Why we play chess

0 | Chess Event Coverage
Charles DarwinWhy do we play chess at all? Why bother? Today is an exceptionally good day to ask yourself that question. You'll probably answer: ' Because I like it!' Well, yes, but that was not the kind of 'why' I meant. Why do people have sex? Because they like it - doh! But why do they like it? This is the question Charles Darwin, who was born exactly 200 years ago today, tried (and succeeded) answering. Does his explanation also apply to chess?

A Darwinian explanation (rather simplified, of course) for why people like sex would run something like this: Liking sex is an heritable trait. People who have this trait in their genes tend to have more sex than people who don't. People who have more sex are more likely to reproduce and to have offspring. And so, over the generations, the trait for liking sex gets distributed over the population. In the long run, people who don't like sex simply don't survive.

So why do we play chess so passionately, sometimes even obsessively? Could it be because playing chess, like liking sex, offers some sort of survival chances? This may sound silly, but if we assume that playing chess is a pretty decent indication of 'mental fitness', it might be worth taking the point of view seriously. After all, Darwin's theory of sexual selection predicts that potential mates from the other sex will likely select mates who display certain favourable traits, such as mental fitness. Of course, liking chess itself can never have evolved, because the game simply isn't old enough, but figuring things out, solving problems and trying to out-smart others are definitely evolved traits.

Arianne Caioli

Arianne Caoili, the subject of an off-the-board GM fight

Darwin's theory also predicts how potential mates will combat each other for supremacy and, ultimately, possession of the other sex. We can all understand the combat that takes place on the chess board, but sometimes the theory works quite literally. During the 2006 Turin Olympiad, two Grandmasters got into an actual fight over a woman, prompting The Guardian to comment on the nature of chess as 'an essentially Darwinian struggle for power and sexual supremacy'. (Actually, a strictly chess-related struggle was apparently not sufficient to establish just that.)

But while strong chess players have obvious advantages over weaker ones, don't all chess players have in fact less 'survival chances' than non-chess players? Or less chances to have sex, anyway? As Dutch GM Karel van der Weide once wrote (in a piece called Chess players don't get laid): "the occupation of professional chess player has a more negative image than other professions".

The title of Van der Weide's article seems to imply that some people don't get laid because they are chess players. This is indeed a commonly heard complaint in the chess world. But from a Darwinian point of view, it really makes little sense. Whatever happened to the advantages of being mentally fit? Which species has the (relatively) largest brain size in the animal kingdom? Aren't humans supposed to be smart, rather than just muscled?

Assuming Darwin's theory is correct, we would actually expect the following: chess => mental fitness => more sex. So we seem to have a paradox. Perhaps we've been looking at the problem the wrong way. Suppose we switch cause and effect in Van der Weide's hypothesis? People who don't get laid, are chess players... Or rather: people who don't get laid, become (or stay) chess players hoping that things will change for the better! What if they somehow regard chess as a way - perhaps the only way - to attract potential partners? This echoes the famous chess aphorism that a woman who can't find a man can always decide to start playing chess: success is guaranteed. We may have to consider the possibility that this goes for some men, too.

But isn't playing chess an awfully ineffective way to attract mates? After all, chess is a very difficult game, it's extremely time-consuming, you neglect all other things in life and you end up with big glasses from looking at the computer screen for too long - and worst of all, losing is very bad for your ego. Here, too, the theory of evolution has an explanation. According to the so-called Handicap Principle, a signal must be costly to "accurately advertise a trait of relevance to an individual". In other words, it's precisely because chess is such an all-consuming hobby that it might be attractive in the first place! According to Wikipedia,
Jared Diamond has proposed that certain risky human behaviours, such as bungee jumping, may be expressions of instincts that have evolved through the operation of the handicap principle.

A peacock with its tail spread out

Wouldn't this explain why the biggest nerds are also the biggest chess-addicts? They're desperately trying to show how 'handicapped' they really are! Chess as a form of bungee-jumping. The sad thing for the chess players, of course, is that nobody notices.

Contrary to a the tail of a peacock (which is a great example of the handicap principle), the fact that you're a chess player is sadly not something that immediately strikes the eye. That's why chess players should not be ashamed of their hobby - they should be shouting it out on the streets! And it might just work. Jort Kelder, a famous Dutch tv-host and renowned womanizer, has often proclaimed his tremendous admiration for chess players.

Pay attention, chess nerds of the world! You should be proud to be a chess player, not embarrassed! Whatever others may say, you've got Darwin to prove it.
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