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Chess and sport

by GM Jonathan Rowson


Herald Chess Column for Saturday 14 June 2008

As a teenager I travelled frequently by train between Aberdeen and The Central Belt, and in both directions it felt reassuring to reach Dundee, the point where you let go of where you came from, and start thinking about where you are going.

Not so last week, because Dundee was my destination, where I was speaking again at the annual conference of Scottish University Sport. SUS conferences are friendly affairs, but there is a lot of energy and testosterone around, most of which is channelled into humour. Indeed I felt for the Chairman of SUS, Jim Aitken, who arrived at the relatively formal conference dinner without jacket and tie, and was subject to remorseless banter thereafter.

It's a curious thing being a chess player in the world of sport - a mixture of complete identification and complete alienation. You share the love of competition and enjoy the stories of upsets and comebacks. In fact, I sometimes feel chess could add itself to the list of sports and nobody would notice. But although very welcome, you remain an outsider, because nobody seems to think of you, even partially, as a sportsperson.

There is no malice in this position, it's just that chess is not in the sporting orbit of the UK, or The Anglosphere as a whole. I always remind SUS that chess is a fully fledged sport in most of the rest of the world, and I therefore present a constructive anomaly, encouraging them to clarify what they represent.

The defence of the status quo, at its most precise, is that the sine qua non of sport is structured competition decided by physical skill. You might argue that chess is broadly physical because mind and body are interdependent, and even, at a stretch, that games are decided by physiological skill (managing nervous energy). However, if the entry requirement for sport is strictly physical skill, then chess needs to look elsewhere for recognition.

The only weakness of this argument is that it seems arbitrary, and designed to reduce dissonance rather than defend a point of principle. Indeed, I believe the deeper rationale is related to the cultural role that sport plays in our society.

Sport functions as a form of popular culture and is therefore inherently non-intellectual. Sport suspends reality and generates excitement, thereby offering an escape from industrial tedium. If this is indeed how sport functions here, then chess does not fit comfortably into this realm, because to the uninitiated it looks too much like the kind of work that sport is designed to get away from!

In my talk, I therefore decided to dig a bit more deeply into the idea of sport , and spoke about its role in generating good stories, sport as a metaphor for war, religion and family, and sport and identity. In all of these cases, chess is very much a sport , but it will take patience and persistence to make people realise that physical skill is merely the main way in which sporting instincts are channelled, and by no means the essence of sport itself.

Norway 's Simen Agdestein is renowned for having represented Norway at football and chess . Fittingly, he now teaches both at a Sports Academy!

Tisdall,Jonathan - Agdestein,Simen
Norwegian Ch 2005
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Nf3 c5 5.g3 Ne4 6.Qd3 cxd4 7.Nxd4 Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 Nc5 9.Qe3 9.Qf3!? preventing the following, is more testing. 9...b6! 10.Bg2 Bb7 11.Bxb7 Nxb7 12.Qe4 Nc6! 13.Nxc6 dxc6 14.Ba3 14.Qxc6+ Qd7 leaves white's queenside gaping. 14...Qc7 15.Qd4 f6! 16.00 c5! Instructive pawn play snuffs out white's bishop. 17.Qe4 Qe7 18.Rad1 00 19.Bc1 Rad8 20.Bf4 Na5 21.h4 h6 22.Bc1 f5! 23.Qc2 Nxc4 24.e4 Qb7 25.exf5 Ne5! 26.f4 Nf3+ 27.Kf2 Nh2 28.Qe2 Nxf1 29.Qxe6+ Kh8 30.Rxf1 Rde8 01

PDF of slides for Jonathan's SUS talk.


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