Columns | February 12, 2009 15:00

Why we play chess

Charles DarwinWhy do we play chess at all? Why bother? Today is an exceptionally good day to ask yourself that question. You'll probably answer: ' Because I like it!' Well, yes, but that was not the kind of 'why' I meant. Why do people have sex? Because they like it - doh! But why do they like it? This is the question Charles Darwin, who was born exactly 200 years ago today, tried (and succeeded) answering. Does his explanation also apply to chess?

A Darwinian explanation (rather simplified, of course) for why people like sex would run something like this: Liking sex is an heritable trait. People who have this trait in their genes tend to have more sex than people who don't. People who have more sex are more likely to reproduce and to have offspring. And so, over the generations, the trait for liking sex gets distributed over the population. In the long run, people who don't like sex simply don't survive.

So why do we play chess so passionately, sometimes even obsessively? Could it be because playing chess, like liking sex, offers some sort of survival chances? This may sound silly, but if we assume that playing chess is a pretty decent indication of 'mental fitness', it might be worth taking the point of view seriously. After all, Darwin's theory of sexual selection predicts that potential mates from the other sex will likely select mates who display certain favourable traits, such as mental fitness. Of course, liking chess itself can never have evolved, because the game simply isn't old enough, but figuring things out, solving problems and trying to out-smart others are definitely evolved traits.

Arianne Caioli

Arianne Caoili, the subject of an off-the-board GM fight

Darwin's theory also predicts how potential mates will combat each other for supremacy and, ultimately, possession of the other sex. We can all understand the combat that takes place on the chess board, but sometimes the theory works quite literally. During the 2006 Turin Olympiad, two Grandmasters got into an actual fight over a woman, prompting The Guardian to comment on the nature of chess as 'an essentially Darwinian struggle for power and sexual supremacy'. (Actually, a strictly chess-related struggle was apparently not sufficient to establish just that.)

But while strong chess players have obvious advantages over weaker ones, don't all chess players have in fact less 'survival chances' than non-chess players? Or less chances to have sex, anyway? As Dutch GM Karel van der Weide once wrote (in a piece called Chess players don't get laid): "the occupation of professional chess player has a more negative image than other professions".

The title of Van der Weide's article seems to imply that some people don't get laid because they are chess players. This is indeed a commonly heard complaint in the chess world. But from a Darwinian point of view, it really makes little sense. Whatever happened to the advantages of being mentally fit? Which species has the (relatively) largest brain size in the animal kingdom? Aren't humans supposed to be smart, rather than just muscled?

Assuming Darwin's theory is correct, we would actually expect the following: chess => mental fitness => more sex. So we seem to have a paradox. Perhaps we've been looking at the problem the wrong way. Suppose we switch cause and effect in Van der Weide's hypothesis? People who don't get laid, are chess players... Or rather: people who don't get laid, become (or stay) chess players hoping that things will change for the better! What if they somehow regard chess as a way - perhaps the only way - to attract potential partners? This echoes the famous chess aphorism that a woman who can't find a man can always decide to start playing chess: success is guaranteed. We may have to consider the possibility that this goes for some men, too.

But isn't playing chess an awfully ineffective way to attract mates? After all, chess is a very difficult game, it's extremely time-consuming, you neglect all other things in life and you end up with big glasses from looking at the computer screen for too long - and worst of all, losing is very bad for your ego. Here, too, the theory of evolution has an explanation. According to the so-called Handicap Principle, a signal must be costly to "accurately advertise a trait of relevance to an individual". In other words, it's precisely because chess is such an all-consuming hobby that it might be attractive in the first place! According to Wikipedia,

Jared Diamond has proposed that certain risky human behaviours, such as bungee jumping, may be expressions of instincts that have evolved through the operation of the handicap principle.


A peacock with its tail spread out

Wouldn't this explain why the biggest nerds are also the biggest chess-addicts? They're desperately trying to show how 'handicapped' they really are! Chess as a form of bungee-jumping. The sad thing for the chess players, of course, is that nobody notices.

Contrary to a the tail of a peacock (which is a great example of the handicap principle), the fact that you're a chess player is sadly not something that immediately strikes the eye. That's why chess players should not be ashamed of their hobby - they should be shouting it out on the streets! And it might just work. Jort Kelder, a famous Dutch tv-host and renowned womanizer, has often proclaimed his tremendous admiration for chess players.

Pay attention, chess nerds of the world! You should be proud to be a chess player, not embarrassed! Whatever others may say, you've got Darwin to prove it.


Share |
Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


cak's picture

Some of the comments above remind me of the following exchange of words which took place at the ChessNinja blog a few years ago.

oriel: "There is no greatness in chess. To be accomplished in chess is not to be great in any sense."

greg koster: "True greatness lies in stalking chess blogs and writing pretentious drivel."

steven's picture

Nigel Short is so ugly!! he should play with a paper bag on his head during tournaments

pete's picture

@steven: lol

jussu's picture

Anyway, when I summarised this artile to an attractive female specimen, she claimed that she found the ability to play chess rather sexy. Yet she would never come to me. Probably good sense prevailing; what a pity.

roo.bookaroo's picture

OK, Arne Moll is clear about it. His article was meant tongue-in-cheek, as a facetious piece. Which could have been guessed from his first postulate, chess = mental fitness. For there's absolutely no proof nor any evidence that this is the case. This is flattering to chess players, but we can sense a rat.
Moving these wooden pieces around black and white squares for hours, for days, for years, has never been considered a mark of mental fitness. And Arne even takes care to underline this: it is an assumption, and the assumption allows him to write this silly, humorous piece. In reality, mental fitness is not easy to define or even to illustrate.
And the second postulate, that mental fitness (assuming we knew what that meant) = more sex is not proved at all anywhere. This should have been the sign to readers that the whole thing was written for laughs and lark.
In biology, the relevant concepts are physical fitness, biological fitness, social fitness. Fitness encompasses all the abilities of the individual and relates to the environment, physical and social. And whatever is meant by "mental" is simply an abstraction from a complex life situation, not easy to define, not easy to measure.
In fact playing this silly game for hours and for years would indicate some serious lack of fitness, some mental disease, some obsession. Any healthy woman would be extremely wary of committing herself to a man who's wasting away his only life moving those pieces around those squares. Women, who have a major biological commitment to the continuation of life, are in general only put off by this occupation, and most of them prefer to stay away from wasting precious life time in pushing those wooden men around those colored squares. At best, they see it as what it is, a child's game that adults have only very recently in history professionalized into an occupation. But this is a distortion of modern society.
In fact, quite a few top players ended up insane. Playing this game is a mark of some deep imbalance in life, and some inherent unfitness. A society of chess players would be quickly wiped off the surface of the earth by competing groups who would descend on them to steal the wooden pieces and wooden boards for their own fires.
Simply look at the faces and appearances of the players in top tournaments. Are they likely to attract the groupies who fall for the Beatles or Robert Redford, or or any top tennis player, movie star or musician?
Look at the grandly glorified Fischer! He was so surrounded by hordes of female groupies that he had to abandon the game to spend all his time carousing with them (tongue-in-cheek, here, for all those who would take this seriously). He was the supreme example of how chess ability was a sure way to a successful sexual life, or even simply to a successful life. The poor guy ended up like a tramp, even looking like one.
The trouble is that Arne's humor was too subtle in his writing. The intent was not grasped by the readers and lost on them. It's enough to read their often nonsensical comments. Nearly all of them (with a few laudable exceptions) swallowed the piece whole, hook, sinker and line. Without even suspecting the comic intent. Yea, speak of mental fitness, indeed, in not even understanding the meaning of a fellow writer.
Fitness is success in life, success with women, and success in understanding the dialogue of communication within one's social group. You want to see success in communication within one's group? Look at the rhetoric used by Obama in his presidential campaign in the States. And compare it with the communication rhetoric of Kasparov in Russia. Who demonstrated real "fitness" and real "success"?

Jan's picture

Total rubbish, but endorsed by none less than Nigel Short! Click his playchess handle.

Eric's picture

Hyperactive: do I detect just a hint of frustration here? ;-)

hyperactive's picture

chess is a jus a game....and some nerds and idiots like the person who wrote this article are making it such a big deal. some fools end up studying chess thories for hours....i would rather study theories in physics. i dont think the indians who invented this game would have in their wildest dreams thought this game would make useless nerds out of humans. play chess to enjoy the game and not to attract others or have sex and not to find admiration from some jobless people around u. some people jus want themselves to be proclaimed "genius" which noway they r. all these nerds r so selfish. i like chess but for the reason i can have fun with the game. its a shame that people have 2 learn chess thories 2 be gud. holy shit. AND ALL THOSE PEOPLE WHO PLAY THIS GAME WELL R THE REAL FOOLS WHO SPEND SO MUCH TIME ON A BOARD GAME JUS TO MAKE MONEY AND FAME AND YA TO EARN "GENIUS" TAG. WHICH NO WAY THEY R.

Bartleby's picture

The Turin incident showed clearly: Elo 2500 wins the fist fight, but Elo 2700 gets the girl. Superior chess skills have better chances to reproduce.

Theo Maassen's picture

Is it possible to write a more worse article?????

Manu's picture

It is symple a wrong and not balanced article , sometimes happens.
It is the kind of article that the site must be quoted saying ¨the opinions stated by the writer not necesary reflects those of chessvibes , yada , yada.¨


Ed's picture

According to the book "Kluge", -the haphazard construction of the human mind; we get pleasure from absorbing information, from mastery, and from control. Chess can deliver on all three. That these things are good from an evolutionary standpoint in most circumstances makes sense.

Chess and other games might be helpful from a developmental or social perspective. On the other hand they might just be an accidental pleasurable by-product of other more survival/skill learning developments of the brain.

Chess itself is by far, way to recent of a development to have any evolutionary impact. And I cannot see how it could in the future.

Arne Moll's picture

It's funny how people always seem to think all articles are meant to be taken deadly serious. How about reading between the lines, guys? My point was obviously not to say anything serious about chess and evolution, but rather to write a light article connecting some funny opinions on the internet about chess and sex in the context of Darwin's 200th birthday. Nothing more. Thanks to those who understood, and to those who didn't: I guess next time I'll add smileys to avoid this kind of confusion...

Manu's picture

IMHO you should not take this so seriously , but you should not defend the article either.
Sometimes is not like they dont get it , or that they cant read between lines , sometimes there is simply something wrong.
If a bunch of Gms say to me that my moves are wrong , it is me the one who should take it lightly , not them.
Adding smileys to my score sheet wont change their judment , same thing with the article.

Peter Visser's picture

I regret, Arne, you defense yourself. You wrote a column. Anyway a kind of, so take it as a man.

Theo Maassen fan's picture

@ Theo Maassen

Could you please stop calling yourself Theo Maassen when you are not (trying to be) funny. Theo's name should not be used lightly!

chess is hyped's picture

@ JM.

Im not here for increasing my credibility nor im out to decrease it of the writer of this collum.
Science and creationism are very suitible. Creationist (which I am NOT) fit the creation of life and earth in a scientific context. Far enough imo.

You ask me to discuss this somewhere else. Sorry but im not intersted in it. Just wanted to mention my thought here. So request denied.

Finally. When I asked for creationism and intelligent management i was responding at the post above me. Where someone said that the author handles modern evolutionary ecology rather competently. In sceience its normal to check if you conclusions can handle different theories about it. At least we do here in holland. Dont know where you followed your education. :-)

@ Arne,

Ofcourse i understand you would not want to write a scientific article. So i wont judge it that way. If you read my first post i wrote that i disliked it because of the easy parralels. Its just not funny or eposing deep thoughts. JUST MY TASTE.

Concerning my taste... i think you are a very good writer and i will always read your articles here wich i also did before.

Theo Maassen's picture


Marcos Sander's picture

Well,if you are a chessplayer not always you are a nerd.There are all kind of types in chess.And to speak honestly i don't see really nerds on top levels playing today.Well maybe i don't know them so much but certantly Kasparov isn't a nerd but defetly Fischer was.I think this is more associate with United-Stades chess then with any other country.But is just a feeling don't get offend with what a say.Just think chess is a social game and nerds are not the social types usually.Chess needs pratice more than intelligence.

jussu's picture

I hope the theory presented by Stephen (yesterday 20:30) adds the badly needed balance in the most appropriate way possible, so we can stop jumping on Arne's blindly secular view (which even allowed him to not mention any deities in a slightly humorous article).

Michael Lubin, sociobiology (or whatever) is not necessarily a pseudoscience. I would rather say that it is a tiny, perhaps negligible part of the entire truth. Indeed, it gets a little absurd when human behaviour (or any other animal's behaviour, for that matter) is being explained via sexual selection alone but this does not mean that sexual selection does not play any part in, for example, choice of one's profession as a chessplayer, and such relationships are worth thinking about (if for nothing else then for confidently dismissing them as truly negligible). I, for one, find musings on the connections between chess, intellect, nerdiness, and public opinion at least entertaining.

Stephen's picture

On the seventh day God had to rest, and to entertain himself he invented chess. Since nerds like chess and God likes chess, God must like nerds. Therefore God allows nerds to continue to survive. This is just one of myriad proofs that creationism is the correct scientific theory explaining why we are all here.

Now if evolution were true then chess playing nerds would have died out years ago. Evolution is clearly absurd !

Michael Lubin's picture

Stephen Jay Gould was right. Sociobiology/evolutionary psychology/whatever you want to call it is a pseudoscience. You can't understand human "behavior" through evolution. Human societies are structured around language in a manner that is very complex and varies enormous from one society to another. Trying to explain interest in chess through the pressures for genetic survival is about as useful as trying to explain why a movie is popular through a chemical analysis of the film stock.

JM's picture

@chess is hyped
You are aware that you lose you credibility by using 'creationism' and 'scientific' in the same sentence without a negation, aren't you? You may or may not agree with science, but please do keep that discussion elsewhere. I think you're well aware that there is no respectable scientific journal in the world that would dismiss an article as 'not scientific' for the reason it doesn't mention creationism. I won't argue about the actual 'scientificness' of the article in case, but your arguments are ridiculous.

Arne Moll's picture

@chess is hyped: ehm, which kind of creationism did you have in mind, exactly?

@Mike, I agree completely! Actually it doesn't sound so far off my idea that it's not playing chess itself that is often considered unattractive, but rather that some people have an overall unattractiveness which they may try to compensate by playing chess :-)

Mike's picture

Interesting, but I see some dangerous falacious simplification in this article, for example, what women see in men is not just "mental fitness" but in fact they look for balanced "overall fitness" which is composed by mental, physical, social & emotional fitness. So, in order to get more good sex, one should play chess, no problem with that, but also should play a lot of tennis, soccer, volley or else to get a good body shape, and, very important, should cultivate a lot of friends so she will see that you are a stable guy with good contact and social relations... The wrong way is to get extremely developed ONLY in one way, only on chess, only on social (play boy...) or only on physical exercises (like a hamster)... So, my friends, if you are equal to others, BUT you ALSO play chess, then for sure she will choose you!!

Peter Visser's picture


chess is hyped's picture

Very very bad article. Totally not scientific so it only can be a gimmick article. If so its far to easy. lets compare chess with cooking and you will c parralels and in the view of the writer of this article fun.. (NOT!)


Hortensius's picture


jussu's picture

The conclusions are certainly questionable but I must say that the author handles modern evolutionary ecology rather competently.

chess is hyped's picture

no he does not at all.

Where is intelligent management in this article? Or creationism?
Darwin is pretty actual last 2 years as the theory is starting to get dubious.
Comparing chess with darwin, or sex is not interesting unless on a scientific level

Peter Doggers's picture

Well, chess is hyped, in case you didn't notice yet: it says "Filed under: Columns" right below the header.

jussu's picture

Hehe, yes, an unacceptably unbalanced view, since ID is never mentioned. Get ready for a lawsuit :D

F3MDR's picture

I knew my 7,000 hours of my life doing chess on a board or computer weren't wasted. ;)

Johny's picture

Of course evolutionairy psychology is not pseudoscience, because research in this field is based on the scientific method. And just because EP cannot (yet) explain all human behaviour doesn't mean it cannot in principle explain any. Also, as Pinker and Wilson (and many others) have shown several times, Gould was simply wrong dismissing sociobiology so lightly. Human behaviour may be difficult to explain, but explaining it using principles from evolution is very sensible and is widely accepted throughout the scientific world.

Eric Rietzschel's picture

" Creationist (which I am NOT) fit the creation of life and earth in a scientific context."

No, they do not - they only PRETEND they do. In reality, it's pseudoscience pur sang.

(I know this is not the right forum for these kinds of discussions, so I'll shut up about it now)

trta's picture

haha, the best article i've ever read here!

bar?s's picture

cok g?ºzel olmus
wel ? think nigel short happy

bar?s's picture

? am not engilish ? am sory

tom's picture

play chess very good ? think good at play chess nigel sort kasparov nigel 1/2

dkey's picture

Knowledge is POWER,
thinking is ENERGY,
the ratio is HARMONY! :

chess requires creativity,
which requires right brain activity,
which requires testosterone rise.

Take care,

gombro's picture

The article is a total rubbish. Chess cannot be evolutionarily explained. Using Richard Dawkin's terms- memes are responsible for spreading chess; yet. since memes are not responsible for our genetic adaptations and don't give rise to more offspring, they just exist for their own sake- unlike genes, which give rise to extended phenotypes (among others: our bodies). In short, chess emerged due to our culture and explaining culture using Darwinian terminology is somewhat fishy.

Arne Moll's picture

Who said the artice is about the emergence of chess, gombro? Read before you judge.

salawu mutiu's picture

you are not really right and u can nt be completely wrong,the best books and things of this world are subjects of criticism.thanks for supplying us wit your available when the desirable is nt available.bravo

Flug's picture

I just play for fun

Ryan's picture

Id fight for that girl too probably

pacifist's picture

who are the fittest? The ugly little earth worms. I like them cause they turn my rotten food into good food for my veggies.
Nigel is cute & anyone who can earn a living with chess should be admired, not envied.

Latest articles