Friday, April 9, 2004

Chess Is Not a Sport

A few days ago (see here), I described Bart Giamatti’s taxonomy of play. Giamatti defined “contest” as a competitive game. There are, he said, two types of contest: intellectual and physical. Physical contests are sports. I wrote that chess and checkers exemplify the category of intellectual contests and that baseball and bicycle racing exemplify the category of physical contests (sports). To my surprise, three or four people wrote to say that chess is a sport. (See here, for example.) They said that it requires endurance and that it causes an elevated heart rate and perspiration. I assume they would say the same about marathon Monopoly, Scrabble, checkers, or card-playing sessions. Is high-stakes poker a sport? I’m sure it gets the players’ hearts racing. Monopoly and card-playing are not sports, and, with all due respect to my correspondents, chess isn’t, either. The tone of the letters suggests that classifying chess as an intellectual contest rather than as a sport is insulting. But why? What’s wrong with intellectual contests? Dividing contests into those that are intellectual and those that are physical isn’t to rank them in a hierarchy, any more than to divide humanity into male and female is to rank them in a hierarchy. Two things can be different but equal. Baseball is better than chess, but not because it’s a sport. What I actually said in my post, as Matthew S. Mullins of Ektopos pointed out in my defense, is that there are two types of contest: those that are purely intellectual and those that are both intellectual and physical. Every physical contest has an intellectual component or dimension, so defining a category of purely physical contests would create an empty category. I suppose it’s also true that any intellectual contest has a physical component or dimension. We’re embodied beings, after all. Any competition is going to affect one’s body. Playing cards all night requires endurance. Tense moments in Scrabble, checkers, or bridge make one sweat and cause one’s heart rate to increase. So where do we draw the line? How physical does a contest have to be to count as a sport? Different people will draw the line in different places, depending, perhaps, on which physical attributes they think are most important. Is it strength? Speed? Quickness? Endurance? Agility? It’s an abuse of language to call chess a sport. It’s not an abuse of language to call golf a sport, although I consider golf a borderline case and am inclined to classify it as an intellectual contest. Chess is not even borderline. It’s a paradigmatic nonsport. Indeed, I would consider it a defect in any taxonomy that it classifies chess as a sport, just as I would consider it a defect in any taxonomy that it classifies bicycle racing as a nonsport. Bill's Comments Bill Keezer is discovering his inner blogger. See here for his latest provocative posts. I hope you're visiting his blog on a regular basis. The best blogs, like the best teachers, both edify and entertain. Thanks I'd like to thank all the people who sent birthday greetings. I wasn't fishing for greetings, but I'll take 'em.

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