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The Open File - What is chess?

  • NM Zug
  • | Oct 13, 2008

The Open File

by Life Master Mike Petersen (Zug)

What is chess?

How many times have you had the discussion about whether chess was a sport or a science or maybe even an art?  I know it has been discussed in multiple areas here at Chess.com.  However, the question never seems to get resolved, no matter for how long or with whom you discuss it.  As a matter of fact, I've noticed that the people who have played chess the longest always seem the least likely to have a definite opinion on the matter.  I think I know why that is.  I think it's because they've been exposed to so many facets of the game that they see a little of each of the facets in it.  But what do I mean by facets?  Press on, dear reader.

There have been many attempts to describe just what chess is.  Fischer said, "Chess is my life."  Lasker said simply, "Chess is a fight."  This is undoubtedly true.  But that seems too trite to me.  How come it is that chess can be so relaxing, yet still be a fight?  When did you last get into a fight you came away from feeling relaxed and satisfied?  There's also an old saying that goes, "Chess is a sea in which elephants may bathe and gnats may drink."  This is also true.  You can play a blitz game for fun, or sit for hours trying to work out the intricacies of a rook and pawn ending.  There is another old saying: "Chess, like love, has the power to make men happy."  Also true.  Then there is the simple description that chess is a game, nothing more, nothing less.  However, I don't agree with that.  So how is it that so many disparate statements can be descriptive of the game...and all be true at the same time?  Well, that's what I mean by the different facets of the game.

Of course, it's no wonder we can't describe chess very well.  We can't even get the most powerful computers in the world to play perfect chess.  We don't know if, with best play, chess should be a win for white or a draw or anything.  Lots of stories about chess have been built around just such a theme.  It gives rise to another description of the game, that chess is a mystery.  I don't think chess is a mystery, but sometimes it seems that way.

I'll tell you what I think chess is.  It's a multi-faceted game that can only be described in that manner.  In other words, different parts of the game can be described in different ways.  My definition of chess is as follows:

* The STUDY of chess is a science.
* The PLAYING of chess is a struggle, a fight, a sport.
* The APPRECIATION of chess, of a nice combination for example, is what makes chess an art.

So, chess is a science, a fight, a sport, and an art form, all at the same time.  It truly is a multi-faceted game.

Another thing.  Anyone who doesn't see all the facets of the game can never appreciate it for what it really is.  I feel sorry for those who don't take the time to study the game, for they miss the scientific portion.  I feel sorry for those who no longer play, because they miss the sport of it.  And I feel sorry for those who no longer go over the games of the grandmasters to appreciate the pure beauty of the game, because they miss the mystery of the game, the art of chess.  However, I feel the most sorry for those who never learned the game. 

For they have missed it all.


Click here for links to Mike's other work on Chess.com


  • 6 years ago


    I like your explanation. It covers all the "facets" well. Thank you for really thinking this through completely.

  • 6 years ago


    I think tthat chess is a mathematical puzzle, and I don't think it is a sport.

  • 7 years ago


    I agree with the author on the fact that one must have been exposed to the several facets of chess to truly appreciate it. At the same time, I think it’s impossible (unfortunately) to convey the “amazingness” of chess. But I guess that’s true for all games. Therefore some sarcasm/cynicism from some of the comments below is understandable.


    In regards to Qubit’s comment, I disagree that one’s opponent must have a mental lapse in order to allow for brilliancy. Everyone knows that the true level of a game is given by the quality of the loser’s moves. Otherwise, why would you think that Dr. Byrne vs Fischer is considered to be the game of the (XXth) century? There are no obvious bad moves from white’s part. They might not have been the best moves but only a Genius is able to see that the Queen sacrifice is the winning move!


    Anyway, in my opinion, the beauty of chess lays on the following question: how can such a game have so many facets, allow for so many possibilities, with such simple rules?

  • 7 years ago


    Chess is a game

    Like all games played by lots of people (Cricket, Football, Golf, Poker, Monopoly, Backgammon, pool/snooker ......) there will always be people who are passionate about it.  The people who are passionate about it turn the study of the game into a science, the playing of the game into an art, and the struggle of the game into a fight.

    As with all games, the lucky few who are talented can make a living from it.  The 99.99% of the rest of us play with all degrees of passion for the game.

    Chess can be compared to ballet.  To some people it is a gracious display of art played out on a grand stage.  To others it is a waste of time.

  • 7 years ago


    Thanks for your thoughts zug, great article.

    I think chess is fun.  Fun to study, fun to play, not fun to get beat by my 9 year old nephew (ok that's fun for him and my daughter and wife have fun mocking me so even that means the fun quotient is positive in total).

  • 7 years ago


    Chess is a 'board game'. I am sure everyone knows that. What varies is individual interpretations of the game. What you get out of chess is what you put into it ! Calling it as science or an art is simply naive !. I'd like to see a game by any grandmaster where he plays a trully beautiful game without any mistake by his opponent. What makes Kasparov-Topalov 1999 brilliant is that both players played those moves..If Topalov had played a better defense then it wouldn't have ranked as the best game of Kasparov...or if Topalov would've blundered his major pieces on 3-4 consecutive moves as well..it would've been considered as a mental lapse on his part than a brilliancy by Kasparov. Can a two-move checkmate  or the scholar's mate be called a 'brilliancy'? Something unlike in art [performing or fine arts] where Beethoven doesn't need a mental lapse by Mozart to create a brilliant symphony...and so on.

    To some, chess is more than just a game because they put in a lot of effort to win the game..the point being is that they get the rewards/frustrations of the intense energy and effort they put in a single game.

    That way, you can even view american football as a science, an artform and game all at the same time. For that matter any competitive game / sport ranging from sudoku, go-moku to rugby and cricket can be interpreted as more than 'just a game' ! It's just a perception which varies depending on the individual who indulges in that particular endeavor....

    In today's world where eastern mysticism is compared to particle physics, anything can be related to any other thing in the world. All it takes is a fertile imagination and free time!

  • 7 years ago


    I truly feel that this is a beautiful article that like GM Kasparov says in his book How Chess Imitates Life, "Chess is a sport, a science and an art" The summation of these part and what they mean in this article is perfectly accurate and refelcts how I feel about chess. Again, great read!


    -Tournament Director Christopher Weir.

  • 7 years ago


    I would agree with Robert Fischer, "Chess is life".


  • 7 years ago


    Chess, as well as life, is defined by its very lack of definition. :D

  • 7 years ago

    NM Zug

    To uritbon:

    Thanks for your thoughts.  For pure beauty and combinational gifts, study the games of Mikhail Tal.  He had the amazing ability to sacrifice at the most wonderfully unforgettable moments.  After going over some of his gems, you'll realize that chess isn't dead, yet.

    Regards, Mike Petersen

  • 7 years ago


    (some personal thoughts written at the small hours of the... day already...)

    i have thought about the question a couple of times, and came to about the same conclution, but then i thought, what does it take to play chess? what perception of the game is needed?

    sometimes chess seems so dark to me, as if in order to play beatifull chess you have to build a computer. people now play for the win (=money,title). and leave the study of the art of chess to the poor computers who analize games relentlesly, and a few who dedicate thier life to the cause and publish a book. it is as if chess has been solved before it has been solved, the peak elite of chess do not have any further knowledge about the concepts of chess than thier fellow GM's, only a better preformance and use of them. so now it's all up to who thinks of the moves in real time, because they are metaphoricaly laid before you to chose? is the art of finding the right move over? is the mystery blown away?

    but then i think about my chess and other players chess in it's evolving. and realise that it's still an art if you treat it like one, no man living can store the whole game of chess and the concepts that lead to win in his mind (i hope), the feeling of acomplishment when finding a good move is greater than the feeling when you beat your opponent in the end, so it doesn't matter if chess is so advanced today that double checking with computers is essetial for every move to be perfect,i truly believe that people will still enjoy the game at all levels, even when they will be no mach to the computer analysis and there will be a mathematical formola (i don't thinks it's that easy, but you never know) to solve a position..


    i hope i wrote it clearly enough so someone would understand what i'm going through, i love chess but hate it, it's fasinating but boring... i hope it never ends!

  • 7 years ago

    NM Zug

    To GreenLaser:

    You like to nitpick.  Okay, how about this...Lasker said that chess was a fight.  I, on the other hand, said that playing chess was a fight, but you decided to ignore that, and proceeded to attempt sarcasm, but based upon an incorrect premise that I agreed totally with Lasker.  I do not agree totally with Lasker, only in part. Lasker had one of the facets, but not all.

    Why not just read and enjoy?

    Regards, Mike Petersen

    PS - Thanks to all others for their comments.

  • 7 years ago

    NM GreenLaser

    Mike wrote, "Lasker said simply, 'Chess is a fight.'  This is undoubtedly true.  But that seems too trite to me.  How come it is that chess can be so relaxing, yet still be a fight?  When did you last get into a fight you came away from feeling relaxed and satisfied?" This seems to accept, but question Lasker. Yet, by adding, "The PLAYING of chess is a struggle, a fight, a sport," Mike still agrees with Lasker. Perhaps, describing what chess is is a fight or sport, or maybe a science, no, an art form. Oh! A mystery, no, not that. Yeah! Just another thread for us to weave a multi-colored Josephic wrapper.

  • 7 years ago


    Chess is about managing chaos!

  • 7 years ago


    Interesting topic. Nice article and well said.

  • 7 years ago


    Eloquently put. Cool

  • 7 years ago


    I agree, Chess is the GRANDEST game ever invented!!!

  • 7 years ago


    What an amazing articles! Truly GREAT

  • 7 years ago


    Wonderful...Simply Wonderful. Laughing

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