Chess and sport compared – Stewart Reuben

There is often a cry, ‘Why can’t chess be more like other sports?’ People seem to prefer to take a negative attitude, rather than think, ‘In what ways is chess superior to other sports?’ Of course, the reality is that each and every sporting activity has its own distinct and valuable ambience and they can all learn from each other …

Chess goes back 1500 years probably to India. The rules have changed remarkably little in this period, and hardly at all since the 1500s. It is still possible to play through fragments of games from the 11th century, played by such Arabic players as As-Suli. Similarly the ‘Immortal Game, played in 1851 in London can still be played over and discussed at great length. You can even dine at Simpson’s Restaurant in the Strand where this encounter occurred. The most comparable analogy is with videos of much more recent sporting events.There is a huge literature of the game. ChessBase has about 4 million games on it and this is being added to daily. It is also virtually language-free. There has been more material written about chess than virtually all other sports put together.

In no other sport is it possible to discuss chess on equal terms with a child, or indeed to play one without making considerable concessions. Men and women can play on equal terms. As Peter Sowray said, ‘Chess is extremely non judgemental.’ All that matters is one’s prowess.

Chess is very cheap to play, you only need a board, set and possibly clock, but it is possible to do without all of those three. As one becomes older and frailer, the fact that chess can be played anywhere becomes more and more valuable.

For sports such as running it is very easy to compare the prowess of different athletes from different times. For others such as tennis, boxing, football no such quantifiable assessment is valid. There has to be a subjective value judgement. With tennis there is the problem of different surfaces and also changes in the equipment. The FIDE Rating System is very valuable for making comparisons. That is not to suggest that there are no problems in establishing the validity of the current as opposed to historical rating.

The Laws of Chess are written such that there is very littler need for an arbiter to get involved. The players can sort out any problems between themselves. Many other sports require considerable intervention from the arbiter. Football and tennis are prime examples. Some sports like boxing or skating require value judgments by a panel to determine the winner.

Although it is undesirable, it is possible for the start of a chess game to be delayed. Normally this is impossible for a race. Moreover, a chess game, once started can be adjourned due to force majeure. It is only relatively recently that time outs have been allowed in tennis. There has been much discussion in the last couple of years about zero tolerance for tardiness at chess events. Many other sports do not award instant losses. In the English Football League a team must be present one hour before the kick off. If one team is late they do not forfeit. They score -3 and their opponents 0. The match is rescheduled and, if the offending side wins, their league score becomes 0 for that match. If the innocent team wins, they score 3 points. There are also financial penalties. Even in boxing one of the fighters is not immediately forfeited if late (instead he loses points for the round). Actually, in chess a principal cause of tardiness is the administrators, not the players. They think nothing of starting the first round an hour late and other rounds at least 10 minutes behind schedule. This gets the players into the habit of being lax in their punctuality as well.

Swiss System
It is amazing that the Swiss system is used so little outside the field of mind sports. Of course, this is partly because of the premium placed on availability of a playing area. Even so, other sports could and should learn from our use of this system.

Premature Conclusions to Games
This the real disadvantage of chess. It seems to be virtually unique in the way in which it is common practice for games to come to a sudden end. Apart from a few mind sports, players just do not resign a lost position. When chess is being viewed as a spectator sport, it is very frustrating for the weaker viewers to find out that the players have agreed a draw, or that the opponent has resigned. It would be better, from this viewpoint, if games were to continue until mate or an absolutely drawn position. Bent Larsen once said that nobody should resign until the last spectator understood why this had happened. This is simply a matter of social practice and could be changed.

Agreement to Draws
The current regulations are probably the best they have ever been. But it will always be a very difficult situation. There is a sound argument that, where players are competing at their own expense, it is no business of the organisers what they get up to. An alternative sound argument is that it is very much their business as they spend time setting up events and don’t want a large number of vapid draws.

The most common form of cheating in chess is collusion. Two players can gain a total of more prize money by one of them winning in the last round, rather than drawing. So one of them wins. This can partially be overcome by having only small differentials between prizes. But that has the disadvantage of a less easily perceived competitive event.Since there isn’t much betting on individual chess games, the practice of one player throwing the game, without the knowledge of his opponent, must be very rare.Recently there have been several allegations of players cheating because they have received advice from outside the playing area. The game is played on an electro-sensitive board and immediately broadcast internationally. The player leaves the area and receives advice. In order to overcome this fear, there will have to be delays in the transmission of the moves. This has been done at the Scottish and British Chess Championships. We had a delay of 5 minutes
Players can, of course, receive direct verbal or radio-transmitted advice in the playing venue. There just has to be eternal vigilance. It is almost impossible completely to prevent players communicating with each other in the venue. Chess staffing levels are too low to achieve this.
Still, cheating at chess is much rarer than in some other sports, partly because the stakes are lower. We have not gone down the route of Bridge where the rule book sometimes seems to assume cheating is going to go on unless there is evidence to the contrary.

Playing for money
Chess does not have any hang-ups that amateurs should not play for prize money. There are entry fees and the players are welcome to take what prize money their skill allows. Our culture does not lend itself to playing one on one for money. It was different in New York in the 1960s when I lived there.

But chess is so slow, is a common cry. For me, one thing about Test cricket is that it makes chess seem fast. I have twice had TV filming at events where the games were blitz (all the moves in 5 minutes). After the first games were over, the crew asked, ‘When is it going to start?’ Indeed, from an outsider’s viewpoint, it does look ridiculous. Bullet chess (all the moves in 1 minute) must surely be the fastest of all sports, with the possible exception of the 100 metres.

Climax of a Tournament
The use of the Swiss system or round robin does not lend itself to a satisfactory climax. Only a knockout can achieve this. Then there is the problem of resolving ties; well football has exactly the same problem and the resolution is just as unsatisfactory.

Chess is a difficult game to understand and there are no shortcuts. It has been said that most of the people viewing snooker on TV don’t know the order of merit of the colours. They simply rely on the commentators to give some idea. People watch poker tournaments and all they really understand is that the chips represent money and huge sums are wagered.

Of course playing physical sports is better for one’s physical health than chess. Wait a moment. What about broken bones; losing an eye at rugby; or wear and tear on the knees when running? Chess wins hands down over physical sports in delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Whether it is superior to Bridge, Poker or Sudoku is quite another matter – Ray Keene says there is evidence to support this.

People love collecting statistical information on cricket or baseball. Change that to game scores and we certainly have an equivalent in chess.

At the Olympic Games there are more different countries competing than any other sporting event. Chess, football and table tennis, solely in alphabetical order, come next. I ‘think’ we come third. But try the age range and there is no doubt about the winner.

Don’t sneer at other sporting activities; they all have their advantages and disadvantages. Once we had a problem about payment of a player in chess. I phoned the Lawn Tennis Association and got some very sound advice.

– Stewart Reuben
Originally published in CHESS Magazine.