Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Great Debate - Goldowsky Responds

I'd like to thank Dennis Monokroussos for perpetuating our debate on whether or not chess is a sport. While he's been arguing "no", I've been taking the stance that it is.

For the better part of the past week, I've been stuck a few miles from the middle of nowhere in Fairbanks, Alaska (on business), without a personal internet connection. (You can find chess in Fairbanks, but only if you head on over to the University on Saturday afternoon, which I couldn't do.) I feared that people might interpret my lack of response to Monokroussos' impressive debating skills and his super-tight argument as agreement. But this is not so! His debating skills are impressive, but his argument is not, and I'm back to defend my position. Heck, I needed something to think about during my 28 hours of travel time.

To recap our debate so far: Monokroussos argued in his post that chess is not a sport because, in his words, "...it's a necessary condition of some activity's being a sport that it has an irreducibly physical component." This, all sane non-steroid-taking chess players agree, chess does not have. However, I argued in my first post that any activity CAN be defined as a sport if it satisfies the jointly sufficient condition that its practitioners rely on both timing and pattern recognition for success. Monokroussos improved on this definition by adding to it the jointly sufficient condition that the activity be competitive. (This would automatically leave out driving to the store, walking to the bus stop, brushing your teeth, cooking for dinner, playing chess with your grandma, etc...) I agree with this improvement, and will also add an additional jointly sufficient condition that success be determined without any intrinsic luck within the rules of competition.

To summarize, here is my definition of what a sport is. To be a sport, an activity must satisfy all four of these jointly sufficient conditions:
  1. Success is based on the practitioner's pattern recognition abilities.
  2. Success is based on the practitioner's timing of their actions.
  3. The activity must be competitive.
  4. Luck is not inherent within the rules of competition.
Based on this new definition (minus the luck requirement), Monokroussos went on to state that he remained skeptical about certain activities being a sport: mainly the activities of writing poetry, making music, and cooking.

OK, now here's my argument against Monokroussos': Monokroussos just plainly says, "I remain skeptical about [these activities being a sport]," without giving much reason why. In my mind, these activities, if they are performed in a competitive environment, no matter how unpopular this may seem, ARE sports. This may seem weird, but if one creates a definition, one must stick to it, no matter what society might think. Poetry competitions represent the sport of poetry, most poets going unpublished their entire lives. The TV show American Idol represents the sport of making music. Iron Chef (on the Food channel) represents the sport of cooking. Competitive poetry can be classified as a mental sport, and American Idol and Iron Chef are physical sports just as valid as any other. In each of these activities there is a set of rules, competition, pattern recognition, and timing requirements. And the fact that the competition is based on subjective judges does not disqualify these activities as sports, either -- figure skating and gymnastics are based on subjective judges, and nobody would deny their sports status.

Monokroussos' second argument was that computers (or a super being) play (or could play) chess without pattern recognition, using a purely brute-force approach. I say that even a brute-force computer program requires pattern recognition. I can easily think of two reasons for this off the top of my head:
  1. IF/THEN statements in computer code are pure pattern recognition. (If the computer sees the conditional, THEN do this, etc.; it must recognize the conditional.)
  2. Number crunching binary data IS pure pattern recognition, too. The computer must recognize the mathematical operations to perform for each line of code. The required operations are directly related to the chess positions on the board.
In sum, both of Monokroussos' arguments need to be strengthened for me to change my mind. I still believe that any activity requiring pattern recognition, timing, and competitiveness (without luck), can be labeled as a sport. Chess, in my mind, is a mental sport. An activity that satisfies Monokroussos' "physical component" is labeled in my mind as a "physical sport". My definition of sport is a much broader definition than Monokroussos', one that can be divided into separate mental and physical sub-categories. I will be happy to settle the debate on these terms.

Finally, in case you're wondering, I believe that the Olympics should be limited to physical sports.

Posted by Howard Goldowsky

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