Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 24, 2020

Chess deserves more recognition as a sport

By DAVID BAIK | September 17, 2020

hikaru-nakamura-29608320206

ANDREAS KONTOKANIS / CC BY-SA

Hikaru Nakamura is a five-time U.S. chess champion.

Here is a thought exercise: What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you read the word “sport?”

Got it? Good. Because I would be willing to bet all the money on my J-Card ($13.10) that chess was not the sport you had in mind.

For those unaware with the rules of the game, here is a quick rundown.

There are 16 pieces on a 64 square board for each player: eight pawns, two knights, two bishops, two rooks, one queen and one king. Of those six different classifications, each moves uniquely. For example, the queen can move any direction for any number of squares, while a pawn can only move forward one square at a time (unless the pawn has not moved yet; then it can move forward two squares).

The object of the game is simple: Use your pieces to trap your opponent’s king, which is called checkmate.

Some may have a problem with the premise of chess as a sport. Chess.com itself — a website where people around the world can play and discuss the game with each other — admits in a blog post that chess is technically not a sport under the Dictionary.com definition.

But that same post lists the sportlike aspects of the centuries-old game.

Despite remaining seated, grandmasters (the highest title a player can receive) can burn upwards of 6,000 calories a day playing in tournaments. Some games can last up to nine hours, requiring the utmost concentration. 

In its nature, the game demands two players to outthink each other for tactical advantages on the board. Players study for hours different lines of outcomes to best prepare for their opponents, much like a basketball team would study film before a big game.

And while Dictionary.com might object, the International Olympic Committee recognizes chess as a sport, though it is not included in the Games yet.

Chess may not be as closely associated with sports like basketball, hockey or football, but it has a quality that those sports do not have: accessibility during a pandemic.

While the International Chess Federation did stop its major Candidates Tournament halfway through, top players continued to stay engaged with the game on platforms like YouTube and Twitch.

Number-one classical player in the world Magnus Carlsen held his chess tour invitational online with much success, as he took on Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura in a best of seven set final last month. That event raked in nearly 200,000 viewers.

International masters (a title that is a touch bit lower than a grandmaster but still very high) Levy Rozman and Eric Rosen have posted their own commentaries and analysis of games that have been a wealth of chess knowledge for amateurs like me.

And speaking of amateurs, the game seems to be thriving among that group around this time. This New York Times article details how more players around the globe have taken to joining online chess clubs. In June, Chess.com hosted the PogChamps tournament, where popular Twitch streamers left their respective comfort zones to face off against each other.

Of course, chess is a game that has been popular for far longer than its recent spurt of growth. According to this article, there are over 600 million active players around the globe.

And the game is making its way outside its niche and through the realm of esports, as shown by the PogChamps tournament.

In addition, Nakamura, who has over half a million followers on Twitch, made headlines at the end of last month when he joined Team SoloMid, an organization that has brought in over $6 million over 576 gaming tournaments.

So popularity is less of an issue here. The problem is that people both within and outside of the chess circle fail to view it as a sport.

I get it; the definition of a sport can be vague, and under some, the game of chess may not perfectly align. But physically and mentally demanding, as well as accessible during a pandemic and to players of all skill levels, chess deserves more respect.

While I don’t expect to see it on primetime ESPN any time soon, my hope is that more people will recognize chess for what it is: a bona fide sport.

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