Every year, as I walk into the tournament hall at the Chess Festival, the scene makes a strange impression on me. Playing chess below fluorescent lamps in a gym? Playing chess at a location where people normally run, scream, and sweat? Don’t chess tournaments belong in a club with oak-wooden tables, where serious men in three-piece suits ceremoniously play their moves while holding cigars?
‘Chess is everything: art, science, and sport,’ Anatoly Karpov said. Art, for sure. Every chess player who has won a game by a fierce mating attack, will consider his game a true piece of art, similar to a Jackson Pollock ‘action-painting’. The chess player who prefers to win a pawn in the middle game and eventually cash in in the late endgame will relate more to the 17th century Dutch masters. I can picture Karpov with a paintbrush in his hands, behind his easel. A little point here, a small stripe there…
The parallels with science are evident as well. There are concrete values, clear rules, and numerous variants. A certain internally logical system exists, something that’s rare in my own games, by the way. Chess is ideal for computer programmers, who have been developing chess computers since the late seventies. At the end of last century Deep Bleu beat world champion Garry Kasparov. That was a decennium before Siri answered the question ‘What is the purpose of life?’ with: ‘All evidence to date suggests it’s chocolate.’
But is chess a sport? I always tell my non-chess playing friends that the same game they used to play in the coffee shop can be a battle of life and death on a higher level. In my opinion, the element of competition in chess isn’t that different from a ‘real’ sport like tennis. Both are man to man battles, in which psychology, technique, experience, pattern recognition, and dealing with emotions are key.
To be in good shape seems to have become more and more important in today’s chess. Top players appear to be spending more time in the gym than they do improving their endgame technique. Everyone who has ever played a game that lasts longer than four hours knows that a good physical condition is not an unnecessary luxury. The average age of the top players is comparable to for example a sport like golf. There are some people in their fifties who can still keep up, but most top players are in their twenties to mid-thirties.
Nevertheless, the Olympic Committee doesn’t consider chess a sport, at least not a sport that deserves the title ‘Olympic’. A couple of years ago IOC-president Thomas Bach declared that he wanted to reform and modernise the program of the Olympic Winter games. Chess and cyclocross were thought to have a chance to become Olympic, but it was decided that the unless the sport took place in snow or ice, these sports would not be added to the Winter Olympics.
No problem, I hear you say, chess players can effortlessly play in snow, no? The chess player plays everywhere, on land, on sea, or in the air, right? In the Czech Republic there is rapid tournament that takes place in a train, the Chess Train Tournament. And there’s a tournament on a cruise ship that travels from Copenhagen to Miami, called Chess Tournament at Sea. Underwater games have been seen, as well as tournaments in boxing rings and simultaneous exhibitions in Ferris wheels. Hundred thousands of players play online on a daily basis. From the Faroe Islands to South Africa and from Chili to China, everywhere tournaments are organised. Astronaut Gregory Chamitoff played a game while in the ISS space station against a group of school children from Stevenson Elementary School in Bellevue. ‘Earth’ won a nice game with the black pieces, when Chamitoff, a reasonable amateur player, underestimated the march of his opponents pawns on the queenside.
People who don’t play chess at a certain level are often of the opinion that chess is a rather dull, slow, intellectual game. ´This football match is like a chess game,´ the commentator says when he thinks the match is slow and both teams don’t take any risks. ´Putin is a chess player,´ the political annalist points out, when he thinks that the Russian president is cunning. Chess and metaphors, it will be a difficult affair till the end of time.
We chess players know that world politics show little resemblance to chess, where there are clear rules. Chess games, however, often do resemble football matches, exciting matches, that is. Strategy as well as coordination are of the essence. In both football and chess one cannot attack like a blind man without a solid defence. And if one doesn’t finish attacks properly, opponents can and will profit from counterattacks.
But what sport or pastime best comparison to chess? A language? Tennis? Classical music? Occupational therapy? Politics? War? Life itself? All these comparisons are in fact meaningless. Chess is everything, Karpov said, and so nothing compares to chess.
The times of Capablanca, when only men with beards were allowed in venues filled with cigar smoke, are long gone. As I walk into the gym, the time pressure phase is in full display. Around the tables the spectators form perfect circles. I take a peek along their backs and I see the face of one of the players, fully concentrated. He takes a look at the clock, at the board, and at the clock again. His hand hangs over the board, like a bird of prey, and then reaches the knight, puts his queen in its place and firmly pushes the clock. I can smell the sweat of the players and know for sure: today’s chess IS a sport.
Benno de Jongh
Benno de Jongh writes daily columns during the Chess Festival, published around 3 pm on playing days. De Jongh is a journalist and a chess player, who has never reached the rating of 2000, and probably never will. Despite that fact he is one of the worlds leading experts on the Elephant Gambit and working on a book on the subject, (working title: The Elephant Gambit, A Rare Black Beast with a Proboscis on the Board, publication expected in 2032). De Jongh’s opinions on several chess- and non-chess-related items do not in any way reflect the policy of the organisation of the festival.