“John from Omaha is on the line…”

Please pardon the slight departure from our normal operations.

Today, if you were listening to the second hour of “On Point,” you heard a very nervous chess book reviewer named John talk about technology and chess in the heartland. If you’ve never been a sap like me who calls into a national radio show, here’s how it works: you sit on hold for what seems like an eternity, heart pounding in your chest as you try to remember what you want to say, and then you’re on the air. You try to say something cogent, or at least comprehensible, and you hope that your less-than-baritone voice comes off ok as it traverses the airwaves. Suddenly your time is up, they move on, and you think, boy, I hope that made some sense.

The reason for my call to the show was the topic: a recent article by Seth Stevenson at Slate on the 2014 Sinquefield Cup called “Grandmaster Clash: One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and nobody noticed.” Not only is the title too clickbait-y for words, but it’s also factually wrong. LOTS of people noticed. Greg Shahade wrote a wonderful rebuttal to the article, and I recommend it to you. What follows are my thoughts, prompted by the show and the article.

1. Why does it seem like “nobody noticed?”

Chess, for better or for worse, is happening on the Internet. One of the first callers talked about how she played chess with her friends on an app called “Chess with Friends.” Right there we see both the blessing and the curse of chess in the Internet age. More people are playing chess – on Yahoo, on chess.com, on ICC, via specialized apps – but they’re doing so online, in private, away from the eyes of others. Chess is hidden from mainstream society, still somewhat stigmatized as a game for geeks, a respite for deviants.

One of the great successes of the St Louis Chess Club is precisely that they have made chess very visible, very public, both in St Louis and on the Internet. They host major, major tournaments, including all of the United States Championships (men, women, juniors) and what is becoming the strongest annual tournament in the world, and they locally advertise the hell out of them. The Club also broadcasts their events on the Internet, for free, with production values so good that Fox Sports Midwest was able to take their footage and put together television shows for cable showing.

So why does Stevenson think that nobody noticed Caruana’s winning streak? It would have been easy enough to get stats on how many people were watching the livestream from the Club. But how many people watched on ICC? on chess.com? on ChessBase.com? played over the games later via The Week in Chess? How many Norwegians tuned in to television coverage of their hero? How many Armenians?

Put simply, I think that the reason it might appear that “nobody noticed” is that chess is not a huge commercial success in the way that poker was before Black Friday. There are not millions of dollars to be made on running or broadcasting chess events, so the media hype is not and will not be the same. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t paying attention. What it means is that chess is not something that can be monetized in the same way that poker was or the NFL is.

What’s more, chess by its nature – being a game of perfect information with a steep learning curve – is not television friendly. What made poker interesting was that every viewer felt, deep down, that they too could be Chris Moneymaker if they got a great run of cards. Poker is a game of skill, but it’s also a game of luck. Chess is pure skill, which is why you won’t see a 1400 player win the Millionaire Chess Tournament next month. Real comprehension and enjoyment of chess requires some enculturation.

This is why, as Yasser Seirawan has said, the future of chess is on the Internet and not TV. People can dip in and out of the livestreams as time and interest allow. They can play over the annotated games from the day’s events asynchronously. Here we begin to run into the problem of monetizing once more. Making money off clicks and views still isn’t a viable business model unless you fold in advertising like Google and Facebook do. If there’s no money to be made, there’s no real sustained media attention in America. So it goes with chess. And I’m actually ok with that, for reasons I’ll discuss below.

2. The Internet and the Engines

I tried to talk about ‘chess technology’ at the top of my comment. What I meant, as noted above, was that the Internet and the chess engines are changing how we learn and play chess. While the Internet makes more of our chess activity hidden, we have vastly more opportunity to play and learn. You used to have to move to NY if you wanted to become a good player. Now, like Kansan GM Conrad Holt (who won the US Open this year), you play online and you take lessons online. No need to move!

The same is true with chess engines. In the On Point segment today Stevenson trotted out the “we still watch Usain Bolt run even though motorcycles are faster” line, and there’s something to that. For me, however, engines further the democratization of chess in that everyone with a modern computer now has access to a Super-GM 24 hours a day.  Nobody plays against their computers anymore unless they’re masochists or they’re being paid to participate in a novelty match. But everyone from beginner to World Champion can check their ideas against the computer’s silicon brain. Everyone can go to YouTube and watch instructional videos from the St Louis Chess Club. The barriers to improvement are dropping. This can only be good for the future of chess.

3. Popularizing Chess

The real task for chess lovers and organizers is to bring chess back out into the public sphere. We have to bring players back into the clubs and tournaments. We have to give them a reason to log off ICC and come back to over-the-board play. How to do that? If only I knew. I do, however, have a few ideas:

– The USCF used to pay Arthur Bisguier to travel the country giving simuls to popularize chess. Perhaps our benefactor Rex Sinquefield might be induced to do the same thing. Put Ben Finegold out on the road, or send Ronen Har-Zvi out on a month-long tour. You can get a lot of attention in local press when you bring a Grandmaster to town.

– Partner with the AARP to promote chess as a ‘brain-game’ defense against dementia and Alzheimer’s. Perhaps the STL Chess Club could host a US Senior Championship along with the Men’s, Women’s and Junior Championships. [Yes, I know this ‘contradicts’ the next point. So be it.]

– Rethink how we market chess to kids. Right now chess is pitched to parents as a way to make their kids smart. They send the kids to chess clubs and tournaments, the kids dutifully participate, and then they drop away from the game. Part of the problem is that we’re only giving purely instrumental reasons for taking up the game, and we’re not successful at inculcating love for the game in the young players. Methods of recruitment (and methods of pedagogy) affect outcomes. (For more on this, have a look at what Richard James has to say on the topic.)

4. Was Caruana’s win streak really that amazing?

Yes and no. Seven straight wins against top-10 opposition is pretty darned good. But keep in mind that this was only a 10 round tournament with a rest day and no adjournments. He could afford to play with max effort in those games, knowing that his playing schedule was short. I think the win streak would have been even more impressive were it in even a 12 or 14 game tournament, where Caruana would have had to calculate winning chances against the need to conserve energy.

What’s more, there are arguments to be made that (a) this was not nearly the strongest tournament of all time, given rating inflation and the non-existence of international ratings before 1970, and (b) that other streaks like Fischer’s in 1963 or 1971 are much more impressive.

5. Do we want more attention?

Perhaps the real question is this: do we want the kind of mass-market, commodified attention that Stevenson assumes as a good? Do we really want tabloid coverage of Nakamura’s outbursts and Carlsen’s modeling gigs?

What I’m asking here is whether or not we shouldn’t deny the premise of Stevenson’s article, which is great as a color piece on the state of modern chess, but (frankly) lousy on understanding why chess is so important to so many of us. Stevenson seems to think that chess needs and deserves the kind of attention that the NFL gets. I disagree.

Chess is valuable in that it teaches players everything that neoliberal society does not. It teaches critical thinking and the need for judgment. It requires sitzfleish. It is an arena in which the necessarily futile search for absolute truth is seen not as failure but as limit-ideal, where beauty is not extraneous but essential.

If we strive to make chess palatable for the masses, we risk losing all of that.

I prefer to be contrarian. I teach chess, think chess, dream chess precisely because it is unprofitable, because it is not quick, flashy, facile. I am always apprenticing myself to it, knowing full well that I will never begin to master it.

So I’m very, very glad to be able to watch chess on the Internet. Many of my fellow chess fans are as well. But I’m just as glad that I’m not watching it on CBS on Sunday afternoons and that there are no tailgates outside the St Louis Chess Center. I’d prefer to keep chess weird.

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One thought on ““John from Omaha is on the line…”

  1. Chris Wainscott

    I listened to the show and I certainly feel that in some ways the host and author are misguided.

    However, I am also hopeful that the fact that any media outlet even noticed what was going on.

    I think this shows things are heading in the right direction.

    Reply

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