2012 Olympics: Chess should be included – for players and parents

Chess isn't included in the list of events for the 2012 Olympics, though as an officially-recognized sport, it should be. Like other sports, chess attracts driven players and supportive parents to world competitions.

Courtesy of Susan Polgar
Chess, though not part of the 2012 Olympics, draws driven players to the World Chess Olympiad. Here, five-time gold medal chess player Susan Polgar, center, and her son Tommy talk with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Basketball Hall-of-Famer and chess player.

This blog was the subject of a Wisconsin Public Radio show on the benefits, history, and cultural significance of chess. Hear the discussion with blogger Lisa Suhay and Susan Polgar, the chess grandmaster and winner of four Women’s World Chess Championships at WPR.

Of all the unusual sports that should be included in the 2012 Olympics, chess actually has a legitimate claim: This year marks the 85th anniversary of chess being an officially recognized body of sport by the International Olympic Committee.

That's right. Chess is a sport, complete with an Olympiad and chess parents.

Any chess parent (me included) will talk your ear off about the benefits of exercising the mind and how curling, the Winter Olympics sport, is just chess on ice. With any sport, you need to have tactics, critical thinking, and quick mental reflexes in play.

The World Chess Olympiad is bigger than the Winter Olympics but smaller than the summer Games in terms of number of nations participating. About 160 nations are expected for the Chess Olympiad set to take place in Istanbul, Turkey, on August 27. The youngest competitor is 10 years old.

The first official Olympiad was held in London in 1927. It was intended for inclusion in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, but was not due to difficulties distinguishing between amateur and professional players. So while chess is an IOC recognized sport, the Olympiads have been held separately for the past several decades. During the Bejing Olympics in 2008, there was a failed attempt to merge the games.

Personally, I think the only real obstacle to chess being part of the the Olympic Games is the ability of network TV to cope with coverage and sponsorship. Bob Costas would be learning how to banter about the Alekhine defense and how there's only one woman on the board and she's the most powerful piece. By the way, I would pay to watch this.

I called my friend Susan Polgar, a five-time Olympic chess champion with 10 medals (five gold, four silver, and one bronze), to ask her if chess parents are as intense as other sports parents. Ms. Polgar won her first world title at age 12 and an Olympic gold in 1988 when she was 19. She won her last gold in 2004 at 35. She is undefeated in Olympic competition.

Zsuzsanna Polgár is a Hungarian-American chess player, who was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. She lived in New York for 13 years, Texas for five years, and now lives in St. Louis, Mo., where she heads the chess program at Webster University.

Polgar has seen the sport from both athlete and parent perspectives. She is both the mother of chess-playing sons and daughter to parents who raised her and her two sisters to be champions.

“I think there are two types of parents in any sport,” Polgar said. “Those who recognize the child's potential and support the child wholeheartedly, sacrificing for the child's dream. Then there are the parents who try to live out their own unfulfilled dreams, through their children. Both of my parents recognized our potential, and they also sacrificed everything for us to succeed.”

I always thought of chess as an elitist game until I began working with kids in a free inner-city chess program for low-income and at-risk children. The program opened doors to what has been an exclusive sport, making it accessible to all children. I have seen the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Kids gather around and cheer in team events called "bughouse chess."

We need a hundred more Maurice Ashleys (the first African-American grandmaster) and way more female players on the boards. Chess can take kids to all the great destinations where other sports go, plus there are also opportunities for different scholarships.

Chess players and athletes aren't as separate as you may think. In fact, some of the biggest names in sport also have game in chess including NBA past and present stars such as Kobe Bryant, the late Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Danny Ainge, Latrell Sprewell, Steve Smith and Jason Williams. And don’t forget former and current tennis players Boris Becker, Anna Kournikova, John McEnroe, Roger Federer, Jennifer Capriati, and Ivan Lendl. There are also professional sports coaches who support or have supported chess: Rick Carlisle of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, former NBA head coach Flip Saunders, and the late Bill Walsh of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.

Harkening back to chess parents, Queen Elizabeth II is an avid player. Perhaps Her Majesty will demonstrate the power of her position both on and off the board by decreeing that the Olympiads merge in future?

It would certainly put Great Britain and many other nations on the medal stand with greater frequency.

What do you say Madam, shall the games begin?

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