Games as a sport, field of knowledge, art and a mean of self-improvement

Why do wee need games? To enjoy them of course! And it may be a joy of more subtle kind, similar to this coming from sciences and arts. Improving your skills in particular game can be also a mean of improving yourself. If we want to really enjoy games, we have to see their complex nature.

In many languages word “player” means more than “a guy who plays”. “Player” is also a someone in the center of important events. “Player” is someone who knows how to act, who undertakes challenges or is important participant of something. In my native language (Polish) word for “player” (gracz) is sometimes used to describe special kind of personality. Someone who is not afraid to act and always knows what to do. Someone who is just very good at something.

What is a source of such associations?

Games have always been more than just a way of spending leisure time. Every game has its own cultural load. You can see it easily on the example of Chess – game associated with the power of mind, but also with an absolute fight. In Western culture there is interesting motif of a man playing Chess with Death. You can find it in The Seventh Seal, Swedish drama-fantasy film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman…

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…and you can find this motif also on late medieval painting by Albertus Pictor.

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In one of Terry Pratchett’s books Witch plays with Death, but they play a Poker hand. Death doesn’t want to play Chess and this is quite funny.

Since our childhood we hear that Chess is a noble game. Many other games are usually thrown into the categories of “toys” or even “loss of time”. In the past some games were considered as bad or immoral, although majority of games can bring us the same benefits as Chess. Games can help us to train our minds, to shape personal traits and develop cognitive skills. I’ve discussed this topic in my texts on whether Chess is harder than Draughts and in other article on games with element of luck. Now I want to write more on why every non-trivial game can become serious mind sport, noble art, field of knowledge and something that helps you to develop yourself.

What is “mind sport”. Is it a real sport?

Many people have a problem with calling Chess or Checkers a sport. We think about sport in terms of physical effort, but wait! Sports such as golf, pool or shooting don’t require as much effort as athletics or strength sports, but no one doubts their status as sports.

Sport is a broad term. It can include almost every form of competition and/or leisure. The whole world of sports can be divided into athletics, strength sports, gymnastics, team games, racket sports, precision sports, cycling, motor sports and much, much more. All these sports require something from the athlete’s body – strength, endurance, speed, reflex, precision and other traits. Heavy lifting does not require good reflex, but table tennis does not require to lift heavy objects. All sports improve only part of our powers, but all sports require to train your body.

Mind sports are not so different. They require a healthy and efficient nervous system capable of undertaking complex tasks under pressure. When you look at two Chess or Checkers players you see two polite people in a lazy game. But it looks much different from the view of player who takes part in the tournament.

The player on tournament is in the middle of a real fight. He struggles with an opponent of similar strength. This opponent seeks a gap in his defense, but it must be attacked at the same time. Player can’t think all day because clock is just next to the board. So the player must make difficult decisions quickly or he must face the possibility of losing valuable time. During some tournaments players spend hours at the board, but they have to be vigilant all the time.

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Elite Draughts players – Iser Kuperman vs Ton Sijbrands (source: Nationaal Archief lic. CC BY 4.0)

That’s why many Chess and Draughts players practice running – to maintain a healthy nervous system. That’s why mind-athletes can lose a lot of weight during a single tournament! Yes. In the past, some Chess players even smoked at the chessboard but the other athletes did the same. In the past bench warmers smoked during match. Today football or baseball players usually don’t smoke and Chess players also avoid this unhealthy habit.

Maybe you had at least one difficult exam in your life. I’m sure it made you very tired. Why? Because brain working under pressure generates great effort for your body. I would even say that mind sports are a kind of extreme sports. Maybe Chess players don’t risk to break their backbone, but death at the board really happens!

Mind sports and e-sports. Two different worlds

Mind sports are often compared to electronic sports. It seems natural. Mind sports are often games and e-sports are (video) games. In my opinion e-sport is a new kind of sport, but it has nothing to do with mind sports. Why?

Mind sports usually require simple equipment and considerable mental effort. You do not need much to play Chess, Checkers, Bridge or Go, but you have to learn a lot to compete even with the weakest players. In some mind sports speed is important (in speedcubing for example) but the speed of thinking is crucial, and this is not the same as speed of player’s reactions. And mind sports do not take place in a virtual environment. They use real items – cards, boards, pieces etc.

E-sport is a competition in a virtual environment. It requires computers, mice, headphones etc. Ability to react fast and knowledge of the specific game mechanics are very important. E-sports and mind sports are two different worlds, though in both cases it’s about what we call “games”.

By the way, Aldous Huxley in his book “The New Brave World” created a vision of dystopian world where games always require complex, perishable equipment. It’s remarkable that such idea came to someone in 1932! Do not get me wrong. I do not think computer games are evil. They are simply “games” in a slightly different sense than the old games, which required simple means.

Some traditional games – like Mahjong – require quite complicated set. But this is still not something as complex as a computer.

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fot. Alexander Savin (lic. CC BY 2.0)

Games as a knowledge and art

Even if we don’t treat games as a sport, we can give them a different role in our life. Games are fascinating field of knowledge and even art. You don’t have to study game strategy just to win. By studying games you can look for trivia, surprising discoveries and sometimes even jokes!

Polish Chess player Władyslaw Litmanowicz wrote a fascinating book entitled “Chess anecdotes and trivia”. This is a collection of interesting and funny chessboard situations, sometimes with historical background. There are also interesting examples of humor in game of Go. You can find them on Sensei’s Library.

You can study the history of games or great players biographies. You can explore how the theory of the strategy has changed. Studying the records of masters’ games means experiencing greatness of the human intellect. After all there is no single way to win a game and some people found really unusual and innovative ways to do that. I was always fascinated by Baba Sy, extraordinary International Draughts player. On one tournament, when his friend was close to lose, Baba Sy said: “Congratulations, you won this game”. And later Baba Sy could explain that the position considered as a certain loss was indeed a wining position.

The beauty of games is not necessarily the beauty of fight. In the world of games there is something we call a composition. Composer uses a board and pieces to create a position that is theoretically possible and very interesting. Composed problems are often puzzles to solve, but they can also serve just as a pieces of art. They can reveal interesting strategic issue, surprising attack, defense, fork etc.

In the composition and in playing you can change game into art. Outstanding players have so unexpected, so surprising ideas that your jaw just drops and you can’t believe what you see. In the game you always have to follow the rules (just as in every field of art), but certain people find really creative solutions within the limits of rules and this happens endlessly.

That’s why in China the game of Go is one of the Four Arts befitting a learned person
(other arts are music, calligraphy and painting). In Europe playing Chess became important element of chivalry. Games can have religious meaning (such as game of Mehen in Egypt) because the rules of the game as seen as a reflection of certain rules in the world. This is important element of artistic element of all games.

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Besides all games have their aesthetic side. Game sets are simply beautiful objects. They may be elegantly simple or richly decorated, but they must always fit in a game convention. Over the centuries artisans made awesome items for playing and such items are essential part of enjoying the game. I always advise people to buy at least one high-quality set to play Chess, Checkers or other favorite game. You don’t have to use only those cheap, plastic sets without a soul.

Player’s personality – something we want to achieve

If knowledge, sport and art meets in one filed, this field is the perfect ground for developing human personality. This can be compared to martial arts, which give not only a certain skills. Martial arts are the way to know your body better. They teach how to gain new abilities through persistent exercise. They discipline a mind. I would say mind sports are “martial arts for the mind.” They affect not only the knowledge but also the way of thinking. Playing develops not only the strategic skills but also your personality.

What personality traits are shaped by playing and studying games?

  • Willingness to take challenges. Players are never satisfied with one won game. They always look for stronger opponents to meet them and challenge them. In the past, when there was no well organized tournaments, some players traveled from city to city to face players known there. The player is a man or woman who wants to overcome difficulties and always looks for new ones.
  • Respect for other people. The real player do not exalt himself when he wins because he knows everyone lost a game at least once in life. A real player does not make excuses after losing. In short, he knows how to win and lose with class.
  • Respect for yourself. The real player doesn’t cheat. It’s not someone who who tries to artificially raise his self-esteem.
  • Patience is necessary to study games’ theory and trying to use what you’ve learned in mental battle. It’s not always possible to apply what you’ve just learned. You have to look for your own paths, your own method. It is beautiful, but requires a lot of self-denial and patience.
  • Inquisitiveness. The player is not satisfied with his knowledge. He always wants to know more and more. He learns not only tactics and strategy, but he tries to understand game history and players’ stories. It’s all needed to become better and better each day.
  • Gentleness and good manners. Understanding the beauty of game requires some kind of subtlety. Initially it seems just boring and difficult. Secrets of strategy do not fight for our attention like sensational news. Of course, emotions are emerging in each game and player faces winning and losing. But the real player controls his emotions. He expresses his courage, but at the same time he has a class. He is aggressive and polite at the same time.
    Some games have specific culture and traditions. Real player is aware of them.

All These personality traits can be combined with many others: courage, self-control, determination, perseverance, fearlessness, nobility, willpower, etc. You develop all this by engaging in sports, knowledge or art. Of course it doesn’t mean that everyone should devote his or her life to games. No! That’s not what I mean.

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Fot. Gabriel Rodríguez (lic. CC BY-SA 2.0)

You don’t have to be elite player… and that’s cool!

I assume you read this post for a various reasons. Maybe you play on tournaments, but you can play just for fun with your friends. Maybe you do not play at all, but you came to this blog because you were wondering about it. Perhaps you are the world champion, or maybe you always lose? It doesn’t matter.

You do not have to be a painter to see the beauty of fine arts. Perhaps you love music, but you don’t have to be a professional musician. Art can just give you a joy and that’s all. I just wanted to show you what you can find in games and you can seek for this joy on your own. And you can always be “a real player” even if you play only with your friends.

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