February 23, 2004

The Sport of Nerds?

Posted by Ed

This week's New Yorker features a fun Louis Menand article on the world championship chess match contested by Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972. It's a great read, covering everything from Fischer's bizarre behavior to Spassky's Russian nationalism to the false claim that interest in the Spassky-Fischer match was inspired by the Cold War. Menand even begins with an interesting discussion of why chess matches are difficult to describe in an engaging way.

Nevertheless, I found one element of Menand's prose extremely (and irrationally) irritating: his assumption that chess is a sport. The misuse of the word "sport" is a pet peeve of mine; my main extracurricular activity has been quizbowl (an academic competition), and I'm always annoyed when people try to claim that it's a sport. (The people most likely to do this are the sort of people who seem most upset at their own lack of athletic prowess, and they invariably want to dumb the game down and make it more audience-friendly.) In my experience, no one seriously refers to Scrabble or intercollegiate debating as a sport... Activities like these--pseudo-intellectual pursuits that aren't even vaguely athletic--just don't qualify, as far as I'm concerned, and to claim that they do will often be tantamount to an attempt to simplify them or dumb them down.

I doubt that this rant will interest any of my readers, but I'm afraid I couldn't resist. If nothing else, I hope I've convinced some of you to go read Menand's article...

(An update follows...)

Update: Will Baude at Crescat Sententia has responded to this post, noting the following:

Lots of adrenaline pumps in chess players-- I had to quit playing chess last quarter because my nerves just couldn't take it-- but is that sufficient? After all, my last midterm got my adrenaline pumping too.

On the other hand, I think a definition of sport that doesn't include bowling and sharpshooting (which is after all, an Olympic sport) is too constrictive, and the amount of athleticism required for these is fairly low-key, even if they do require great skill. If sharpshooting is a skill, mustn't pool be? And so on.

Anyway, I don't mean to actually disagree with Ed so much as to say that I think the question is a lot murkier than he gives it credit for. I'm inclined to say that chess isn't a sport, but that quizbowl (in which buzzer-speed and reflexes really are important) might be.

I actually do think that the issue is kind of murky: one of the pleasures of writing a "rant" (as I described the entry above) is that you don't have to work your way through various layers of murkiness to come up with a fully coherent answer. :)

I'm still too lazy to provide a coherent answer to this question, but I will add a handful of thoughts. As far as I'm concerned, no activity that involves "sitting on your ass inside all day" is a sport (to quote someone I know who read this entry.) This rules out quizbowl and chess (although there's nothing stopping you from playing chess outdoors, of course.) I'm inclined to say that if you aren't moving at all, you're not participating in a sport. Finally, I don't think that "buzzer-speed and reflexes" make quizbowl a sport--otherwise, why not count video games? (They aren't a competitive team activity, I guess, but still... Even if you played other competitors one-on-one in a video game, it wouldn't be a sport.)

In any case, I'll end by returning to the original point of my post: go read Menand's article if you haven't already!

Posted by Ed at February 23, 2004 01:58 PM

Um, excuse me, but it's the "varsity sport of the mind" that you're talking about here...

Seriously, though, where would you draw the line? Is horseback riding a sport? Sailing? Ping pong? Fishing? Bowling? I would be inclined to say yes for the first three (though sailing could go either way in my mind) and no for the last two, but I have no particular reason to draw the line there other than my own prejudices.

Posted by: kathleen at February 23, 2004 05:21 PM

Naw, ultimate frisbee is the sport of nerds, hippies, and all those who love booze-ahol. Every ultimate team I've played on since college has been a mixture of Phds, grad students, and other interesting characters.

Posted by: Steven S at February 23, 2004 09:32 PM

The working definition of "sport" that I've been using is "a competitive activity, success in which is dependent on both athleticism and skill, but more on athleticism than skill." And no, neither quiz bowl nor chess are sports. Neither are horseback riding, sailing, ping pong, fishing, or bowling. Or archery, for that matter. Those are more like games than sports.

Posted by: Ray at February 24, 2004 03:26 PM

Not sport: Art. Ask Nabokov. Or Duchamp.

But for lack of a better term for a highly competitive organized activity requiring preparation/training/etc., why not? Athleticism needn't be a requirement.

Intercollegiate dating, on the other hand ...

Posted by: nnyhav at February 24, 2004 07:14 PM

Lots of links there for me. I remember the Fischer/Spassky hype. Every aspiring high school geek wanted to learn to play chess that year. Even I joined the chess club. (Okay, I had a crush on its president.) Never got any good at the game, but 16 years later, I married the former president of a different high school chess club. :-)

Oh, and I think that Louis Menand's *father* (also named Louis Menand) was my poli-sci prof during my freshman year at MIT!

Posted by: Julie Stahlhut at February 25, 2004 11:22 AM

Sports differ from other games and hobbies because success depends principly on physically expressed superiority. I wouldn't include "skill" in the definition per se, because skill can be physical or intellectual, but skillful physical expression is an important criterion. Before reading Ray's comment, I offered a pretty close account here:


though I think bowling, archery, and ping pong are sports, while fishing is not (because it depends principally on knowledge or where when and how to fish, not on physically expressed superiority).

Posted by: Nick Morgan at February 25, 2004 07:00 PM

Well, as the t-shirts used to say back in college, "Define your fucking terms".

In college days, I thought for a year or two of becoming a professional chess-player. I decided not to, because I didn't have enough of the killer instinct. Fischer used to say "I like to see them squirm". I don't. I agree with Bronstein that chess is an art.

But there's no question that this is a minority view among chessplayers. If you were to poll everyone at or above the level of master—"Chess: sport, or art?"—I'd be surprised if you got ten percent to say "art". It's clear that the best players, at least in over-the-board tournaments (postal might be different), would come down almost exclusively on the sport side. To my knowledge, only one world-championship-caliber player ever saw chess as art, and that was David Bronstein.

If you think chess is not physical, how do you explain the weight loss a player suffers during a championship match, which normally varies between twenty and forty pounds? Fischer and Spassky trained for their match at boxing camps.

If you call golf a sport, you gotta call chess a sport too. If not, well, then, define your terms.

Posted by: Belisarius at February 26, 2004 02:13 AM

chess is a sport, an art, a science, or (to some grandmasters) just a job.

to certain computers it's a day off from crunching mailing lists.

to my cat it's a challenge akin to bowling (where the cat's body is the ball).

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