Yes, chess deserves sporting treatment

June 16, 1996|By Alan T. Sherman

THE AMERICAN MEDIA have not yet found a home for chess news. They heralded the 1972 and 1992 victories of Bobby Fischer over Boris Spassky in feature news articles. They print weekly chess columns in the leisure sections of newspapers. They also run an occasional human-interest story about chess, often accompanied by a cute photo of young children playing the royal game. But they have not yet accepted chess as a competitive sport. Nevertheless, chess is a sport and deserves regular coverage in the sports pages.

That various sports directories exclude chess is not evidence that chess is not a sport; instead, this omission merely reflects that large segments of our culture do not currently view chess as a sport. The National Sports Federation of the Netherlands, however, classifies chess as a sport, and chess plays a significant role in many athletic departments in Belarus and in other eastern republics. Many people consider chess the national sport of the former Soviet Union.

The ancient Greeks greatly valued activities of the mind and included a variety of intellectual performances (including poetry reading) in their sporting events. Negotiations are now under way to make chess an Olympic exhibition sport.

The noun sport comes from French and Latin as a contracted form of the verb disport, which means to make merry. Thus, the core meaning of sport is simply pastime, diversion or recreation. Like many other sports, chess is also a game (a competitive activity governed by rules) and a competition (a rivalry involving the demonstration of skill or ability). Furthermore, and typically unlike ice-skating, chess is an adversarial sport: the outcome of each chess game is profoundly affected by the opposing interaction of the players.

Chess requires extreme physical demands: A single game migh last six hours or more, and several such games might be played in one weekend. A study at Temple University reported that tournament chess causes "physical changes similar to a comparable session of boxing or football." For these reasons, chess competitors undergo extensive physical conditioning.

Although chess knowledge is relatively more important tha physical stamina, physical conditioning can affect match outcomes. For example, Garry Kasparov's superior physical conditioning was an important factor in his world championship matches with Anatoly Karpov. Vishy Anand, contender for the 1995 World Championship explained, "give or take a very small difference [in chess preparation], the stamina ... will make all the difference. ... The physical aspect assumes really huge proportions." Years earlier, World Champion Bobby Fischer admonished, "I've got to stay in shape or it's all over." In addition, dexterity is vital in fast-paced "blitz" chess.

Though chess is not a physical sport, it is nevertheless a sport. I refer to it as intellectual sport, because chess depends crucially on abstract reasoning. Moreover, chess can be an exciting spectator sport - as lively and entertaining as any basketball game. The excitement stems from its rich strategy, tactics, psychology, imagination, and human struggle. As demands of society shift from the physical to the mental, intellectual sports - including chess and debate - better prepare us for the modern world.

People react to chess as they do to any sport. Chess fans follow their favorite teams, discuss personalities, argue intricacies of the rules, recite statistics, and compare the ratings and rankings of players.

With millions of dollars of sponsorship from the Intel Corp., the Professional Chess Association found a winning formula for popularizing spectator chess: fast time controls, instantaneous computer projection of moves from an autosensory board, video close-ups of the players, and live colorful sports commentary. To avoid disturbing the players, spectators listen to the commentary over wireless receiver-headsets. The sports commentary, augmented by football-style telestration strategy diagrams, adds interest and makes the competition accessible even to people with no prior chess experience.

There are more than 80,00 members of the United States Chess Federation, including more than 2,000 in Maryland. Most schools have a chess club or team, and many people play and enjoy chess casually. Thus, there is a substantial base of followers, including a dedicated core who would eagerly read detailed sports coverage. Already, thousands of people play and watch chess on the Internet. If bowling can succeed as a major spectator event, so can chess.

In November, when I telephoned The Sun's sports desk to report UMBC's 5-1 victory over MIT, I was told that The Sun does not report chess as sports news. I am grateful to The Sun for covering the event - albeit as local news. However, as more and more people experience competitive chess, they realize it is more than an idle pastime. Chess is a thrilling, demanding intellectual sport that deserves regular coverage in the sports pages.

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