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 ?

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    I'm voting to leave it open because 1) it's essentially saved by the good answers it got and 2) it's rather easy to remove the ranty language. It might need to be protected to prevent low-quality answers in the future, but let's see what happens.
    – Glorfindel
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 7:53
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    History is full of people who devoted their lives to the betterment of society in such a way that most of the people in the society in question would have wished they had spent their time playing chess instead. The 20th century would have been a lot less bloody if Lenin had developed an all-consuming passion for chess as a young man. Commented May 16, 2020 at 11:53
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    Do you spend all of your time (let's exclude sleep) directly working for the betterment of society? Should you be expected to? Do you think people play chess 16 hours a day? Do you think fun is a bad thing?
    – Luaan
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 8:52
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    because as we all know, intelligent people aren't allowed to have hobbies Commented May 18, 2020 at 9:01
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    Just imagine Bobby Fisher hadn't spent his life playing chess, but had went into politics instead.
    – waka
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 11:49

13 Answers 13


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?

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    You are right.Besides many people have had this goal of "betterment of the world " and everything ended up being a disaster for the world in the end. So I think one should not have this "changing the world ideology " . Instead one should follow what suits them best, be it chess, mathematics, farming or whatever.. Now that I have given it a second thought , I think finding happiness for ourselves without giving trouble to others is the safest way to do betterment of the world(increasing the 'net happiness' maybe ;)). And chess does exactly that. I am considering playing chess in high school! Commented May 16, 2020 at 14:25
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    Incidentally, chess and ballroom dancing are both recommended to seniors as a way to keep their mental faculties sharp.
    – Dennis
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 15:27
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    I'm reminded of how scholar H. W. Garrod, "when accosted by a woman during the First World War asking why he was not with the soldiers fighting to defend civilisation, replied: 'Madam, I am the civilization they are fighting to defend.' "
    – nanoman
    Commented May 17, 2020 at 22:56
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    +1, the question as it is presented may as well ask "Why do people spend their lives painting or writing music?" Many people derive great joy from both playing the game, and watching others play the game, just as with many other pursuits
    – Kevin
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 21:49

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

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    Anand has a degree as well maybe others too, please define how you are relating being intellectual with a degree. Commented May 15, 2020 at 22:47
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    @AshishKumar I have a degree too. Like Nunn it is also a maths degree from Oxford University. I'm a year younger. The difference is that when I started my batchelor's he had already completed the first year of his doctorate. He went on to become a fellow (=professor at US university) at Oxford at a very young age. That makes him an intellectual. I suspect that most people on StackExchange have a degree. Having a degree doesn't make me (or you) an intellectual. But Aditya Sharma didn't ask about intellectuals. He asked about "some of the world's best intellectuals".
    – Brian Towers
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 23:26
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    Something you may be aware of, but which might be worth adding, is that historically many famous professional mathematicians have been strong chess players. I think the best example of this that comes to mind is, of course, Emanuel Lasker, who did some very important work in commutative algebra. Commented May 16, 2020 at 14:03
  • I agree. I don't think the "world's best intellectuals" play chess. There is a small cohort of people you'd consider "intellectuals" (MSc., PhDs, etc) but they are few and far between. It does not negate the value of chess as a brain training tool but as you said there's no causal link between the nature of an intellectual and their love for chess. No more than say a love for puzzles and the completion of a PhD in a prestigious field.
    – CL40
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 18:20
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    ''In a 2010 interview, Magnus Carlsen explained that he thought extreme intelligence could actually be a hindrance to one's chess career'' from the wikipedia article on nunn
    – Tom
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 20:36

You are wrong because you want to enslave the world's best intellectuals to dedicate their time and effort to tasks that you deem important rather than on what they find enjoyable and fulfilling.

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    I don't think it's fair to say that the OP wants to enslave the world's intellectuals. They are simply wondering why people choose to use their time in one way rather than another that they think is more productive
    – Kevin
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 21:51
  • The issue is in assuming that being better at chess is same as being intellectually better. I guess the OP's aim behind the question is that there are numerous ways to better one's relative intellect and contribute to the society while doing it, in that sense how much does chess really contribute to the society ? I belong to a country where science, maths are particularly emphasized, still we're one of the poorest country in the world. Commented Apr 2 at 9:33

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.

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    I don't think this is a good answer to the question, it implies that people who choose to play chess rather than pursue other things that might "make society better" aren't interested in helping other people. There may be some people who play chess rather than doing evil things, but I suspect that isn't a large part of the population
    – Kevin
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 21:52

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).

Sports help nations in these ways: From ToI:

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.

From LinkedIn:

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.

Rather than simply say that people play chess because it makes them happy, it helps to go a bit deeper and understand gamer psychology. Specifically for board games:

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.


Because go is not widespread in their country of origin


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.


People tend to do what they are good at. Being adept at chess doesn't necessarily relate to a persons ability to solve world problems or improve the betterment of society.


Chess is the result of successfully abstracting, civilizing and gamifying war.

Partaking in this endeavor, creating friendships which span continents, religions and races, is one of the highest human achievements.


If we think in terms of human behavior, chess is a famous game adopted particularly by introverts. If somebody is "grandmaster" in chess we can assume they've spent 1000s of hours practicing solely by themselves.

It'd be safe to assume that as adults even if it might appear that they've good social skills, their intrinsic nature would be to be by themselves. Hence they would either limit or avoid participation in socializing.

Of course nobody can actually tell how good somebody is in chess if they themselve don't know it. It's like not having knowledge of chemistry and then trying to find the best chemist.

We will never be able to find the best chess player, we will only be made known that somebody is a "grandmaster". Then it's on our own intuition to judge if they're good or not or just accept the fact that they're.

Why am I talking about this ?

The issue is with the question itself. It's impossible to know the "best". "best" is relative to you.

Instead of looking at the world's best chess players, you should ask if chess itself has any impact on the society which is a betterment in your perception.

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