Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Chess Takes a Lot More Than Just Knowing How the Pieces Move

Posted on April 17, 2018 by Vineet Maheshwari

Chess-moveWhenever we read about sports we find ourselves reading about the muscular, physical sports like soccer, football, basketball and the many others.  We almost never read about chess in the context of sport.

One obvious reason is that Americans don’t like chess all that much.  The second is that most people don’t see chess as sport.  Here we’ll try to dissuade dear reader from both attitudes.  Chess is indeed a sport and one that has endless potential for enjoyment.

Brain Food

There are by now thousands of articles that extol playing intellectual games to stimulate the brain.  Anyone who has tried a difficult Sudoku has realized that sometimes the next move may come after an analysis that runs to several steps.  How many times have we given up on a line of thought because it was too complex?

Chess may very well be the mother of all brain foods.  After the first few moves, which admittedly have been catalogued for decades, even though there are 318 billion possible ways to play just the first four moves—more than the possible permutations in blackjack which is considered the primary intellectual online casino game—the permutations get ridiculously complicated.  Even if you play chess at far less than master level, if you are at all competitive, you’ll want to see the “best” move.  Even masters often miss the best move because its value is hidden so deep within the game that it’s hard to find.

In chess, small advantages can be won move by move realizing a more powerful attack than the opponent’s defense.  But small advantages are hard to find and any move that doesn’t result in a small advantage may very well give the overall advantage to the opponent.

Chess is a three-dimensional game.  In this sense it is exactly like so many other games where eye-hand coordination goes with the ability to see the field or court in three dimensions.  The most famous ice hockey layer of our time, Wayne Gretzky, was taught by his father to go not where the puck was but where the puck was going.  That means, see the rink in three dimensions and go where the puck will be in the next second or two.

Gretzky’s ability to see hockey in three dimensions has revolutionized the game.


At the highest level, chess requires tremendous physical strength and stamina.  It is not the strength needed to win a weightlifting contest or the stamina to run a marathon.  It is the strength and stamina to sit still for several hours, looking over the board, continuously making calculations, anticipating the opponent’s next move, and so on.

This requires tremendous strength and stamina.  Chess at this level is exhausting.  Many tournaments have been lost because a leader “ran out of steam”.  While average players can play one game and go on to something easier, chess masters in a tournament have to keep up their cognitive skill for two or more weeks in a row.

All Top Athletes Need Mental Strength

There is a famous clip from game 7 of the 2016 World Series in which a Cub superstar went to the team’s “pater familias” and said that he was having a very hard time keeping his emotions under control.  The veteran player, who had won championships with other teams, simply told him that it would get a lot more difficult before it got easier.

One of the unrecognized sporting aspects of chess is exactly this: it requires tremendous emotional strength to play chess at a high level.  The game is slow and long, but the thought processes are wild and fast!

Working Out

Chess players must prepare for a tournament in two ways.  The obvious way is to study chess relentlessly.  If they normally devote eight hours a day to chess, in preparation for a tournament, they might devote twelve hours a day.

They have to study the inclinations of everyone they’ll play against.  The other players in the tournament will also be masters and even the smallest misstep could result in a loss in a game and the loss of the tournament.

For want of a better move an advantage was lost; for want of the advantage, a game was lost; for want of a single game, a tournament was lost.

Real Sport Exercise

Chess players must also work out like any other athlete in any other sport as they get ready to play in a championship tournament.  Working out makes chess players stronger from breath to breath and keeps them mentally alert throughout each game.

Einstein on Chess

Albert Einstein was famous for his “mind experiments”.  Such deep thought led to the theory of relativity.  Einstein was for a time very good friends with the world chess champion.  Someone asked Einstein if he liked to play chess to relax after work.  Einstein replied: “When I get through work I don’t want anything which requires the working of the mind.”  No doubt, Einstein wouldn’t tackle killer Sudoku either!


The term “rookies” for first year players or initiates comes from the chess piece called the rook.  Because the rooks are placed at each end of one’s rows of pieces, it is the last to be brought into the action.  The term “rookie” originally meant “good enough to be on the team but last to be used”.

Mental Health for the Masses

Psychologists and neuro-scientists believe chess can be a tool to keep the mind nimble and to ward off the advent of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.  Some claim that chess can increase intelligence but that has never been proven.

It is clear, however, that solving complex problems and learning how to think out of the box are excellent brain exercises that keep our brains young even as running, swimming, and the like keep our bodies healthy.

So, chess can certainly take its place in the pantheon of great sports.

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