Why 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 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?