Is chess more like tennis or boxing ?

  07/10/2004

  
This question came up during the Topalov vs. Kasmidzhanov game being broadcasted by ICC. Someone said, “Spassky says chess is like tennis.” It's well known that Spassky loves to play tennis; he did so during his world championship match in 1972. 

   
Chess does have things in common with tennis. However I think chess is more closely related to boxing. Well, all three can be long, intense wars of attrition. Only boxing and chess can have quick knockouts, tennis games must go the distance. All involve a mano a mano match up. Its just you against your opponent. All can involve long term and short term planning. All can involve exploitation of weakness and strength. Tennis matches are always decisive, where as  chess and boxing matches can end in a draw. 

   The issue that separates tennis from chess and boxing is that in tennis it is never really hopeless.  I recall the famous 1984 French open finals match between John McEnroe vs. Ivan Lendle. McEnroe was up 6-3, 6-2. This is as hopeless as it gets in tennis. However Lendle rallied back to win the match 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 5-7, 5-7. In tennis hopelessness is only a state of mind. In chess and boxing positions can be hopeless. 

    With chess if you are down material and have no initiative, you can’t win. As with boxing, if you are hopelessly behind on points in the later rounds and you are not a knockout puncher, its over. It can also be hopeless if you have taken a beating over 10 rounds and you have no energy or strength to initiate a lethal attack. Tennis is a game of scoring points, winning games, and winning sets. Chess only scores points when the game ends.

   The chess game itself is not about scoring points, its about  accumulating advantages. These advantages can be traded for other advantages. When enough advantages are accumulated a game can become decisive. With tennis you start a new after each point. What you did in prior points does not have to affect your play. You start fresh with each point. If you are losing, all you have to do is player better than your opponent and you can win. With tennis past errors or mistakes can be forgotten and over come. This is not the case with chess and boxing, you are limited in chess by your prior moves. Your game history determines what you can do in the future. Past errors are lasting and impact the course of the game.

    In boxing mistakes have a lasting effect also, they can lead to swollen or cut eyes and bloody noses. Poor visibility or impaired breathing is lasting and impacts the ability of the boxer to attack and defend. With Tennis only a mistake in the last game of the last set of the match is catastrophic. However with chess and boxing catastrophic mistakes can happen at any moment, regardless of who’s winning or losing.
   
   In chess you have the one move blunder, like hanging your queen. In boxing you have the one punch knockout. In tennis momentary lack of concentration does not lead to catastrophic loss, however in boxing and chess one lapse of concentration can be deadly.   Tennis does not have a time factor, the match ends when 3 sets are won. With chess and boxing, time is a factor. Classical chess games are played with the following time controls 40 moves in 2.5 hours.    

   With boxing, a match consists of 12 3-minute rounds.  In tennis outside issues have impact on the game: the balls, the court surface, the wind, and the weather. With chess and boxing you have none of those elements. It’s just you and your opponent. Its just about strength and weakness. In chess and boxing you have no one to blame but your self.

       What separates chess from tennis and boxing is that the two chess combatants decide the intense struggle. In chess there is far less interference between outside officials. With tennis you have the lines judges who make calls, in boxing you have the referees and judges.

    Boxing is a violent sport, your goal is to crush your opponent physically. Chess is also a violent sport. Bobby Fischer said it best "chess is war over the board. The object is to crush your opponents mind." Boxing strategy involves hitting your opponents with punches and slipping and ducking your opponents punches. Bobby Fischer says "Chess is a matter of delicate judgment,  knowing when to punch and how to duck." 

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