Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why Does Chess Not Receive Intelligent Mainstream Media Coverage?

Former World Chess Champions Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov recently played a 12 game match in Valencia, Spain to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their first World Championship Match. The 46 year old Kasparov defeated the 58 year old Karpov 9-3, prevailing 3-1 in "rapid" games (25 minutes per player per game, plus a five second increment added after each move) and 6-2 in "blitz" games (five minutes per player per game, plus a two second increment). Kasparov's lopsided victory is hardly surprising considering the age difference between the players and the recent dramatic decline in Karpov's playing strength (he no longer ranks among the world's top 100 players) but it is worth remembering that their five World Championship matches were each tightly contested and yielded a cumulative score of 73-71 in Kasparov's favor. Their 1984-85 marathon match was suspended without conclusion, ostensibly because the players were exhausted after five months of combat; challenger Kasparov vociferously protested this decision because it certainly seemed designed to keep the title in the hands of Karpov, the defending champion who had been fading fast after taking a lead of five wins to none. Karpov led 5-3 when the match ended--with 40 draws (!) not counting because the match format required the winner to win six games--but Kasparov had just won two games in a row. Not surprisingly, that match format was altered when the players began a new match in 1985 and this time Kasparov triumphed 13-11 (five wins, three losses, 16 draws) to become the youngest official World Chess Champion. Kasparov successfully defended his title three times versus Karpov, beating him 12.5-11.5 in a 1986 match (five wins, four losses, 15 draws), drawing a 1987 match 12-12 (four wins apiece, 16 draws) and winning a 1990 match 12.5-11.5 (four wins, three losses, 17 draws).

Chess aficionados eagerly follow the moves played by the game's greatest champions and the internet has made it possible to do so instantaneously (subject to technical difficulties) as opposed to having to wait for the game scores to be published in newspapers, magazines or books; I remember getting together with a group of chess friends in 1990 to "watch"--via an internet connection--the first game of the Kasparov-Karpov match, a big change from previous World Championship Matches when I had to wait until the next day to find the moves in USA TODAY and could only find quality analysis of the games in magazines/books that were not published until weeks (or months) later.

The general public--at least in America--largely ignores what is happening in the chess world unless someone who is a child prodigy and/or has a charismatic personality captures their imagination: Kasparov, Bobby Fischer and Josh Waitzkin (the subject of the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer") are three examples of chess players who achieved a certain degree of "mainstream" fame, though Waitzkin's story is no doubt much more widely known than his actual name. Kasparov is certainly more famous than Viswanathan Anand--the current World Chess Champion--and for that reason the recent Kasparov-Karpov showdown attracted a lot of attention from media outlets that generally provide little or no chess coverage.

I am ranked at approximately the 95th percentile of U.S. chess players and I consider the mano a mano competition in chess to be a welcome contrast to the subjective way that many other fields of endeavor--including writing--operate, so at one level I am happy to see chess receiving mainstream attention but at the same time I also am frustrated that the sport and its history are not presented more accurately. Chess is an ancient game that enjoys world-wide popularity among an incredibly diverse group of people who defy categorization by age, socioeconomic status, gender or race--so why is it so rare for a mainstream American media publication to offer an intelligent portrayal of this sport/art/science?

The September 27-28 edition of the Wall Street Journal includes a lengthy article by David Szalay titled "Old Kings, New Game." Szalay tries to place the Kasparov-Karpov rivalry in historical context but he paints an inaccurate picture of the development of the sport and he is also ignorant of several basic facts. Here is the text of a letter that I sent (via email) to the editors of the Wall Street Journal:

As a U.S. Chess Federation rated expert, I am happy to see chess receive "mainstream" coverage but overall I am disappointed in the rather superficial--and, in some cases, simply inaccurate--article written by David Szalay.

The WSJ article titled "Old Kings, New Game" asserts that Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov "played their final world championship match in 1987." In fact, their final world championship match took place in 1990, with 12 games being held in New York and 12 games being held in Lyon, France. Kasparov won 12.5-11.5 to retain the world championship title.

Also, Szalay describes Mikhail Botvinnik as "the first champion" but that is not correct. As noted below, several world champions preceded Botvinnik--nor was Botvinnik the first player of Russian descent to hold the title (if that is what Szalay meant to say); Alexander Alekhine was born in Moscow.

Wilhelm Steinitz was the first official world chess champion; his reign officially lasted from 1886-1894, though he is widely credited as being the world champion for the period 1866-1894. Steinitz was succeeded by Emmanuel Lasker, who reigned from 1894-1921. Jose Raul Capablanca defeated Lasker in 1921. Alexander Alekhine beat Capablanca in 1927 and remained the champion until he died in 1946, with the exception of the years 1935-37, when Max Euwe took the title from Alekhine. Botvinnik ascended to the throne by winning a world championship tournament held in 1948, an event that featured several top contenders vying for the title vacated by Alekhine's death.

Furthermore, Szalay shows a lack of understanding of the evolution of chess when he dismisses the strategic understanding of Paul Morphy and presents Botvinnik as the creator of "modern chess." Many of Botvinnik's predecessors--including Steinitz, Aron Nimzovitch and Morphy himself--made significant contributions to the development of the "modern" game and Szalay neglects to mention that in 1960 Botvinnik suffered a championship match defeat at the hands of Mikhail Tal, a player whose style was not scientific but who played very much in the tactical/romantic manner that Morphy did; Tal's moves sometimes were refuted in post-match analysis but Tal put pressure on his opponents to find solutions during the game, with the clock running and the tension mounting.

I disagree with Szalay's conclusion that during the just concluded Kasparov-Karpov match in Spain that the players "slip(ped) back into their younger, fiercer, hungrier selves." While it is true that Kasparov and Karpov were not on cordial terms during their rivalry in the 1980s and early 1990s, they have since become friendly and the reality is that this match had a completely different tone than their earlier showdowns.

In his article, Szalay simply communicated his biases/lack of understanding about chess as opposed to researching the subject in depth or even bothering to follow what actually happened in the match in Valencia, Spain. I sincerely hope that the next time the Wall Street Journal provides such prominent coverage to chess that it uses a writer who is much more well versed about the subject.

--David Friedman

Although I doubt that the editors will either publish my letter or even respond to it, I kept it at a publishable length and thus did not do a complete recitation of all of the errors/distortions in Szalay's article. For instance, Szalay wrongly stated that Fischer began game six of his 1972 World Championship Match versus Boris Spassky with the move d4; Fischer in fact played c4 on the first move of that game, though by transposition the players eventually reached an opening that generally begins with d4. Szalay also referred to a "speed chess match" that Kasparov and Karpov drew in 1999, but they did not draw a "match"* in 1999, nor is what they did play properly called "speed chess": both players participated in a four player rapid chess event called the Siemens Giants held in Frankfurt, Germany; Kasparov and Karpov faced each other four times in this round robin tournament, resulting in three draws and one Kasparov victory. Kasparov took first place in the tournament, while Karpov finished fourth (last). As noted above, in "speed" chess each player generally has five minutes to complete all of his moves, while in "rapid" chess each player generally has 25 minutes to complete of all his moves; writing as if the two forms of chess are the same--or that they can be compared to games contested at slower time controls--is similar to writing as if a three on three tournament or a slam dunk contest are the same thing or that they can be compared to organized five on five basketball games. Furthermore, it is strange that Szalay chose to mention the 1999 event but did not say anything about the four game 2002 Kasparov-Karpov rapid match in which Karpov emerged as a surprise winner by the score of 2.5-1.5, an impressive victory for the older Karpov against Kasparov, who at that time still ranked number one in the world (though Kasparov was no longer the official World Champion).

In the literary world, Szalay's alleged expertise about chess has earned him not only prominent placement in the Wall Street Journal but also contracts to write chess-themed fiction books; over the board in the chess world, such "expertise" about how to play the game would only earn a humiliating defeat--or, in the immortal words of World Champion Emmanuel Lasker, "On the chess board lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."


* Journalists who are not chess players appear to be chronically incapable of correctly using the most basic chess terminology: they are often confused about the difference between a "game" and a "match"; a game is one encounter between two players and can take place either in a tournament (which consists of a series of games played against different opponents) or in a match (which consists of a set number of games contested by two opponents). When I read a story about chess that incorrectly uses those terms interchangeably I feel like I am hearing fingernails scratching a chalkboard, because it is frustrating that some reporters apparently make no effort to do even the most basic research about their subject matter. In the 1999 Frankfurt event, Kasparov and Karpov played four games as part of a round robin tournament; loosely speaking, one could say that they contested a "match," but their battle was just one part of a larger tournament, in contrast to a true match that only pits two competitors against each other.

The chess concept that is most often misrepresented in the media is "stalemate," a word that non-chess players frequently--and incorrectly--use as a synonym for "impasse" or "deadlock," but the actual meaning of the term is quite specific and does not refer to two parties that are equally balanced in a standoff. In chess a stalemate is a particular type of draw, namely a situation in which one side enjoys a material superiority but has carelessly left his opponent with no legal moves without putting him in check (in contrast to checkmate, when the losing player has no way out of check); in chess, all stalemates are draws but not all draws are stalemates, an important distinction that is usually completely ignored in general parlance.


Ilhan said...


First of all, thanks for the piece. Simple, thus, embarrasing mistakes for a supposed chess journalist-cum-expert. A few questions/requests/remarks:

1. Would you say that the lack of intelligent coverage, the exposition of which seems to be among the main goals of your writing, pertains merely to sports media or to traditional media in general? Would you say that the cause of the lack in question is merely financial (e.g., due to the slow death of traditional media in the face of "free" internet and to the price of genuine expertise), or that there is a prevalent problem of dumbing down in the culture? Do you remember Doug Collins' HOF speech where he said you can talk about the x-and-o's in clinics but not on the air? I really don't get that piece of supposed common sense. It makes more sense, at least to me, that the more a passive onlooker understands a practice - be it art, sport or else - the more she is likely to enjoy it the way its participants do. I wouldn't miss the most dreadful game if it were accompanied by a, non-watered down, technical breakdown by Hubie Brown enabling me to really interpret what I am seeing on the screen, to understand what the coaches are thinking, what a substitution means, and so on. The common sense, on the other hand, seems to be that the mainstream audience "just wanna have fun", and that anything cerebral is a no-no.

2. Would you consider, at least some of the time, mentioning authors, books and publications that are good, that have influenced you early on, etc.? (If only as appendices to the negative reviews/criticisms.) Recently, you've told 'Jack B.' simply not to read "the mounds of garbage" being produced. I think, for any fan, there exists a certain hunger for material which is to be satisfied one way or another. I would love to get some recommendations from you on chess as well as on hoops.

3. In this piece, you mention Karpov being an older player and think it self-evident, for everyone reading, that there is a 'prime' and a subsequent decline in chess, that it is natural for Karpov, being deeper into decline, to be a weaker player than Kasparov. I think, unless one is an aficionado, who either appreciates how physically taxing high-level (tournament) chess is, or, like me, has read about the steep decline of players before even middle age, the effects of age on the player in the case of chess is not evident in the same way they are in the cases of, say, football and basketball.

This brings me to my main request which I've been meaning to write about for sometime. Would you consider writing/interviewing about the aging process (at least for basketball)? People talk about losing a step, etc. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, rookies start talking about the game slowing down for them in their second year. But we simply do not know about the decline, especially about its phenomenology, if you will. How is it experienced by the players themselves? Do they live through a period of illusion where they think they are still so-and-so, though they really aren't anymore? Or does the time creep up to them and the game simply speeds up all at once? How do they cope up with lost athleticism? How do they look back upon the times when they had the athleticism but perhaps not the skills and the wherewithal? Regrets, etc.? Do they try to pass some of that wisdom on to the younger players? If so, are they ever successful? Etcetera. In your interviews with the NBA/ABA greats, these topics are sometimes touched upon but never as a focal point. I think this is a crucial aspect of sports, and life in general, which isn't thematized nearly enough. I would love to read about it.

David Friedman said...


I think that the lack of intelligent coverage is a serious problem throughout traditional media in general and not limited to sports media. In fact, the same kind of amateurish writing, sloppy research and tendentious conclusions one finds in sports media are merely a microcosm of flaws found throughout traditional media coverage in general.

If you read my HoopsHype interview of Hubie Brown--which can be found in the righthand sidebar of 20 Second Timeout--you will see that he told me that when he started out analyzing basketball on TV he encountered resistance to the way that he technically broke down plays but he refused to talk down to the audience and did not accept the idea that fans could not follow and/or were not interested in learning the intricacies of the game. He has always been my favorite NBA analyst and I take the same approach when I write about games: I don't talk down to my audience but rather focus on the strategies and techniques of the sport.

2) The sad reality is that many of the best writers are dead and many of the best books were published a while ago.

3) In elite level chess, the prime years are generally considered to be 25-40 and if anything those numbers are moving downward because so many players are earning the GM title in their teens. It will be interesting to see what happens with Anand, who just turned 40. In the book The Rating of Chessplayers Past and Present, Arpad Elo--who invented the rating system that now bears his name--discusses the issue of gerontology not just in chess but in sports in general.

Although I have not systematically researched the aging process in sports, if you check out my articles about/interviews with retired players you will find that I have addressed that theme, at least tangentially. At 20 Second Timeout, I recently reprinted my 2002 Basketball Digest article about NBA players who performed at a high level past the age of 40.