Chess – the game of kings! There are few sports with such an ancient pedigree. For some, chess is the ultimate in cerebral pursuits, the pinnacle of intellectual achievement. For others, it’s a rather exclusive and stuffy pastime. It is a game which divides opinion. Those who excel at chess consider themselves to be elite sportsmen, and yet for many within the sporting community, the idea that such an inactive pastime could be a sport is patently ridiculous. However, people feel about this illustrious game, very few of them know anything about its fascinating background. Here, we take a look at the history of chess and try to gain insight into whether or not it can truly be viewed as a sport.
The game of chess was first invented centuries ago however its origins are shrouded in mystery. Its roots remain unclear and are still highly debated among chess-loving communities. The confusion has given birth to a host of stories and legends about where chess began. However, it seems clear that, whatever other disagreements occur over the beginnings of this long-established game, the one thing that most people agree on is that it was never the product of a single mind. In fact, there were few constants in the rules and regulations surrounding chess until the late 1800s when Wilhelm Steinitz was made the first World Chess Champion. So, let’s take a look at some of the theories about where chess came from and how it progressed to become the game we know and love today.
If you’ve ever seen the musical “Chess”, you’ll be familiar with one famous legend which surrounds the origins of the game. It involves an Indian king known as Shihram. Shihram’s wise man was keen to convince the king that each person living in his kingdom was equally important and so he created a game which represented the kingdom and its inhabitants. The king, queen, bishops, rooks, pawns and knights of chess all represented the people living in Shihram’s land. The king himself was so impressed by the game that he ordered the whole kingdom should learn and play the game. He also offered the wise man gold and jewels as a reward for his creation.
However, the wise man refused the generous offer. Instead, he took the chess board and told the king that he should put a single grain of wheat onto the first square, then double the number of grains on every square of the board. The king asked his servants to accommodate the wise man’s request. However, once they realised just how much wheat would be required to fulfil his wishes, the king learned another important lesson – that even the smallest thing should never be underestimated.
The origins of chess certainly seem to lie in Asia, and Persia has a key role to play in the game’s development. It is generally believed that, although the game may have begun in India, it soon travelled to Persia before spreading across Asia. It was certainly part of the nobility’s courtly education. Some of the words used in chess today - “check” and “checkmate” – are very similar to Persian words for “king” and “the king has fallen”.
Interestingly, there are some people who believe instead that chess originally came from China rather than India. Another legend states that chess was first invented in 200 BC by an army commander known as Han Xin to represent a specific battle. The battle was a key one in the history of China, but soon afterwards the game of chess was forgotten. It didn’t reappear until the 7th century AD when it re-emerged with new rules and with the name “XiangQi”.
There were some very different rules for this new version of the game, and it wasn’t until the game progressed through India and Persia that it slowly turned into the game, we’re familiar with today with its iconic pieces and board.
The game of chess went through a number of incarnations until the late 1400s, even going through a number of religious sanctions and prohibitions. Over the centuries, its rules took a more concrete form and by 1886 when the first ever official World Championships were held the game had a definitive shape.
The 20th century saw a revolution taking place in chess. Databases appeared as well as chess engines and new methods were devices to prepare more strategically for game combat. Online games and chess websites emerged until chess entered a brand new, digitalized era. Take a closer look at the history of chess.
One of the biggest questions surrounding chess is whether or not it can be considered to be a sport. Those who excel at the game refer to themselves as sportsmen, however those who are successful in other, more traditional sporting pursuits pour scorn on this theory and say that a pastime which is so inactive couldn’t possibly be counted as a sport. If no athletic ability is required to excel at the game, surely a chess player cannot be considered to be an athlete.
Yet, there are a number of elements which come into play that make us think again about whether chess could be considered to be a sport. Let’s take a look at some of them:
Strategy - Firstly, chess requires lots of strategy. You need to plan ahead in any game of chess. This is similar to other sports such as soccer, which require a plan of attack from the beginning of the game.
Complex rules – like other sports, chess has complicated rules. You can’t just sit down and begin playing without learning how the game works. This is exactly the same as other sports like tennis or rugby.
Defence and offence – similar to sports like soccer and basketball, chess have a clear defence and offence.
Also, the definition of sport in the dictionary is “an activity which involves physical skill and exertion during which a team or individual competes against others or another for entertainment”. Surely, this sums up the game of chess? Anyone who has ever sat through a 5-hour-long chess match will know that there is some incredible stamina and physical exertion required there.
However, individuals feel about whether or not chess is a sport, the International Olympic Committee has accepted it as one. It has been added to the list of official Olympic sports, and while it isn’t actually part of the Olympic games, it does have a bi-annual international league known as the World Class Chess Federation.
Another sign that chess is most definitely an official sport is the induction of Rex Sinquefield into the Missouri Sports Hall Of Fame. He isn’t a basketball or football player – he funded and established the World Chess Hall of Fame and the Chess Club & Scholastic Center of St Louis.
If you needed further proof, you only need to look at the sports TV channels. ESPN has covered chess. Back in 2003, they televised a match held between the computer-based X3D chessboard and Grand Master Garry Kasparov. Players also have rankings, with games being arranged depending on each player’s losses and wins.
When it comes down to it, there is only one common argument which is upheld against chess truly being considered to be a sport – the lack of actual physical movement. However, there’s no requirement to play chess while sitting down. In 2009, there was a chess biathlon contest held in New York’s Jefferson County during which skiers had to race to different areas to solve chess problems. This is just one way in which chess can be considered to be an engaging and fascinating game – it can be played in so many forms.
For those of us who love the game, it is often a moot point whether it is a sport or not. The fact remains that we enjoy it and want to become the very best player that we can be.