10 reasons chess may never make it as a spectator sport
- 12 November 2013
The current world championship between Norwegian prodigy Magnus Carlsen and defending champion Viswanathan Anand is a rare moment when the spotlight is on the world of chess. At these high-profile moments the same question is asked: Can chess ever truly make it as a spectator "sport"? Here are 10 reasons why it might not, writes Finlo Rohrer.
1. The body language of the players is hardly televisable. Many players sit with their head cupped in their hands. They can play a rapid series of moves at the beginning but then nothing happens for minutes at a time. The players' faces barely flicker. Poker players are animated by comparison.
2. The Cold War is over. Chess's benchmark historic occasion was the contest between American genius Bobby Fischer and Soviet champion Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972. The geopolitical backdrop added piquancy to an occasion that dominated headlines around the world - it was billed as individualist American against machinelike Soviet.
3. Chess isn't like it is in the movies. The movies like to use chess as either a) a signal that a person is brainy and possibly devious, or b) a metaphor for some kind of struggle. That struggle can be intellectual (Roy Batty v Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner) or even romantic (the Thomas Crown Affair).
4. The layman gets no real insight into the extraordinary minds of Carlsen and Anand. In a sense they cancel each other out. Carlsen is said to have something in the region of 10,000 games memorised. He can play 10 opponents simultaneously. Blindfolded. This level of remarkable brainpower would impress a layman but it doesn't naturally come out in the world championship.
5. About that cancelling out. The first game of this current series ended in a draw after 16 moves. The second also ended in a draw.
6. There were good reasons for those draws, but most people who have never played chess competitively would struggle to understand them, even after patient explanation. For those who don't know the broad strategical issues, chess is baffling. You need to know that doubled pawns is generally bad. Retaining both bishops is generally good. And about 59 other strategic points of varying degrees of esotericism. Tournaments can have an analysis room where lesser grandmasters will explain what's going on, running suggestions shouted from the crowd through a computer. It's amusing when a modest club player spots a move that a super-grandmaster hasn't, but non-chess players would still struggle to get enthused by these proceedings.
7. One of the most watchable forms of chess is not tournament chess. In certain public squares in the US and Europe, people sit in the sun and play very quick games of chess, often for money. Tourists gather as hustlers attempt to win small change off saps. There is cheering. There is booing. There is natural drama. In the cloistered atmosphere of the world championship, what tension there is arguably exists only within the head of other chess aficionados in the vicinity. The game is played in total silence, with Anand and Carlsen competing in a soundproofed glass box.
8. There's no more Bobby Fischer. Fischer was a one-man highbrow soap opera in his pomp. Full of egomania, pithily arrogant quotes ("I like the moment when I break a man's ego") and a simply breathtaking ability to play the game, he was the source of understandable fascination. As snooker's relationship with Ronnie O'Sullivan shows, a sport benefits from a controversial figure at its centre.
9. It's all rather slow for the non-aficionado. These world championship matches can last more than six hours. Some sports have made things quicker to pique interest. Arguably, chess should take a leaf out of the 20/20 book. Chess does have the equivalent of a penalty shoot-out and it is, if anything, more nerve-wracking than an actual penalty shootout. If Carlsen and Anand tie over the 12 tournament games, they will then play a series of quicker games. If these are a tie, they will then play some very quick games, known as blitz. If they are still tied at this point they go to something called Armageddon. In this version of chess, there has to be a result. White gets five minutes to play all his moves, black gets four minutes, but crucially black only has to draw to win the game.
10. No other board games are spectator sports. Scrabble fans don't agonise over the fact that it's never going to be at the Olympics. Aficionados of Settlers of Catan don't complain that it's not on Sky Sports on a Sunday night. You wouldn't want to see Monopoly on a big screen in Times Square.