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Chess: Intellectual Pursuit or Just Another Board Game?

17301088151_a766008371_hIf you’ve been following the topic of "moral decay" (or as it should be called, railing against innocuous activities) then you’ve probably read that old chestnut about chess being bad for you.

As the myth goes, back in 1859 an unnamed pundit railed against chess in Scientific American, calling it "a mere amusement of a very inferior character" and questioning whether it has any benefit. That article been roundly mocked by people who misinterpreted the article as saying that whch will destroy your mind, lead to moral degeneracy, and so on, but that’s not why I am bringing it up today.

Here’s my question for you: Have you read the original article, and not just the second-hand and third-hand ridicule?

From what I have seen, some people have only read the commentary and not the original article, and an even larger number have only heard about the idea but never read about it even second-hand. "Chess is bad for you" has almost become a meme online, a common element of folklore, and that is regrettable because the article says so much more than that.

For your reading pleasure, I have embedded the article below (you can also find it at Google Books).

DCF 1.0

My takeaway is that the article criticizes chess not for causing moral decay. Instead, it questions the pedestal chess has been placed on. This pastime is now highly regarded as an intellectual pursuit, but the article asks us whether it deserves that status.

What sets chess apart from other board games? Is it really more than an intellectual pursuit than, say, Monopoly?

Its proponents will tell you that chess can be used as an educational tool, one which benefits both children and adults. That may be true, but how does that differ from other board games?

And just so we’re on the same page, I’m not arguing that anyone should or should not play the game; your hobbies are your business. I’m asking you to question the underlying paradigm which assumes that chess is an intellectual pursuit.

Does it really deserve its special status among board games, or is that status conferred through the unspoken assumption that chess is special?

I want to hear what you think.



The achievements of our young countryman, Paul Morphy, in vanquishing the most distinguished chess players of Europe, have excited in our people a very pardonable degree of national pride; hence they have exhibited a strong exultant feeling in welcoming him back to his native land as the Chess Champion of the World. He has been received with high demonstrations in several cities, and public testimonials of great value have been presented to him; while at the same time poets have sung, and sages have delivered orations in his praise. At some of these exhibitions there was a considerable display of “Buncombe,” especially at the one held in Boston, where some of our scientific friends rather overdid the thing by their adulations; yet all this might be overlooked if such influences extended no further than the time and place when and where these effusions were uttered. But we regret to state that this is not the case, for a pernicious excitement to learn and play chess has spread all over the country, and numerous clubs for practicing this game have been formed in cities and villages. Why should we regret this? it may be asked. We answer, chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements, while at the same time it affords no benefit whatever to the body.

Chess has acquired a high reputation as being a means to discipline the mind, because it requires a strong memory and peculiar powers of combination. It is also generally believed that skill in playing it affords evidence of a superior intellect. These opinions, we believe, are exceedingly erroneous. Napoleon the Great, who had a great passion for playing chess, was often beaten by a rough grocer in St. Helena. Neither Shakespeare, Milton, Newton, nor any of the great ones of the earth, acquired proficiency in chess-playing. Those who have become the most renowned players seem to have been endowed with a peculiar intuitive faculty for making the right moves, while at the same time they seem to have possessed very ordinary faculties for other purposes. A game of chess does not add a single new fact to the mind; it does not excite a single beautiful thought; nor does it serve a single purpose for polishing and improving the nobler faculties.

Persons engaged in sedentary occupations should never practice this cheerless game; they require out-door exercises for recreation—not this sort of mental gladiatorship. Those who are engaged in mental pursuits should avoid a chess-board as they would an adder’s nest, because chess misdirects and exhausts their intellectual energies. Rather let them dance, sing, play ball, perform gymnastics, roam in the woods or by the sea shore, than play chess. It is a game which no man who depends on his trade, business or profession can afford to waste time in practicing; it is an amusement—and a very unprofitable one—which the independently wealthy alone can afford time to lose in its pursuit. As there can be no great proficiency in this intricate game without long-continued practice, which demands a great deal of time, no young man who designs to be useful in the world can prosecute it without danger to his best interests. A young gentleman of our acquaintance, who had become a somewhat skillful player, recently pushed the chess-board from him at the end of a game, declaring, “I have wasted too much time upon it already; I can not afford to do this any longer; this is my last game.’ We recommend his resolution to all those who have been foolishly led away by the present chess-excitement, as skill in this game is neither a useful nor graceful accomplishment.

images by Strocchileoglenn_gCristian Bodnar

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Fjtorres May 18, 2016 um 6:11 pm

As someone who snatched pawns from time to time I would say that chess does teach things no other board game does but that the value of those skills–analysis, looking ahead, advanced planning–to people will depend on their perception of the value of those problem solving skills.

People who go through life as purely short-term tactical thinkers will derive no value from the lessons of Chess. For example, I would feel comfortable guessing most publishing execs aren’t chess experts. Or even dabblers. 😉

Frank May 18, 2016 um 6:46 pm

I don’t care for Chess, but it teaches logic by requiring one to follow precise rules, and it takes some creativity to make moves to try to confuse your opponent to where you are going to attack.
Also, it took many years for man to create a computer program (Deep Blue) that could beat the world’s best chess player.

Jason van Gumster May 19, 2016 um 2:54 pm

The last paragraph of that article could be redrafted to speak about modern video games with very few changes. I don’t know if that means chess should be considered a less intellectual pursuit or if video games are destined to be held in the esteem that chess is (or neither of those possibilities)… but it *is* interesting to consider.

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