Chess

ON WEDNESDAY, the minister for sport, Tony Banks, answered readers' questions in this section of the paper, including: "Why do you think chess should be made a recognised

sport?" To which he replied: "Because it is already recognised in most of the European Union, and because we are very good at it."

This is music to the ears of a community that has always fallen between the two stools of sport and arts. Despite welcome funding for many years from the Department of Education and Science (alias the Department of National Heritage and latterly the Department for Culture Media and Sport) - while our counterparts in Scotland and Wales get their support from the Scottish and Welsh Offices - this uncertain identity has denied chess access to other sources of funding.

The National Lottery, for example, has funds earmarked both for "Heritage" and to support emerging sportsmen; but we qualify as neither. Moreover, entry fees for all competitions, even including events for the youngest juniors, are subject to VAT,

There is a concerted campaign at the moment to change the status of the game. The Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons this evening, to be opened by Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, will discuss the matter. And Gary Kasparov himself is confidently expected to attend a reception at the House of Commons on 25 March, hosted by Dr Harris and Charlotte Atkins (Labour, Staffordshire Moorlands) and organised by the British Chess Federation and the portable chess computer manufacturers Saitek, sponsors of the England Junior squad, to announce "serious support for a serious sport".

For all this heavyweight approval, you may still be wondering why on earth an activity as apparently sedentary as chess should become a sport.

This is partly a question of definition. The relevant entry in my Chambers Dictionary is "a game, especially one involving bodily exercise." Certainly chess is what we now call a "mind sport" . But there is also a considerable physical component, especially at a high level.

In tournament play, you can have a pulse of well over 100 for a whole session of up to seven hours; and in the moments of greatest stress the tension can become almost uncontrollable, though in bad time trouble our chess reflexes are like a sprinter's.

The single combat of match play is even worse. During the week-and-a- half of our second match in 1991 - which he won by a whisker - Nigel Short lost a stone! It's not surprising, then, that the majority of the world's very top players pay great attention not only to their technical chess preparation, but also to their physical condition.

In the end, it isn't even a question of linguistic niceties, but rather of simple common sense. It's surely only right that, like most of the rest of the world, and the vast majority of members of the European Union, we too should provide proper support for an activity that can be played by the very young and the very old, discharges aggression in a safe and acceptable manner, fosters concentration, and, above all, we are exceptionally good at.

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