Why do some of the world's best intellectuals spend their whole lives just on a wooden board, rather than working on the betterment of society ?
Enjoying chess and getting better at it can be viewed as an instrumental good, as well as possibly an intrinsic good.
As an instrumental good, chess can help us be better in other areas of life. For example, playing consistently might help sharpen certain areas of your mind. Coming up with plans could help one make plans in real life as well. Knowing when to trust your intuition is another skill that might be gained from chess. Studying theory can help your memorization skills and study techniques.
Some could also view chess as an intrinsic good. Here, the game is taken to be good axiomatically - playing it isn't necessarily a means to an end for a greater good. It is good simply because it is good. You could say people should spend more time working on bettering society instead, but here you'd also be trying to (indirectly) increase some other arbitrary intrinsic goods. Who's to say chess is a less important intrinsic good?
Where am I wrong?
None of "the world's best intellectuals" spend much time playing chess. The only strong (GM strength) chess player who qualifies as an intellectual is Dr John Nunn GM who graduated with a first in mathematics from Oxford University at the age of 18.
Why do people even play chess?
The best answer to this was given by Siegbert Tarrasch who famously said:
Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy
Vast intellectual talent does not automatically confer a loving desire to make society better.
You fail to take into consideration the great number of humans who are superintelligent, overeducated, and energetic -- and who totally despise their fellow man. They are naturally given to long periods of brooding inner fury followed by bursts of precipitate combatitive action. Such persons will inevitably become either chess players or axe murderers.
No one will ever know how many potential world-class supervillains were distracted from a career of world conquest or mass murder by the cutthroat environment of F.I.D.E. sanctioned competition.
Why do people even play chess?
Beyond fun and happiness, it could be that playing chess may help to sharpen focus, develop pattern recognition and memory, improve analytical abilities, enhance cognitive strength and develop other important skills that may help to "work on the betterment of society".
working on the betterment of society
It is very difficult to establish a causal link between playing chess and the acquisition of skills that make it possible to work for the "betterment of society". However, many chess players do many wonderful things.
- Just look at the profiles of the many people who answer and ask questions on this chess site. They are also very competent in many other fields, with a great reputation in other StackExchange sites such as: mathematics, stack overflow, physics... Chess may have helped them.
- For more on this look at the meta-analysis on "Do the benefits of chess instruction transfer to academic and cognitive skills?" (note that one of the author Fernand Gobet is a cognitive scientist and psychologist and also an International Master!)
- A concrete and anecdotal example is that of Kenneth Rogoff, chess grandmaster and professor of economics at Harvard University. From 2001-2003, Rogoff served as Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund.
At sixteen Rogoff dropped out of high school to concentrate on chess. He won the United States Junior Championship in 1969 and spent the next several years living primarily in Europe and playing in tournaments there. However, at eighteen he made the decision to go to college and pursue a career in economics rather than to become a professional player, although he continued to play and improve for several years afterward. Rogoff was awarded the IM title in 1974, and the GM title in 1978. [...] He has also drawn individual games against former world champions Mikhail Tal and Tigran Petrosian. In 2012 he drew a blitz game with the world's highest rated player Magnus Carlsen. (source: wikipedia)
This is a philosophical question, not just a question about chess per se.
There are in fact two questions here:
- Why do some people choose to devote their lives to chess, and
- What is the benefit (if any) of these people to society.
Let's take them one at a time.
Why do some people choose to devote so much energy to chess?
- The simplest answer is, because it makes them happy, brings fulfilment and purpose. They feel respected.
- Everyone needs to play something. Humans quickly become mentally ill without recreational activities. Many people are very passionate about the things they do "for fun."
- Some people by their nature are very focussed, and concentrate on one thing that they are passionate about. As a result they become extremely good at it.
- This trait exists in human populations because it is valuable to have such focussed people in society, whether they are doctors, architects, etc. Whether this is true of sportspeople or game players is another question which I address below.
What is the benefit to society of people who basically do nothing but play chess?
- First, fantastic chess players would not necessarily be fantastic at other things. Yes, there is a correlation between chess playing and academic abilities. But this is a correlation, not an absolute.
- International champions bring people together. They encourage us to make peace, talk, and learn from each other.
- There are numerous benefits to anyone of learning about the complexities of games such as chess. It trains the brain to learn and think. Chess masters help get everyone else excited and motivated to learn, as well as creating so many examples to analyse and learn from.
- Grand masters continually bring something new to the game. It's not the same old strategies listed in a book over and over that would make chess fans get bored and lose interest.
- Dedicated chess players, dedicated sports people and so on, serve as role models. They inspire others to work hard (at whatever they do). To have discipline and to seek more than mediocrity. People read biographies, they learn how talented people have solved problems, and apply it to their own lives.
- There is "making intellect sexy." Young people are probably more likely to choose academic pursuits if they can see excitement in them, and if they can connect with others who have similar interests. (Meeting other chess fans is an easy way to find these people.)
- If everyone just played games all the time, society would collapse. Of course. But having a few chess "heroes" is much more valuable than having none at all.
If the population of Earth reduced to such an extent that you'd need all-hands-on-deck, then it'd be worth asking why certain people spend their lives playing games.
Or perhaps we are invaded by aliens and only the chess players can give us the best strategies that even a computer can't think of :-) (just kidding).
Builds and define the character of a nation It helps in elevating qualities like discipline, determination, teamwork and a passion for fitness in the psyche of a nation. Also, once you are into sports, certain virtues like teamwork, ethics, and sportsmanship become lifelong qualities. Creating a Global community Any major international sporting event like the Olympics or a World Cup promotes universal brotherhood and gives one a sense of belonging to a larger global community.
sports play an important role in shaping up an economy and government to promote sports in country. This will increase the business for local players who make sports equipments; it will also provide business to airlines and other transport business, media, brokers, and a medium of creating platform for young generation.
Also, some people are good at physical or mental activities in specific domains. It helps to work on your strengths to contribute to the nation, rather than try something else at which you are not so good. Especially when the sport you play can earn you fame and a good living. But getting good at any sport takes a lot of practice, which is why people spend a lot of time practising. It's not a wasted effort, as long as they manage their time well with other tasks.
More here about how sports helps.
Because of the gamble they take in the early stage of the game there is a build-up of tension, which is immediately released once the ... Release of tension is therapeutic and useful in our society, because most jobs are boring and repetitive.
But yes, sometimes people do get bored of sport eventually. Formula One champion Niki Lauda eventually got fed up of "driving around in circles".
Most importantly: Life is not a race. You don't have to spend all your time doing something that's useful and productive. It's perfectly ok to do what you enjoy or even just slack off once in a while. In school we are all brainwashed to work like donkeys. In adulthood, we need to realize the many realities of life.
Besides the other valid answers, to me the fundamental one is: Because the society whose betterment we would work towards is one in which people can play chess.
Why do we play sports or board games? Why do we make music? Why do we make visual art and put on plays and movies? Why do we write poetry and fiction? Why do we keep exploring other cuisines? Why hold social outings? We could be working for the betterment of society!
There are people who find it impossible to appreciate diversion or any activity without a purpose directly linked to survival. I don't know of any way to argue when we start from such incompatible premises.
Your alternatives are not mutually exclusive. One can do both. Think of the code-breaking chess masters during WWII. Chess Master and engineer Edward Laker invented a number of medical devices, including a breast pump. World Champion Max Euwe was a mathematician. World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik was an electrical engineer and computer scientist. World Champion Emanuel Lasker was a mathematician and philosopher. Why do artists in all fields - music, art, dance, etc. - devote their lives to their disciplines? If one is good enough to earn a living at it, why not? And I find that the creation of works of beauty is in itself a contribution to society's betterment. How many intelligent people do in fact devote their lives solely to the betterment of society? Just being an interested, productive member of society would seem to be sufficient to contribute to that end.