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Chess as Sport
Issues on the Chess Table

Our popular feature Top 10 Myths About Chess includes a pair of contradictory statements:

  • Myth no.8: Chess is a sport;
  • Myth no.9: Chess isn't a sport

It might be a gimmick, but we also think it's true. Ask any number of people, 'Is chess a sport?'. Some will reply immediately, 'No, of course not', while others will say, 'Yes, of course it is'. Only a few, not necessarily the chess players, might think about the question.

Most people instinctively think of chess as a game. On the About.com network of topics, the Chess topic is placed under 'Hobbies & Games', rather than 'Sports & Recreation'. We doubt that the About.com complaints department has ever received a single comment critical of this categorization.


Is chess a sport? That question is often answered with another question: What do you mean by 'sport'? The issue then becomes one of definition. How do you define a sport?

If we look at a dictionary definition of 'sport', there are a number of secondary, irrelevant definitions of the word ('he's a good sport', 'she's a poor sport'). The primary, relevant definition is something like:

A. Physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively. B. A particular form of this activity.

This makes a distinction between sports in general ('He played sports at school') and a specific sport ('She played basketball at school'). Chess is clearly not a sport by this definition because physical activity is not necessarily involved.

Indeed, physical activity can be present in chess, especially in blitz chess (see the link to a video for a great example), but it is not a prerequisite. Two competent players can play each other blindfold, where the only physical activity involves speaking the moves. Two novice players can play each other over the Internet by manipulating a mouse, a physical activity which no one ever considers a sport ('competitive mousing'?).

Another definition of sport is something like:

An active pastime; recreation.

If chess is to be considered a sport, it is according to this definition, which includes the word 'active'. Unfortunately, the definition is so vague that it covers just about any human activity that serves as an 'active pastime': flower gardening, poetry writing / reading, and card games ranging from the most skilled (e.g. bridge) to the least (the children's game of 'war').


The decision to consider chess as a sport is more than academic. Sports are often funded from a public treasury. An activity classified as a sport gets funding; an activity not so classified, gets no funding.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) includes chess on its list of recognized sports. While many of the activities on the list are unquestionably sports (racquetball and water skiing), others are not so obvious (billiards and bridge). Chess was an exhibition event at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, where GMs Viswanathan Anand and Alexei Shirov battled to a draw in two rapidplay games. The speculation at that time was that chess might become an official event at the Winter Games. It is a known truth that interest in chess rises in the winter and falls in the summer.

The IOC lists the World Chess Federation (FIDE) as the international sport federation responsible for representing chess. A recent FIDE survey of its 159 member federations asked, 1) whether they were members of their country's National Olympic Committee (NOC); and, 2) whether chess was recognized as a sport in their country. The responses to the first question were: Members 88, Associate/Affiliate 9, Applications Pending 3, Not members 59. To the second question: Recognized as a sport 97, Not recognized 23, No reply 39. From these numbers we can conclude that chess is recognized as a sport by approximately two-thirds of the world's sports federations.

Near the end of 2006, chess was finally recognized as a sport in the U.K.: Chess makes its opening gambit to be Olympic sport • 'It took a few shrewd moves but, at last, it is official: chess is a sport. The change in the UK game's status has delighted chess clubs, which as sporting bodies now qualify for charitable status and state funding for the first time.' [10 December 2006; Independent News and Media]

In December 2006, chess was played for the first time during the Asian Games alongside archery, fencing, and taekwondo. The 15th Asian Games, which took place in Doha, Qatar, had three separate chess competitions: men's rapid, women's rapid, and team event.


The arguments against chess as sport always reduce to the absence of a strong physical element. When the Chess Olympiads are held every two years, women compete in an event separate from the men's, just as they did in Doha. Even so, the best women players can compete with the best men. Whether separate events are necessary is a different issue that we'll tackle at another time.

Chess, like mathematics and music, is an activity where gifted children can perform on the same level as adults. Chess prodigies are rare, and some disappear before attaining full mastery of the game, but Morphy, Reshevsky, and Fischer reached World Championship level. The number of chess prodigies has been increasing in recent years, partly due to their having access to facilities like software training and online play, which were unknown to previous generations of chess players.

Players with physical handicaps are also able to compete at chess. Where a broken leg prevents a skier from competing in a slalom, a chess player can nevertheless compete from a wheelchair. One undeniable physical aspect is that blind players have an obvious disadvantage competing against sighted players; they are allowed to touch the pieces during a game.

A recent argument against chess as sport is the modern discovery that computers can play at the highest level. The way they play is not the same as flesh-and-blood players -- they move pieces on invisible boards and consult references that are forbidden to non-computer players -- but they still play.

The lack of physical activity in chess can even approach the absurd. Viktor Korchnoi, who played two matches for the World Chess Championship, once claimed to have played a complete game in his sleep, against the long departed Hungarian grandmaster Maroczy.

Where it Stands

Sport or not, chess players take for granted that the game requires a high level of sportsmanship. Players who demonstrate poor sportsmanship are despised as much as in competitions that are taken for granted as sport.

Some chess variants add a physical dimension to chess which is lacking from the standard game. Two receiving attention in recent years are Condi Chess and Chess Boxing (Chessboxing).

A curious side to the debate is the cliché often found in news reporting for sports like baseball -- 'It was a real chess match' -- meaning that a healthy dose of outsmarting the opponent was involved. Why do we never hear that a baseball game was 'a real card game' or 'a real game of checkers'? 'It was a real poker game' is sometimes used to describe a match full of chance and bluffing, two characteristics unknown to chess.

The debate over 'chess as sport' is not going to be resolved anytime soon. As for About Chess, we'll continue to straddle the fence resolutely. We have seen too many photos of chess players who would be strong favorites to win pie eating contests. Whether anyone believes that chess is a sport, or is not a sport, it doesn't change the fact that it's the greatest game in the world.

 Related Resources (offsite)
• Sport
• IOC Recognized Sports
• Survey of FIDE Federations
  Suggested Reading:
• Top 10 Myths About Chess
• Chess Olympiads
  Elsewhere on the Web:
• Video: GM playing blitz chess
• Chess makes its opening gambit to be Olympic sport
• Who said chess isn't a sport? (Condi Chess)
• Chess Boxing