Between The Horns: Forgotten games

Written by | May 23, 2012

I walked through Pioneer Square last week on a beautiful spring day and saw a group of people playing chess. They were mostly older men, many of who wore white socks pulled up to their calves, hiding, I suspect, the varicose veins that come with age. As I watched pawns advancing, kings castling, and knights and bishops swapping blows, I asked myself: What defines a sport?

Sure, the people playing chess in front of me weren’t athletic. They were a bit nerdy, a bit overweight and a bit old, but they were still competing, still winning and still losing. Chess may not require any physical prowess, unless you count sitting for long hours toilsome, but it does require tactics and skill.

Do all sports have to involve physical activity? A quick Google search gives me this definition of a sport: “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others.” I guess by this definition, chess isn’t a sport. It’s not physically taxing enough.

Chess remains only a game. Another quick stroll down Google lane gives me this definition of a game: “A form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength or luck.”

Suddenly, the “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares” logic jumps into my mind. All sports are games but not all games are sports?

This distinction is responsible for creating another category of sports: mind sports, which encompass games such as backgammon, mahjong and Renju. But the mind sports aren’t snobs. They don’t discriminate. Card games like poker, bridge and Magic are included, and since 1991 there has even been a World Memory Championship, with categories such as one-hour numbers, five-minute numbers, and names and faces.

The first winner of the World Memory Championship was British mnemonist Dominic O’Brien. He now holds eight memory championships and is the inventor of the mnemonic Dominic system, which is used to remember sequences of numbers. It must work. After all, O’Brien got in the Guinness Book of Records in 2002 after he memorized a random sequence of 2,808 playing cards―(54 packs). He looked at each card only once and recalled the sequence with only eight errors.

Impressive, but is competitive memorization a sport? To promote games where the mental component outweighs the physical, the Mind Sports Olympaid was formed, the first of which was held in 1997 in London. Thousands of competitors from almost 100 countries gather at the MSO each year to compete in more than 100 games, from Abalone to Zatre. What the Olympics are to skiing, curling, pole vaulting and ping-pong—excuse me, table tennis—the MSO is to cribbage, scrabble, speed reading and Mancala.

People, it seems, will compete at anything. As the term draws to a close and most of the classic sports are put on hold for the summer, let’s not forget about our other sports options, the ones you don’t have to be bulging with muscle or quick as lightening to play. A desire to compete makes an athlete. A clearly defined winner and loser makes a sport. I think that’s the real definition.

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