Chess – a waste of time?

by Frederic Friedel
2/13/2023 – There is no accusation that is more guaranteed to get under a chess player’s skin than dismissing his beloved game as a ‘waste of time’. There is no better way to antagonize a chess player than to say that. But many famous thinkers and writers have done so. In chapter two of his book "Chessays", a collection of thought-provoking essays about a wide range of chess-related issues, Howard Burton has compiled a list of statements by detractors and defenders. Now available: a four-part docuseries directed by Howard, which examines the remarkable impact of chess on culture, art, science, and sport.

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Chessays: Travels Through The World Of Chess is a collection of thought-provoking essays about a wide range of chess-related issues which Howard Burton encountered while being a “tourist” in the chess world during the production of the four-part documentary series, Through the Mirror of Chess: A Cultural Exploration.

The essays provide insightful and playful reflections on the (ab)uses of the history of the game to the birth of the modern game, competitive sport and the way it is run by FIDE. Howard also questions several of the long-held assumptions about its widely acclaimed benefits and highlights the many surprising contemporary applications of chess to AI, prison reform, social inequality, and more and makes sharp observations on what chess reveals about current attitudes to gender, technology, sports, entertainment and the nature of play.

The films will take the viewer on an exhilarating journey across a wide range of times and places touching on cultural history, the nature of competitiveness, AI, psychology, game theory, chess variants, art, literature, gender issues, education, social empowerment, prison reform, and much more to comprehensively address the question of what makes the game so unique. The films offer an experience of cinematic storytelling at its best with an engaging narrative and exciting visuals.

Excerpt from Chessays

Here's a part of chapter 2, "Waste of Time", which we present with kind permission of the author. If you, as we did, find it a fascinating read, you can buy the book here, or get it from a number of different outlets (Amazon, Apple, Google Play).

There is no accusation that is more guaranteed to get under a chess player’s skin than dismissing his beloved game as a ‘waste of time’, and a quick scan through any random chess blog or newsgroup will present the intrepid e-traveller with indignant rebuttals of celebrated cultural figures who dared to imply, if not explicitly state, precisely that.

And the list is not a short one.

To take but a few of the most frequently-cited examples:

George Bernard Shaw declared that: ‘Chess is a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever, when they are only wasting their time.’

H.G. Wells wrote: ‘The passion for playing chess is one of the most unaccountable in the world.’

George Steiner penned, ‘A chess genius is a human being who focuses vast, little-understood mental gifts and labours on an ultimately trivial human enterprise.’

Sir Walter Scott, meanwhile, simply opined that, ‘Chess is a sad waste of brains.’

Against this cascade of condemnation, over-sensitive champions of chess typically present their own army of cultivated defenders, enthusiastically citing Goethe’s soaring encomium, ‘Chess is the touchstone of the intellect’, Benjamin Franklin’s insistence that ‘life is a kind of chess’, and Marcel Duchamp’s unstinting endorsement that, ‘While all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists’.

One can’t help but feel that the sheer amplitude and immediacy of the chessophilic response to the ‘waste of time’ indictment reveals a conspicuously tender collective psychological nerve, but before we explore that further, it’s worth pausing for a moment to investigate the exact nature of the supposed castigations that prompted such a defensive reaction in the first place.

The phrase from Shaw comes from his novel, The Irrational Knot, where Marian Lind, the main female protagonist, uses it to describe the view of her husband, with whom she is constrained to live despite their inherent incompatibility (i.e. through the ‘irrational knot’ of matrimony). When asked if she plays with her husband, Marian replies:

‘Playing with Ned! No; he hates chess. He says it is a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever when they are only wasting their time.’

To somehow ascribe this to a vehemently anti-chess sentiment on the part of Shaw is, of course, absurd. By any reasonable account, Shaw had no particularly strong feelings about chess whatsoever.1

The quotation from H.G. Wells, meanwhile, comes from his 1895 essay, ‘Concerning Chess’, and serves as an opening salvo clearly designed to grab the attention of the reader:

‘The passion for playing chess is one of the most unaccountable in the world. It slaps the theory of natural selection in the face. It is the most absorbing of occupations, the least satisfying of desires, an aimless excrescence upon life. It annihilates a man. You have, let us say, a promising politician, a rising artist, that you wish to destroy. Dagger or bomb are archaic, clumsy and unreliable—but teach him, inoculate him with chess!’

Aside from the obvious point that nobody would undertake to write an essay called ‘Concerning Chess’ if he had no particular interest or experience in the game, it should be palpably clear to anyone with a modicum of literary understanding that Wells is giving full reign to his sense of irony throughout this piece. But chess players, it seems, like Americans, don’t do irony very well.2

George Steiner’s oft-quoted comments on chess boiling down to ‘an ultimately trivial human enterprise’, come from his 1974 book, Fields of Force: Fischer and Spassky at Reykjavik, where he dissects the characters of the two participants of the 1972 world chess championship. That Steiner should have written on the topic hardly came as a surprise to anyone who had the slightest familiarity with him, as he had long publicly avowed his deep love of chess.3

Then there is Sir Walter Scott. In Chapter 4 of Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, biographer John Gibson Lockhart casually mentions that chess was recommended to Scott during a childhood illness and that he ‘engaged eagerly in the game’ before abandoning it in later life.

‘Scott did not pursue the science of chess after his boyhood. He used to say that it was a shame to throw away upon mastering a mere game, however ingenious, the time which would suffice for the acquisition of a new language. ‘Surely,’ he said, ‘chess-playing is a sad waste of brains.’

Only the most neurotically insecure could interpret such an off-handed and seemingly reasonable remark buried in a 432-page biography as representing the ravings of someone determined to warn the world of the pernicious lure of the 64 squares. As might be expected, there are no further recorded comments about Scott’s views on chess one way or the other; the only thing we know with certainty is that he happened to be one of the first people to see the Lewis Chessmen shortly after their discovery.4

So much for the prosecution. What about the defence?

Goethe’s phrase, ‘Chess is the touchstone of the intellect’, comes from Act 2 of his play Götz von Berlichingen, where a light-hearted, court-jester character (Liebetraut) is engaged half-heartedly in a game of chess while being regularly prodded to concentrate by Adelheid, the constantly intriguing, thoroughly unscrupulous, femme fatale character. And it is Adelheid who utters the words in question. When Liebetraut declares, ‘I would not play this game if I were a great lord, and I would forbid it at court and throughout the country’, Adelheid responds, ‘It is true; this game is the touchstone of the intellect’, misinterpreting Liebetraut’s statement through her instinctive manipulative framework, agreeing that it’s generally not in the interests of great lords to provide any means for potentially restive underlings to sharpen their minds.

It’s hard not to conclude that, had Goethe been determined to pronounce upon the splendours of chess, he could have done better than to put those words in the mouth of a ruthless social climber who casually poisons her husband once he has served the purpose of bringing her to the Imperial Court. But of course Goethe had no such intention, and more than likely never had any particularly strong feelings about chess one way or the other.5

Benjamin Franklin and Marcel Duchamp, meanwhile, were indisputable chess-lovers—indeed, with a passion that all too frequently tilted towards the obsessive. Duchamp frequently declared that he preferred playing chess to doing anything else, very much including his art,6 while Franklin was a regular visitor to the famed Café de la Régence when he served as the American Ambassador to France; and it was once said of him that his tireless passion for late-night games was checked only by his supply of candles.7

Franklin’s comment about life being a kind of chess are found in his essay, ‘The Morals of Chess’, first published in 1786 but thought to be first sketched out decades earlier. It is not, to put it charitably, a particularly deep or profound work, and serves as proof that even the most astute minds should sometimes avail themselves of judicious editorial guidance.

So ends our rambling chess literary-historical peregrination.8 And while it was certainly fun, it has taken us somewhat off track from the core question: To what extent is it reasonable to accuse chess as being ‘a waste of time’?

Personally, I find this a fascinating topic that actually has nothing to do with chess at all: a wonderful illustration of how rigorously investigating the evolution of any one particular pursuit can shed intriguing light on our core cultural values, both past and present.

Because, of course, the very mention of a ‘waste of time’ naturally implies a clear hierarchy of meaningfulness, with some things officially deemed worth doing and others considerably less so. And once you’ve made such an evaluation, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine that some activities are worse than simply frivolous or meaningless: they might well be viewed as down-right deleterious to the achievement of some socially recognized objective good and should thus be banned.

Chess, not coincidentally, has been banned many times throughout its long history, both by Muslim and Christian societies. The formal justification for doing so often boiled down to its perceived link with gambling, with chess lumped together with other well-recognized games of chance either because of the rising popularity of dice-related chess variants or simply as a result of heavy side (and front?) betting on the outcomes of the games.

Gambling was recognized as potentially addictive: insidiously encouraging an obsessive cult of personal gratification that was strikingly at odds with the acknowledged ideal of humbly striving towards righteousness in a community-oriented fashion. As a result, throughout the centuries, chess’s defenders have consistently taken great pains to explicitly clarify that it contains no random element whatsoever and any association with gambling games is misapplied.


1 When specifically questioned about the passage by Norman Knight in the 1940s, Shaw replied: ‘I have no recollection of the passage. I am hopeless as a chess player; I never can see more than two moves ahead. I was taught the names of the pieces and the moves by my Mother when I was a child; but my genius did not point in that direction.’ See https://www/ for more details.

2 The sheer extent of the irony-free domain represented by American chess players, one can only conclude, is truly frightening.

3 Of course, it’s also true that there were very few subjects that Steiner didn’t write about. A good account of his chess passion is at:

4 See Frederic Madden’s diary entry for 17th October 1831: ‘Sir Walter Scott came at two o’clock and stayed about an hour with me. I had the pleasure of looking over with him a set of very curious and ancient chessmen brought to the museum this morning for sale by a dealer from Edinburgh named Forrest...’

5 More generally, it’s high time that thin-skinned chess advocates learn to appreciate the basic point that authors frequently make their literary inventions express sentiments that they do not happen to personally believe. That is part and parcel of what is known as ‘literature’.

6 It is, quite frankly, impossible to have a conversation with any chess player about the broader cultural influence of the game without Marcel Duchamp’s name coming up in the first five minutes; so much so that the casual observer might be forgiven for concluding that an intimate familiarity with the history of Dadaism is a necessary requirement for chess success. I have no idea whether or not future generations will remember Duchamp’s cultural impact on humanity, but suffice it to say that the international chess community is certainly doing its part to keep his name alive.

7 In case you’re wondering (i.e. if you are a chess player), Franklin was not generally considered to be particularly strong. Duchamp, on the other hand, was a master-level player who won the 1932 Paris championships and once drew a game with Tartakower.

8 Arguably demonstrating that one hardly needs to be at the level of a Benjamin Franklin to strongly benefit from judicious editorial guidance.

Trailer: Through the Mirror of Chess: A Cultural Exploration

Through the Mirror of Chess: A Cultural Exploration

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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