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On Chess: Settling The Debates: Is Chess A Sport?

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Austin Fuller
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St. Louis Chess Club

Sports are defined as athletic activities requiring skill or physical prowess and are often competitive by nature. But the wide world of sports is vast — from the traditional games of football, baseball and golf to horse racing and dog sports, to the more obscure like corn hole (which, like chess, is enjoying a moment of fame during the COVID era as sports lovers lean into watching tournaments on ESPN and streaming online in lieu of more mainstream sports that are still postponed).

No matter the definition, there will always be varied opinions of what is considered a sport. And, perhaps, none is more debated than chess. Chess is a classic game — dating back more than 1,500 years. Let’s break down how chess fits into the definition of a sport.

Are there rules? Like all sports, chess has a defined set of rules and etiquettes. The International Chess Federation serves as the governing body of the sport of chess, and it regulates all international chess competitions. Additionally, the International Olympic Committee considers chess to be a sport.

Does chess require skill or is it a game of chance? A resounding “yes” chess requires skill! As in most human endeavors, there is some element of chance in the competitive results of chess games. But luck for one side generally comes in the form of an opponent’s error. Elite chess players spend years training, studying and mastering their sport. Chess requires extreme focus, patience and dedication – all traits shared by other sports greats.

Does chess require athletic ability? While chess tournaments don’t contain the same physical action as what is displayed on a football field, it is a fallacy to believe that chess players don’t require both mental and physical exertion. There may not be a more demanding game for mental acuity, but being in good physical shape is also a prerequisite for the world’s most competitive players. For these world-class chess players, training their bodies for peak performance is key to staying on top of the rigorous mental demands of the game. Chess grandmaster Levon Aronian has been quoted saying: “The best way to manage the stress is to be in good physical shape. At this moment I have lots of chess knowledge and, therefore, apart from chess, I need to have physical strength.”

Is chess competitive? Yes, and like most sports there are progressive levels of competition. On any given day, there are chess matches and formal competitions taking place all over the world. As with other sports, there are certain tournaments that represent the pinnacle of the sport, an homage to the prestige, difficulty and honor of reaching the utmost levels. In fact the United States, and St. Louis specifically, serve as the home for some of the most recognized tournaments, including the U.S. Chess Championships, Sinquefield Cup and Cairns Cup — all of which feature the strongest field of players from across the country and around the world.

So where does that leave us? What qualifies as a true sport may be the grist for endless arguments. The only certainty may be in the eye of the beholder. But for the millions of chess players, instructors, tournament organizations and even enthusiasts, chess is just as much a sport as the next, and they all are looking for their next chance to claim the glorious checkmate.

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