Is chess a sport? Calories burnt at Isle of Man reignite question

By Leon Watson / On / In Chess news, Chess science

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Is chess a sport? An interesting experiment taking place in the chess world right now, on whether playing chess can burn calories, might provide an answer.

The organisers of the 2018 Isle of Man International, which is on this week, have offered competitors the chance to have their heart rates monitored during games.

During Monday’s round, a handful took them up on it.

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As the event’s photographer FM Maria Emelianovva noted, the stress of chess was making Russian GM Mikhail Antipov‘s heart pump the most.

We all know chess can feel energy-sapping, but Antipov’s heart rate jumped to a point where he burned a pretty impressive 560 calories in just two hours. That’s about as many as are in a large Belgian waffle with maple syrup (yum) – lost from two hours sitting down.

Given that it takes roughly an hour of walking at 3.5 mph to burn 560 calories, GM Antipov burned calories at a rate that is about the same as what is normally considered moderate activity.

Chess a slimming aid? Surely not

That is not really enough weight loss to interest slimmers –  so playing chess is not going to help you drop a dress size. But it is certainly something.

Antipov’s opponent, Super GM Hikaru Nakamura, also agreed to wear one and at one point his heart rate jumped to 130 beats/minute. For those interested, the match ended in a draw.

Is chess a sport? For MVL the answer is yes
Is chess a sport? For MVL the answer is yes

GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – a player well known for having a rigorous fitness regime – was also in the 80s for most of the day.

“Well I was not in time trouble today, probably that helped!” Vachier-Lagrave said in a post-match interview.

Is chess a sport – or an activity?

While this is not exactly scientific, it has long been thought that chess does have some physical benefit and that a fit body aids a fit mind and vice versa.

A famous – but extreme – example is of chess being physically demanding is the epic first title bout between the Russian champion Anatoly Karpov and the youthful upstart Garry Kasparov, which kicked off in September 1984.

Karpov in 1977. Source: Dutch National Archives.

The match lasted nearly five months before it was halted with no winner declared on the grounds that both were exhausted. Karpov, who was left visibly drained, had lost 8kg.

That is – unfortunately for some – not going to happen at the Isle of Man.

Physical activity is key

But while having heart rate monitors can be considered just a bit of fun – or for the cynics among us probably just a publicity stunt – the results do have some interest, particularly for players in the UK, because of the constant question “is chess a sport?”

While many countries around the world, and importantly the International Olympic Committee, do consider chess a sport, in England – where I live – there isn’t that recognition.

That is important mainly for one reason: if chess is officially recognised as a sport it can attract government funding.

Chess in England needs this. The English game used to get grants, and a tax exemption bona fide sports like football and rugby enjoy, but now it does not and it is suffering.

Currently, Sport England, the body that handles government and National Lottery funding, recognises around 100 sports but refuses to include chess or other “mindsports” such as bridge or the ancient Chinese game go because they don’t have a “physical component”.

The campaign to redefine chess

However, there is a growing campaign to get chess redefined from a game, or mental activity, to a sport led by largely Chess in Schools and Communities, a charity that helps support and grow the game at junior level.

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Several attempts have been made through official channels to change this view and the question has been tested in the courts, which included a judicial review. But so far the UK government and its agency have refused to budge.

But if chess can be shown to be a physical activity that burns calories, that could change matters – or at least bolster the argument. Particularly because the tests are taking place in the UK.

Whether that is a good thing, of course, is another question.

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