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A sporting gambit by the chess players who say they are athletes

`When the American Bobby Fischer took on the Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972, their chess match was seen as a metaphor for the Cold War.

During their nail-biting battle, won by Fischer, the men were not just operating at the extreme limits of their mental abilities, it was also their physical endurance that was being tested.

According to the benchmark study carried out by Temple University in the United States, the players' heart-lung rates and blood pressure were comparable to those of competing boxers and footballers. Fischer himself declared: "I've got to stay in shape or it's all over."

But more than three decades later, chess is not accepted as a sport in Britain, the United States and many other parts of the world outside the former Soviet Union. Its secondary status as a mere pastime is particularly rankling in the wake of Sport England's decision last week to recognise darts as a sport - a pursuit which, despite a recent ban on big-match drinking, is synonymous in the popular imagination with cigarettes and beer guts.

However, the British Chess Federation (BCF), which represents Britain's 60,000 regular tournament players, is now set to play its killer move. It is petitioning to return chess to its rightful status as a sport. Before darts, the previous two sports to achieve the accolade in Britain were polocrosse - a fusion of polo and lacrosse - and harness racing in which competitors ride chariots pulled by horses.

And according to Roy Lawrence, marketing director of the BCF, his argument was readily accepted by the ancient Greeks who included much less demanding "intellectual sports" such as poetry reading in the original Olympics. But despite achieving exhibition status at Sydney in 2000, chess remains firmly out in the sporting cold.

"It is chronically under-funded - a situation which could be rapidly transformed if it were to achieve sports status. The allocation of central funds will make the sport thrive," said Mr Lawrence who has played chess for 40 years and admits to being "completely shattered" after a typical six-hour game.

While applauding the success of darts, which argued its case on an "indoor archery" ticket, gaining the support of the Sports minister, Richard Caborn, along the way, chess has been continually rebuffed in its search for central funding. The rejection is based on an obscure 1937 Act of Parliament, which demands that sport must be "physical", he said.

Top-class players, who can earn up to £500,000 a tournament, follow strict exercise regimes. The outgoing world champion, Gary Kasparov, credited his superior fitness for his successful cerebral struggles with his arch-opponent Anatoly Karpov in the 1980s.

Mr Lawrence said: "The campaign is going on all over the world. We are not able to access sponsorship because we are not taken seriously. Chess can be played by anyone - people with physical disabilities, the young who get into it through computer software, and the very old." Unlike almost every other sport, men and women compete at the same tournaments in chess.

Such inclusiveness is one of the main considerations when deciding the merits of a pursuit for sport status. According to Sport England, which judges cases, governing bodies must submit applications which show that "physical agility" is needed to play them. They must also prove there is no discrimination by sex, race or disability.

A spokesman for Sport England said yesterday it would consider an application from the BCF, although, like darts, it would more likely be eligible for tax breaks rather than cash.