Competitive chess is recognised as a sport in a majority of countries in the world, usually classified as a mind sport alongside bridge.
In the UK – as in most Anglo countries – the definition of sport concentrates on physical activity rather than competition, leading to model plane flying, folk dancing and yoga being sports in England, whereas chess and bridge, recognised by the International Olympic Committee in 1999, are excluded.
In Australia, chess was regarded as a sport by the Australian Sports Commission throughout much of the 1980s but, after deregistration due to a lack of professionalism by the national chess body of the time, subsequent efforts to regain the status of a sport have been rebuffed.
For two years during that period, the Australian Chess Federation received funding from the Federal Government but when two sets of audited accounts were submitted by the ACF for a single year – one evidently fabricated, then withdrawn and substituted by one with correct figures – payments abruptly stopped.
In the ensuing 30 years, even gaining a hearing from the national government has become difficult. The lower media profile of chess after the Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov era has encouraged a view that chess is a niche activity, even as the number of junior players exploded in Australia. (When a survey of organised sports played by children aged 5-14 chess would likely have been ranked as high as third – but of course because of the Australian attitude to chess as a sport it was not included in the survey.)
However an ongoing legal case in England may establish a precedent which may benefit chess and bridge in many Anglo countries.
The UK bridge authorities challenged Sport England’s refusal to recognise chess as a ‘mind sport’ and a High Court ruling in April decided that the case should go forward.
Justice Mostyn dismissed Sport England’s argument that bridge was no more a sporting activity than “sitting at home reading a book.”
Mostyn responded that bridge’s claim “is at least arguable because the brain is a muscle.”
In England, extensive lottery funding as well as tax advantages depend on the definition of sport and last month, England’s tax tribunal referred the case to the European Court of Justice to clarify whether bridge should qualify for the tax exemption given to sports. The English Chess Federation has recently decided to join bridge as a party in the case.
On a separate track, the UK Charities Commission – which deals only with amateur sport – has recognised chess and bridge because ‘Sports promote health by involving physical or mental skill or exertion’.
Most pundits are expecting Sports England to eventually win the main case, on the basis of 1937 laws which say that sport has to contain physical activity. (European law is similar, which was a significant reason for the German government to end it’s 130,000 Euro grant for the German Chess Federation. After four decades of funding chess as a non-Olympic sport, the Government decided – against the advice of one of its own committees – to remove all funding because the lack of physical activity rendered chess not a sport.)
In Australia, the Australian Sports Commission definition of sport ‘requires physical exertion and/or physical skill’ which leaves the door open for chess given that it requires as much physical exertion – and much more mental exertion – than many sports accepted by the ASC.
However, with no avenue to make that case, it will probably take a landmark legal win in a country such as England for the Australian Sports Commission and the Federal Government to reconsider their current antipathy to ‘mind sports’.