess; for a long time, foreign chess players coming to the US for tournaments have been granted P1-A visas as well.


All of this isn’t quite definitive, however, so let’s consult the highest arbiters of sport in the land.


The Opinion of the International Olympic Committee


When it comes to sports, there aren’t many more authoritative organisations than the IOC.

They have their own methods for deciding what should be considered a sport and what should be considered an Olympic Sport; something played at the Olympics.


The IOC has considered chess a sport since 1999, although there’s no sign of it being in the full Olympics just yet.


eSports has made efforts to be considered an Olympic sport, but members from the IOC have commented that one thing preventing eSports from ever becoming Olympic is the violent nature of many games.


Chess does not have this problem, so one can only assume that chess would be closer to becoming an Olympic sport than eSports.


You could argue that the IOC’s stance on chess seals the deal for it being a sport, but there are some people who say the whole discussion is pointless.


Do they have a point?


Does it Even Matter if Chess is a Sport or a Game?


While there are plenty of people either side of the debate, there are a vocal minority who can often be heard arguing that the whole discussion is a waste of time.


What does it matter if chess is a sport or a game? It remains the same regardless, so why argue? Just get on and enjoy the game/sport.


This makes sense, but there is a reason why some chess fans want it to be classed as a sport.

And it comes down to money.


Apart from the old Soviet Union and modern China, few countries spend much money on chess.


Part of this is due to the popularity of the game amongst the mainstream, but also due to how it is classed.


Games generally don’t get funding from the government to promote them. A game is something that is seen to be done purely for light entertainment and therefore isn’t worth the government spending money on.


No governments around the world are pouring money into Snakes and Ladders.

A sport, on the other hand, is seen as more serious, something that a country would take pride in winning; so it gets funding.


So if you’re a chess player and you’d like to see it grow in your country, then you’ve got a reason to think of it as a sport even if you disagree with some of the arguments above.


Conclusion


So there we have it, a look at several arguments for and against whether chess should be considered a sport or not.


Have you changed your stance on the debate?


Do you hold a strong opinion one way or another?


Have we missed certain important points?


Let us know in the comments!

Editor of Level Up Chess and long time chess fanatic. May or may not own more chess sets than one person ever needs (at least that’s what the wife says), but can’t see himself slowing down anytime soon.

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