31 August 2012

Chess vs. Tennis - sporting lessons

With the U.S. Open tennis tournament now in full swing, I thought it would be a good time to post this.  I've been a tennis fan for a long time and enjoy playing the game recreationally.  Every time I watch matches during a tennis tournament, though, it also makes me think of dueling with another player over the chessboard, not just about what's happening on the court.

The value of seeing chess as an art has been mentioned before here, including the idea of it being a mental martial art, along with comparisons to other arts such as music.  I think looking at chess as a sport can be similarly interesting and useful, with the ongoing Olympiad in Istanbul being an excellent example of how it can embody the sporting philosophy in world competition.

In some respects chess and tennis are obvious comparisons as sports, as the most popular form of tennis (singles) is also a one-on-one duel.  There are in fact a number of aspects of tennis that have close equivalents in the sport of chess.
  • Each game/match tends to develop a rhythm between the two players.  There is normally a natural ebb and flow between attacking and defending phases for each side.  Critical moments also often occur which offer a player the chance to make or break a game.   
  • One side is given a small but real advantage in terms of initiative.  Being on serve in tennis is intriguingly like the benefit of being White, which sometimes creates pressure to "hold serve".  However, in both sports a player will have to alternate sides and must have a complete game in order to be successful in tournaments.
  • Players have different playing styles, although at the top levels the styles tend to converge towards what provides the most practical results.  One could liken swashbuckling gambit play in the Romantic era of chess to the serve-and-volley style of play in tennis; both have now disappeared from the top echelons of their sport as a dominant style, but are still crowd-pleasers when occasionally resorted to.
  • Players exchange moves/shots and move/shot selection is always important on a tactical level.  Sometimes a player has to make a defensive choice because of their opponent's previous move, while other times a player can choose to play more aggressively (and riskily) or more conservatively.  In both sports, aggressive and risky play generally leads to more more wins/winning shots, but also more losses/unforced errors when your opponent successfully defends.
  • Endurance over the course of a game/match is important.  Strong play in the beginning is good, but if a player weakens over time, their good initial results may disappear and be overtaken as their opponent outlasts them.
  • Tournament results can fluctuate wildly even with top-ranked players.  This year Serena Williams did terribly at the French Open and then won Wimbledon in crushing style, to cite just one example.
Aside from the game mechanics, the pivotal role of psychology and mental training is also a shared focus for both sports.  Having to overcome an opponent's intimidation factor (higher rating/ranking or poor previous match results against them), manage the pressure of a tournament as it progresses, and avoid anything that distracts you from your game are all key factors in players' success or failure.  Even players who are top ranked in terms of skill need that extra mental strength to achieve their goals, as Andy Murray for example has shown.  I've posted before on mental toughness in chess and it would be hard to find a chess player who didn't have their own stories of painful tournament collapses or key games thrown away because of their mental state, rather than a lack of skill.

Watching a high-quality tennis match gives me much the same pleasure as a high-level chess encounter and seeing players fight their duels is both motivational and educational.  There is something that master-level competition can bring out in all of us, a kind of inspiration to compete and succeed, that is the essence of sport.


  1. Excellent points. I have been out of chess training, and blogging, for some time now, but my visit here has been inspiring. I'll be in touch!

    1. Great to hear from you Robert, I look forward to your next endeavors.

    2. I have a weekly (Thursday) column starting today at Nigel Davies' The Chess Improver. You might want to see about getting a spot there yourself! Your posts are high quality.

    3. Thanks for the news, I look forward to checking out your weekly column!


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