The Demand for Chess in the United States, 1946-1990

By Chressanthis, George A. | American Economist, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview
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The Demand for Chess in the United States, 1946-1990

Chressanthis, George A., American Economist

I. Introduction

Ever since the seminal works of Becker (1965, 1975), economists have been fascinated with how consumers allocate their time among competing demands. However, far less research has been undertaken to explain the determinants of the demand for specific leisure activities. The probable reason for this void in research is the problem of securing data necessary to estimate a demand relationship.

This paper, with the help of data made available by the United States Chess Federation (USCF), will investigate the per capita demand for chess membership in the USCF from 1946-1990. Chess has long been considered an activity associated with other intellectual pursuits. The skills needed to be an accomplished chessplayer are often associated as necessary requirements to obtain success in other intellectual activities. Thus, while this study is specific to chess, it may also shed some light as to the demand for similar intellectual endeavors.

II. Chess in the United States

While its basic elements are fairly easy to learn, the game of chess is an extremely difficult and time-consuming game to master. Mastery of chess requires large investments in developing and refining human capital skills over long periods of time. For this reason, those players who have reached the highest level of play generally did so by learning the game in childhood. Only through continued study and practice for years in tournament play do individuals become master chessplayers.

Few individuals in the United States are chess professionals as measured by the attainment of the international title of grandmaster (GM). A recent listing published by the United States Chess Federation (1992), the principal governing body in this country which promotes and sponsors chess activities, names only 41 grand-masters out of a total USCF 1991 membership of 57,617.(1) Many of these internationally-titled players are emigres from other countries such as the former Soviet Union.(2) GMs try to make a living through monies won in chess tournaments here and abroad, or earned from activities such as instruction, writing articles or books, and simultaneous exhibitions. An equally small number of individuals in this country make their living through chess-related activities like selling chess equipment (i.e., chess sets, clocks, and books) and sponsoring and directing chess tournaments. Thus, for the overwhelming majority of players in this country, chess represents a leisure activity much like any other hobby or non-work endeavor.

Amateur chessplayers who join the USCF (founded in 1940), already place themselves in a distinct class of individuals from the rest of the national population. USCF members pay an annual membership fee which secures the right to enter all USCF sanctioned open events (after paying a tournament entry fee) and receive a rating (a measure of one's plying strength relative to other chessplayers). They also enjoy discounted prices for the purchasing of chess equipment, and receive a monthly magazine which keeps players abreast with chess related events here and abroad.

Players receive ratings after entering their first tournament, which can increase with wins or draws (provided the opponent has a higher rating) against other chessplayers. More points are awarded if the opponent has a higher rating. Reaching the top national rating category of master is attained by few chessplayers in the USCF (approximately 2%). However, players can lose their master title by continued poor play. Thus, attaining and keeping this elusive title is extremely difficult.

Several alternative chess-related activities are available through membership in the USCF. According to the 1991 USCF annual rating list, 28,360 USCF members played in over-the-board (OTB) games during 1991 through chess tournaments sponsored at the club, local, state, regional, and national levels. Many chess enthusiasts (approximately 11,000 as of 1991), for a variety of reasons, devote time to correspondence or postal chess.

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