Thursday, 8 November 2007

Sticking Up for Chess

I did a chess-related sound bite for a local radio station this morning (Nov 2007). I've done a fair few of these over the years and you tend to get asked the same old questions. The problem is that they are just using you to fill in a couple of minutes at the end of the hour, before the news bulletin kicks in. You are the equivalent of the 'skateboarding duck' story which is traditionally slotted into the end of TV news shows, just to raise the viewers' spirits after half an hour of depressing hard news stories. Or the 'dead donkey' which can be conveniently 'dropped' should there be a big story which needs more time. In fact, that excellent TV comedy show of the 1990s to which I am referring could, but for the grace of God, have been named Drop the Chess Story. I'm so glad it wasn't.

Anyway, you always have to expect to be asked something about the game's reputation for being 'slow' or 'boring', or about the image of chessplayers as 'geeks' or 'nerds'. Tempting though it is for an old grump like me to trade insult for insult and suggest that I cannot think of anything more boring than listening to local radio - that would come across as snooty and middle-class - you have to play the game... take a deep breath and say something frothy and upbeat which chimes in with the banter that you hear coming down the phone line from larky lads and lasses in the studio. Well, that's what I tend to do, anyway. Anyone got a good riposte that they'd like to suggest in response to the 'slow, boring' jibe ?

One idea I had but did not implement was to ask that the presenters do a bit of homework on chess before my slot. Next time I might suggest that they go to 'YouTube' and search for 'Nakamura Dlugy'...

... two grandmasters playing one-minute chess whilst heavy rock music plays around them. After watching that, could they still legitimately ask me whether chess was slow or boring?

Of course, the real reason a lot of people think chess is boring is because they have never had contact with anyone who can play it competently. They think they know what chess is, but they don't. Most games and sports tend to be slow and boring when played by the untutored or the incompetent. Even reasonably competent sport, as practised by parks footballers, is not particularly stimulating to watch when played in front of two men and a dog.

Here's a little experiment: next time you watch TV football, try watching with the sound turned down. Dull, isn't it? It makes you realise that a huge part of the fun comes from the noise made by the crowd and the commentators. Much of the appeal of TV sport lies in being sucked into this state of mass hysteria which a lot of us find irresistible. It wouldn't work quite like that for TV chess, of course, but there are other, subtler ways of getting people involved in things presented on the box.

As for the 'geek/nerd' jibe: my standard reply is to tell them about someone like Simen Agdestein, grandmaster and pro footballer. And now star of the Norwegian equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing. Although that particular answer is almost as trite and done-to-death as the question it purports to answer, it's a way of trying to tell them that chessplayers come in all shapes and sizes (although it has to be admitted that an unhealthily large proportion sport a 'y' chromosome) and that, amongst the geeks and nerds, there are 'jocks' and 'dudes' and 'babes' and 'alpha males' and 'brats' and 'fogies'... in fact, virtually every kind of revoltingly-named social stereotype that one can think of.

How do readers of my blog respond to the geek/nerd jibe?

Whilst looking round for some online video action showing Agdestein playing football, or even doing the paso doble (haven't found anything as yet), I came across some soccer action featuring another chessplayer, Torkil Nielsen, who was reputedly the chess champion of the Faroes Islands and has a rating in the mid-2100s so he's a decent player. He was the Faroe Islands soccer player who scored the winning goal for his country against Austria in one of the biggest international soccer upsets of all time in a European Championship qualifying match in 1990. Here's the video...

... or at least, here it was, until those spoilsports at UEFA denied us the pleasure of seeing it on YouTube. Had it still been available, I would have warned you to turn the sound down on your computer before watching it - the commentator goes completely berserk. "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!! Ludwig Wittgenstein!! Sigmund Freud!! Kurt Waldheim!! Arnold Schwarzenegger!! Can you hear me, Arnold Schwarzenegger!! We gave your boys a helluva beating!!" Well, he could have been saying something like that, couldn't he?

Enough of the chess, it's nearly time for the news headlines...

This has been John Saunders...
At three minutes to eight...
BBC Ambridge...


  1. I tend to compare chess to cricket: if you're going to find something boring because it takes a while to unfold, then perhaps neither is for you. But if what you like is to see a drama unfold....

  2. I don't think the geek/nerd thing can be contested in soundbite terms without coming on as aggressively defensive. Journalists deal in the stereotypes their audience will accept. One way things could change is via guys like Kasparov, 'crossover' personalities/celebrities who are both 'chess' and 'something else'. But even then, we'd be wise to hang on to the 'chess = clever' duality, and leave the skateboarding duck to get on with it


  3. My pulse races. My senses are at a high state of alert. The anticipation is a mixture of joy and anxiety. The challenge is great but the rewards far greater. It will take all my intuition, skill, and a certain blend of good judgment and impulsive daring to be successful. Two activities I do make me feel this way. Rock climbing and chess. Those people who can not understand the passion are the ones who don't do it for very long.