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Checkmate: chess ... on the radio?

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Abigail Appleton Abigail Appleton | 16:25 UK Time, Monday, 13 December 2010

Chess pieces
My brother, who lives in Denmark, likes to pretend he will never forgive me for once having given him a large and very heavy mirror for Christmas.  At the time he had very young children and the journey back to Denmark after a Christmas in England was hard enough without lugging outsize bags.   It’s become a joke between us so that when last year I spent Christmas with him in Denmark (with my own young children) I wasn’t surprised to see a large, unwieldy present with my name on it under the tree.  It turned out to be a carved, wooden chess set, as large as a small table, and a thing of beauty. We got it home with difficulty and it’s now greatly loved though it stimulates far more chess stories and observations than it does actual games.

Chess, it seems, has always attracted craftsmen, artists and conversation as well as players.   Whether or not you know the rules of the game, its language and concepts are pervasive and over the next week on Radio 3 we’ve a short season, Checkmate, exploring the game’s extraordinarily rich history and culture through a range of discussions, talks, and drama. Night Waves will be looking at the relationship between chess and intelligence tonight, and tomorrow, the vexed question, for some chess lovers, of the rise of poker.

There’s also a wide ranging week of chess talks in The Essay, including a fascinating look at the history of chess on the air waves from the radio historian David Hendy (that's Wednesday's Essay).  He describes how the forerunner of today’s Radio 3, The Third Programme, launched a dedicated chess series in 1958 which ran for six years.   There were dilemmas and debates behind the scenes with one producer instructing his presenter above all to ‘avoid the subjects of women and lunacy’, though this turned out to be impossible.   On Tuesday the novelist Anuradha Roy explores the place of chess in Indian culture where the game is said to have originated.  Today in India, she says, middle class children are encouraged to play the game in the hope of improving their exam results and landing a plum job.  On Friday Ukranian thriller writer Andrey Kurkov narrates the sometimes murderous history of chess in Russia. ‘Ivan the Terrible’, a keen chess player, reportedly died at the chess table.  Was he murdered by poisoned chess pieces, Andrey Kurkov speculates?

Listen out for readings from some of the many literary portrayals of the game in Breakfast and Afternoon on 3 as well as some chess related music, whilst next Sunday (December 19th) there’s an adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s classic chess novel The Royal Game. Paul Rhys gives a totally absorbing performance as the mysterious and broken Dr. Berg.   The Sunday Feature that follows includes some of the week’s most striking contributions, from author and chess champion John Healy. ‘It’s a blood sport, it’s a psychic hunt’, he says and powerfully describes the effect on his own life when he learnt to play chess as an inmate in Pentonville prison, finding a path to a different life through the game.

I wouldn’t claim listening to Checkmate will be life-changing but I hope it will be fascinating.  Perhaps, with Christmas on its way, the Checkmate season will prompt a few listeners to evoke the spirit of The Third Programme's chess series and have a game.  With my brother visiting us again this year I’m thinking of burying the hatchet and buying him a small and very light, travelling chess set.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Great. It's a shame, though, that the producers of the series didn't make any effort to publicise the programmes among the chessplaying community, despite requests for information to enable them to do so. It's an odd approach indeed, that sees chess as a subject of sufficient importance that a week's worth of programmes may be devoted to it, but sees those who actually play chess of insufficient importance to communicate with.

  • Comment number 2.

    'An abstract past-time...' From today's schedule. Bridge is more my pastime than chess, but I do recognise a bad case of lazy use of spell-check when I see one.

 

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