Why chess is definitely a sport

DECEMBER 9 — First of all, congratulations to Yeoh Li Tian for taking the chess gold medal at the 30th Philippines SEA Games.

As a guy whose school team couldn’t even get to the third round of the MSSD chess tournament in 1990, I’m envious as heck.

All chess enthusiasts know perfectly well how coming out #1 in a regional tournament is an amazing achievement in sports.

That’s why I couldn’t help but be surprised when comedian Harith Iskandar tweeted his surprise that chess was considered a SEA Games sport.

He couldn’t “brain” the idea that people shuffling pieces (shaped like horses, royalty, religious folks, etc.) around a board could be called athletes.

I’m pretty sure Harith isn’t the only one puzzled. I was, too, back in the day.

Until I started playing competitively and I got my ass kicked by people who would be insulted if you suggested chess was “just a game.”

If you’ve seen chess players competing (whether they’re playing in a MSSD tournament or the world-class Tata Steel Championships) you’ll notice that even military snipers are less intense. There are egos and honour at stake, not to mention medals and money.

To achieve these bragging rights, chess players train as hard as any athlete. I recall being required to attend Saturday chess training sessions, where our team captains would drill us on our openings, our middle-game, our endgame, our overall tactics, etc.

For example, a player needs to decide if he or she is a King pawn player or Queen pawn player i.e. when they play white, do they open with the pawn in front of their King or Queen (fyi Yeoh is a King pawn player)? Or, is the player an English Opening person, opening with the Queen Bishop’s pawn?

But that’s the easy part. Competitive players also need to decide what to play as Black (both against King pawn players and also Queen pawn players).

Against the King pawn (i.e. when your opponent playing White moves his King pawn two squares up), the most popular defences today seem to be the Sicilian, the French, and variations on e5 (i.e. when, as Black, you move your own King pawn two squares forward).

And each opening has its permutations, variations and so on. God help you if you can’t remember more than three of four steps ahead (see Note 1).

If the above doesn’t give you an idea of how strenuous chess training can be (due to the sheer volume of possibilities involved from the first move onwards), consider too that the best players in the world must know what on earth the other fella might play.

Not unlike English Premier League managers, world-class players continually study the games of other similarly ranked players, strategising to find a way to exploit weaknesses and avoid their opponents’ best plays.

This is war on a table top. Remarkably enough, not unlike sprinters and runners, chess players also burn loads of calories. Neurologist Robert Sapolsky noted that some grandmasters may burn as many as 6,000 calories in one day.

Planning, training and strategising against opponents are just a few elements which qualify chess as a sport, putting it firmly in the same realm as, say, boxing, volleyball and basketball.

It also explains why games like Monopoly or marbles (guli-guli) probably won’t make it as a global sport; one requires too much luck and the other has minimal planning and strategising involved.

Likewise, chess trumps painting or singing as a sport because it’s not easy to say who “wins” for the latter two disciplines. Heck, in the world of art (be it visual or non-visual) even what counts as “good” or “bad” seems to be a point of contention.

But there are also different chess styles. Different players just, well, play differently. There are the famous attacker cum swashbuckler players like Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer who come at you with full creative force.

Then there are the positional architects like Anatoly Karpov, or the mysterious “hyper-modern” wizards like Alexander Alekhine whose famous defence against White involved moving his own King’s knight over the board as a way of luring White into a superior position in the hope of launching a counter-attack.

The point is that chess in this sense mimics footballing styles. Think of Brazil’s samba flow, West Germany’s disciplined structural play, England’s set-piece tactics, etc.

Finally, of course, chess has its worldwide fans. Google puts the number of chess players at 600 million. And I can tell you once you’ve started playing seriously at any level, you’d somehow qualify as a fan.

Maybe therein lies the beauty of chess and why there is no question as to its inclusion today as a worldwide sport: So many people love the game, so many people want to get better at it, so many people’s eyes light up when they see a chess board at some random venue, and almost everyone hates to lose.

So, Harith, now you know. And you’re welcome.

Note 1: Reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen (like many grandmasters) knows practically all the variations of all these openings up to almost 15 or even 20 moves from the start.

Carlsen can play simultaneous games blind-fold against a dozen players, win all of them, then later write down every move of every game.

Clearly, therefore, he was playing these games by drawing on his memory of existing games i.e. he simply ran the existing scripts in his mind until it was obvious (to him) his opponents were playing a losing hand after which he just mopped up.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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