A question of sport

8/25/2015 – With chess missing out on the shortlist for inclusion at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, John Foley, Non-Executive Director of the English Chess Federation, takes a look at why chess isn't recognised as a sport in the UK, as it is in over 100 countries – and the case for change. After all even the English Bridge Union is going to court to have their card game recognised as a sport.

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This article originally appeared in Sport and Recreation Alliance

A question of sport

By John Foley

Playing games is a natural part of human life yet it has become fashionable for leaders of the sports bodies to decry the rise of gaming when our young people could be active outdoors. The English Chess Federation takes a more positive view towards games. We advocate strategy games rather than “shoot ‘em up” games where adrenaline may be high but the intellectual content is often low. Chess is a classic strategy game which challenges the finest minds in the world. It is not recognised as a sport in the UK and receives no public funding. It is worth reminding ourselves why the International Olympic Committee and over 100 countries recognise chess as a sport.

  1. Competitive. The objective of a game of chess is to win. Chess involves a relentless struggle against one’s opponent. There is probably no sporting activity in which two people are locked in a competitive struggle of such intensity for such a sustained period of time. One lapse of concentration and suddenly a good position is transformed into a losing one. Each game is a drama in which the outcome is uncertain until the very end. When recently interviewed by journalist Dominic Lawson, the world chess champion Magnus Carlsen said that chess was “definitely a sport”.

  2. Well established. The world championship has been organised since 1886 and our national federation was founded in 1904. Chess competitions are organised at every level: schools, universities, counties, cities, leagues, junior, senior, European, World, etc. Six million people play chess in England each year according to pollsters YouGov. 125,000 children learn chess in school each year.

  3. Physical fitness. Peak mental condition requires being in good physical condition. Players need to concentrate totally for up to seven hours. As the stress and tension builds up, blood pressure, pulse and respiration rates all increase. Contenders for the world championships have nutritionists and fitness coaches.

  4. Behaviour code. Players are penalised for poor sportsmanship e.g. for refusing to shake hands with their opponent. Potential cheating is taken seriously. Mobile phones are banned. Players are prohibited on their move from leaving the playing area. There is an anti-doping policy.

  5. Olympic Recognition. Chess has been recognised as a sport by the International Olympic Committee since 2000. It was an event at the Asian Games in 2006 in Doha and again in Guangzhou in 2010. It is also being considered for inclusion in the Pan-American Games. Tokyo is preparing bids for the 2020 summer Olympics and has invited chess and bridge to apply for inclusion. Russia is trying to bring chess to the winter Olympics.

  6. European Recognition. Chess is recognised as a sport in 24 out of 28 member states of the European Union. The exceptions are the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Sweden. In Sweden, it is likely that chess will be included from next year. Support has come from the Swedish sports coaches organisation which admires the mental discipline of chess.

  7. Global game. Chess is played around the world irrespective of age, race, gender, income or language. People with physical disabilities play chess. Blind people play chess. People with advanced motor neurone disease play chess: Professor Stephen Hawking played chess with his children.

  8. Mental component. All sports have a mental component. Ultimately competitive sports may be construed as strategy games differing only in their physical manifestation. Commentators are prone to similes such as: curling = chess on ice; bowls = chess on grass; snooker = chess with balls, and so on.

  9. National accolade. World chess champions have won their national Sportsman of the Year competition including Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Vishy Anand (India) and Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria).

  10. Player ranking system. The player ranking system was developed for chess in 1960 and has been adopted by many other sports including American football, baseball, basketball, hockey, korfball, rugby and golf. Football and cricket use a related formula.

England should be proud of its chess tradition. The first book printed in English by William Caxton was on chess. All official chess games must use the style of pieces designed in England by Nathaniel Cook in 1849 and named after Howard Staunton who was the strongest player in the world at that time.

England has performed with distinction at the World Chess Olympiads. We had a strong team at the Buenos Aires Olympiad in 1939 during which WW2 broke out. The team returned home where they worked with Alan Turing to break the German Engima codes. England came third in 1976 and regularly came second in 1980s behind the mighty Soviet Union. As recently as twenty years ago, England finished fourth behind Russia, Ukraine and the USA but since then we have declined - in the most recent Olympiad at Tromso in 2014, England came 28th.

All but one of the 27 teams that placed above England recognise chess as a sport. The exception is the USA which funds chess privately. Governments actively support chess as it improves academic performance and symbolises a country’s intellectual strength. China classifies chess as a sport and in less than two decades has gone from nowhere to winning the recent Chess Olympiad and producing the women’s world champion, Hou Yifan. The next open world champion is expected to be Chinese.

Chess has health benefits. There is an emerging awareness of the effectiveness of chess in delaying the onset of Alzheimers. Chess promotes social integration as players travel to a venue and interacting socially. Chess presents a welcome social activity to many children who are on the autistic spectrum. Many Aspergers children find chess opens up for them a whole new world which conventional sport does not. For many adults, chess provides them with meaning in their lives.

Recognition as a sport does not bring any obligation of funding but it would open some doors. Many public funding bodies and foundations only fund officially recognised sports e.g. the national lottery. Chess would be able to obtain shared access to sports facilities as it does in other countries. Our students would no longer be prevented from playing in the European and World University Chess Championships because of the condition that the national sports body should recognise chess as a sport. We would no longer have to look at other countries seek funding from the Erasmus+ sports programme for chess, a possibility not open to us.

Recognition of chess will not open the floodgates to video games. The mindsports (including bridge and chess) are well-established, public-domain, abstract strategy games played competitively throughout the world using one canonical form. By contrast, the video game market has numerous franchises (e.g. Grand Theft Auto) each of which spawns many game titles which are of short-term duration and which typically use proprietary technology.

The English Bridge Union is going to court to have bridge recognised as a sport. We wish them well.

About the author

John Foley is a Non-Executive Director of the English Chess Federation and Director of Training and Education for the charity Chess in Schools and Communities. He is chairman of Kingston Chess Club and runs the British Chess Magazine squad in the National Chess League.

In his spare time John likes to play bridge. He keeps fit by cycling.