How would we get puzzles at the Olympic Games… or something like it?

International Mind Sports Association logo (presumably their copyright)This is a post I’ve been working on in the background, on and off, for a while; every time we discuss competitions, especially international championships, it comes back to mind.

The direct answer to the question is that it would seem vanishingly unlikely to ever get puzzles at the Olympic Games before other mind sports: games like chess, bridge, go and so on. It’s a subject that has been raised in the past by these mind sports’ governing bodies, but there has never been substantial progress on this front. (The highest-profile examples of mind sports at a festival of otherwise physical sports that I can find is that chess has had a couple of appearances at the Asian Games and the Universiade.) So let’s focus on the “…or something like it” instead, where there may be more to consider than you think.

(This is a long old piece; not far off three thousand words, hence the cut.)

In previous posts, I touched upon the existence of the Mind Sports Olympiad as an event at which there are competitions in many different mind sports. The Mind Sports Olympiad had an ambition to be seen as at least analogous to the Olympic Games, but for mind sports. This would require it to grow to the point where it might host a world-class championship (or, depending upon the internal structure of the mind sport in question, perhaps the world championship as such) in each mind sport.

In practice, the prize funds haven’t been sufficient to attract global attention; the high spots over the years probably include hosting the Commonwealth Chess Championship in 2001, the world team championship for international (“10×10”) draughts in 2000 and for getting mass media attention in 1999 for hosting a world record when David Howell became the youngest chess player to ever beat a Grandmaster in formal competition. (He beat John Nunn at 5-minute blitz chess. Howell has gone on to become a Grandmaster in turn, reaching #36 in the world in 2015 – and, at age 26, he has strong potential to rise further.)

By way of full disclosure, I played at the first Mind Sports Olympiad in 1997, volunteered to help in 1998, was a paid self-employed contractor for them in 1999 and 2000 and worked for them on and off for another six or seven years – sometimes paid, mostly not. For one perspective as to why the Mind Sports Olympiad movement took a radical turn for the smaller at the start of the millennium, take a look at one well-placed interpretation of some of what happened. The Mind Sports Olympiad still continues to this day, and deserves great credit for getting to its twentieth anniversary. In many ways, it’s much more stable in recent years than it ever was previously.

The Mind Sports Olympiad has long had a subsidiary focus on crossover events; the most prestigious tournament is the Pentamind, the tournament of winning tournaments, an overall competition where your score is based on your best performances in five other tournaments of your, slightly restricted, choice. A negative interpretation of the degree of success of the Mind Sports Olympiad is that being interested in a range of mind sports is quite a minority interest, and that many more players prefer to choose to specialise in one and delve deeply into it. While that’s not the way I roll, when I had that interpretation pointed out to me, it seemed to have more truth to it than I would have liked.

However, the Mind Sports Olympiad is only one approach towards having such a multi-sport festival for mind sports. One theory as to why the governing bodies of the individual mind sports never really seemed to buy in to the Mind Sports Olympiad, as such, is that there wasn’t anything in it for them. Perhaps it’s presumptuous to say that the Mind Sports Olympiad was an inspiration, but the governing bodies of chess, draughts, go and bridge got together under the banner of a new entity called the International Mind Sports Association (IMSA).

They used this to organise a counterpart event of their own in 2008 called the World Mind Sports Games, which certainly got rather closer to being a genuinely top-level competition in all four mind sports than the Mind Sports Olympiad ever had done. (Of the four mind sports, bridge arguably had the biggest stake in this, as they used it as a direct replacement for their long-established, previously-held quadrennial World Team Olympiad.) The event was hosted in Beijing, where the physical Summer Olympics had been earlier in the year, so there were competitions in xiangqi, also known as Chinese Chess, as well.

The plan was that the World Mind Sports Games would happen every four years and the intention was that they would happen in the same city in the physical Summer Olympics each time. There was a 2012 World Mind Sports Games, but it didn’t happen in London; it happened in Lille. That’s a pretty near miss, at least; the train journey to get to Lille from London is generally quicker than the one to, say, Birmingham. An event for 2016 was announced for Rio de Janeiro, but hasn’t yet happened. (The bridge federation held a replacement of their own to keep their own four-yearly cycle going, independent of the other mind sports.) For completeness, last year, IMSA recapped their achievements to date in a prospectus.

There’s another important body in all of this: SportAccord, the self-described International Federations’ Union, whose previous title of the Global Association of International Sports Federations comes rather closer to explaining what they do. They are an association whose members are international sports governing bodies, for there is much commonality and best practice to share. (The president of SportAccord took quite a big swipe at the IOC and its head in 2015 and a number of fairly major governing bodies decided to leave as a result, but that’s neither here nor there.) As of the 11th of April, they may have renamed themselves back to GAISF, but let’s go with SportAccord for now.

The Olympics are a tremendously valuable brand. There’s no reason why they should be the only such multi-sport festival to be a success; the longevity of ESPN’s private X Games (now over two decades old itself, and arguably deathly mainstream for a good one and a half of those) demonstrates how it’s possible to create a viable, worthwhile brand that isn’t the Olympics but yet has authenticity in its niche. That said, ESPN tried again with a brand called the Great Outdoor Games, for huntin’ log-rollin’, shootin’ and fishin’ (and dog agility trials) but this didn’t last as long as five years and has largely been forgotten now.

In recent years, SportAccord have tried to get in on the multi-sports festival industry. They put on two editions of the World Combat Games, with competitions in all manner of fighting disciplines – though, notably, not yet mixed martial arts as these disciplines’ intersection. (The third edition is set for 2018.) They also talked about putting on the World Urban Games, which didn’t happen, and the World Beach Games, which have been put back to 2019 and appear to have a different sponsor, but even I get confused at this point. You get the general principle, though. So what other sorts of subsections of sports could there be to have a specialised festival?

You guessed it: mind sports. Relevantly for this post, SportAccord worked with IMSA to put on events called the World Mind Games in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, all of which were in Beijing. There wasn’t an event in 2015, but early 2016 saw the IMSA Elite Mind Games in Huai’an, China, and three more years of events are planned there, the next starting in December. So clearly these things can work, to a greater or lesser extent, but it may depend on having a very strong local sponsor, and there appear to be ones for mind sports in China.

So there are at least a couple of plausible “or something like it” possibilities, of various import, and quite possibly you could think of others. Could puzzles be seen as a mind sport like chess, bridge or go? Would they want to?

Certainly puzzles, of two sorts, have featured at the Mind Sports Olympiad in the past. Several recent years have featured a half-day contest featuring contestants solving a fairly small number of very hard sudoku and a fairly small number of very hard KenKen puzzles as well. (Remember how Killer Sudoku puzzles tell you the sum of the digits in a particular cage? KenKen are similar, except they can tell you the sum, or the product, or the largest digit minus the rest, or the largest digit divided by the rest.) There have been at least one or two years where the MSO has hosted at least part of the Times Crossword Championship as well, so cryptic crossword puzzles are on-topic as well as sudoku variants.

The next question is whether puzzles might ever appear at the World Mind Sports Games. There seem to be two approaches that puzzles might take towards this route, if the World Puzzle Federation decided to do so.

The first route is to look at the IMSA’s original members, and note that the federations of chess, bridge, draughts and go were each already members of SportAccord in their own right at the time of IMSA’s foundation. If SportAccord consider them sports, would they consider puzzles a sport?

No less an expert than Alex Zane described escape rooms as “the fastest-growing team participation sport in the world“, so clearly escape rooms are a sport, and because escape rooms are puzzle competitions, puzzles are a sport, no question about it and that’s that. Slightly less facetiously, the existence of an organised World Puzzle Championship, and a World Puzzle Federation to govern it, shows people being willing to approach at least some aspects of puzzles in a sporting context. If you’re going to quibble that puzzle championships are contests of player against puzzles rather than player against player, then you can either point to golf being a counterpart contest of player against course or look at the years when the World Puzzle Championships’ final play-offs have been direct head-to-head contests.

The fact that puzzles are a mind sport certainly isn’t a problem; SportAccord’s definition of sport makes specific mention of mind sports being potentially included. They also say that “The sport should not rely on any element of “luck” specifically integrated into the sport” – and, while that isn’t a problem for puzzles, it’s an interesting issue nevertheless. While hands of bridge each use a shuffled deck of cards distributed at random, bridge uses the duplicate bridge format to eliminate the element of luck in their contests. I would incidentally note that the well-known physical sport of Greco-Roman wrestling will stop the action after a minute, and if no points have been scored by either wrestler in that minute, the sport flips a disc to see which participant is given an advantage in the rest of the bout. This is rather more explicit an element of luck than I might have expected.

There is an extremely interesting analogue to the bridge issue, if a shade further off-topic. Poker is much bigger business than any of the sports in the IMSA. (It might not have quite as many players, though global estimates of how many players a sport has, or how many people know how to play a sport, are always incredibly rough.) Could poker be a member of the IMSA? The SportAccord web site is somewhat vague about what is required, though you can find a reasonably recent version of its statutes suggesting what may be required, which doesn’t look too unrealistic.

Certainly there is a governing body for poker, promoting a version of the game called Match Poker, which roughly has an analogous relationship to regular poker as duplicate bridge has to rubber bridge. If duplicate bridge is sport-y enough, why wouldn’t Match Poker be? Within a year of forming the governing body, the IMSA decided that it certainly was back in 2010, noting that “Poker must also secure membership of SportAccord to maintain its IMSA status“, much as the other IMSA members also had SportAccord membership.

Fast forward to 2016, and it looks like the International Poker Federation was set to join SportAccord. Fast forward again to this year, and it looks like the application has been turned down. This latter article suggested that rugby league and arm-wrestling, which the previous article suggested were also due to be voted in, have also been rejected at the same time, so this (hopefully temporary) drawback may not actually reflect on poker; it may be that SportAccord are just a bit too busy changing their name at the moment to take any new members. SportAccord’s site is silent on the matter.

Further afield still, though I think it’s interesting, the governing body for pole sports, i.e. the sport version of pole dancing, is also making similar moves towards joining. Again, there’s a more established member of the same family already in there; the World DanceSport Federation oversees competitions in the sorts of dancing that you might see on Strictly. Don’t read too much into the fact that article dates from 1st April 2016; there are other news articles on the Pole Sports web site, with a much less foolish date, which convince me they’re for real.

The second route is to look at the minutes of the most recent IMSA Executive Board Meeting and observe that the governing body for xiangqi was added some time ago, and that the governing body for mahjong has been added now. (Once again, mahjong has been accepted under a duplicate format.) No mention of poker this time, though those minutes hint that “the Confederation of Card Games (CCG) has been admitted as an observer“, and I cannot find any other mention of such a body. It’s tempting to wonder whether their constituency is playing card games or, as the initialism would hint, collectable card games. (Though they’re usually called Trading Card Games these days, aren’t they?)

The common factor between xiangqi and mahjong is that they’re Big In China, and with the concentration of the IMSA’s events in China, plus the fact that they’ve opened a branch office in Beijing, plus the fact that the new IMSA president comes from the World Xiangqi Federation, that may be important. I don’t have any hard data for this, but I would wildly cast aspersions that xiangqi and mahjong may be very important for attracting local sponsorship, and that’s why they’ve been brought into the fold readily. From a business perspective, entirely fair enough.

If that were the case, it’s tempting to wonder whether puzzles might have an easier ride getting in if they, too, were able to more than pull their weight in terms of attracting sponsorship, especially local sponsorship. Some World Puzzle Championships have been better than others at attracting sponsorship deals; the World Puzzle Federation has not yet been successful (and I’m not sure that it’s had the staffing to even try) at trying to get long-term sponsorship deals going. It’s tempting to wonder whether the sorts of people who have proved themselves good at logic puzzles would be attractive to certain sorts of technical employers, but all mind sports have struggled to attract sponsorship, by and large.

That said, there would be some vague sort of local leverage in that Beijing hosted a Beijing International Sudoku Tournament in 2011 and 2012, winding up to hosting the World Puzzle Championships and World Sudoku Championships in 2013. The nation has also been on the podium for national teams at the World Sudoku Championships for each of the past five years, as well as sweeping the podium in the Under 18 division for the last four years running; possibly unsurprisingly, China has also apparently held a World Junior Sudoku Championship for the last couple of years. There does seem to be a local organisation with some degree of development, too. Might China support a sudoku championship even if it weren’t to support a puzzle championship, and might that get at least sudoku through the door? That might be more plausible.

The last question is whether the world of puzzles would even want to be associated with all these other mind sports, and all the other bigger-than-one-sport events. That’s a matter of opinion. It may be human nature but there don’t seem to be many global sports governing bodies that seem to be desperately popular, and that may make bigger governing bodies in turn even less popular still. (My view on skepticism of governing bodies is clear, and I’ve never looked to get involved personally.) That said, to me, the whole idea of wanting to be associated with something bigger is inherently cool; surely it would be fun to meet more somewhat like minds, and I can’t see how it could be actively bad for puzzles.

I’m going to watch this space with interest, knowing that I could well be waiting a long, long time!

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