Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wall Street Journal Attempts to Correct Faulty Chess Article

In a BEST post titled Why Does Chess Not Receive Intelligent Mainstream Media Coverage? I discussed a flawed Wall Street Journal chess article. On September 30, the Wall Street Journal published the following correction notice regarding that article:

Bobby Fischer played the chess opening Alekhine's Defense a number of times prior to his 1972 match with Boris Spassky, and Mr. Fischer opened his sixth game with Mr. Spassky with the move c4. In addition, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov played their final world-championship chess match in 1990. An article in the Sept. 26 Weekend Journal about a recent match between Messrs. Kasparov and Karpov incorrectly said their last world-championship match was in 1987. The article also incorrectly said that Mr. Fischer had never played the opening Alekhine's Defense before and that he opened his sixth game with Mr. Spassky with the move d4.

The day before the Wall Street Journal published the above note, I received this email from Peter Saenger, the News Editor for the Weekend Journal (Saenger's reply is placed in italics to separate it from the text of this post but is otherwise reprinted exactly as he sent it, including the misspelling of Botvinnik's first name):

Dear Mr. Friedman,

Thanks for your comments. We always appreciate hearing from readers. We will deal with some of the other issues you bring up in a correction to be published soon, but I wanted to point out one thing: When we published the part about Mr. Botvinnik, we hoped it would be clear from the context that we were not saying he was the first world champion ever:

For 4 1/2 decades after World War II, with only one short interruption, the world champion was a citizen of the Soviet Union. / Miikhail Botvinnik was the first champion, in 1948, and to a large extent he established the nature of the modern game.

Again, thanks for your comments, and please don't hesitate to write us again over any issue. Thanking you, I am,

Sincerely, Peter Saenger / News Editor / Weekend Journal

Arguing that "context" clarifies sloppy writing is a poor excuse. Contrary to what author David Szalay implied, Russia's chess tradition predates Lenin and the Soviet Union and includes such great players as Alexander Petrov, Carl Jaenisch, Mikhail Chigorin (challenger for the World Chess Championship in 1889 and 1892), Emmanuel Schiffers and Alexander Alekhine (World Chess Champion, 1927-1935, 1937-46). The 1914 international tournament held in St. Petersburg, Russia is a landmark event in chess history: the top five scorers were World Champion Emmanuel Lasker, future World Champions Jose Raul Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine, Siegbert Tarrasch (challenger for the World Chess Championship in 1908) and U.S. Champion Frank Marshall (challenger for the World Chess Championship in 1907). Many sources state that Czar Nicholas II conferred the title "Grandmaster" on those five players as a result of their success at St. Petersburg, though historian Edward Winter is skeptical of those accounts.

Instead of relying on "context," Szalay could have provided his readers with more information by writing: "Alexander Alekhine, heir to a Russian chess tradition dating to the 19th century, defeated Jose Raul Capablanca to become World Champion in 1927, lost the title to Max Euwe in 1935, defeated Euwe in 1937 and retained the crown until his death in 1946. Alekhine, like his predecessors, enjoyed the right to handpick his challenger but after his death FIDE (the International Chess Federation) took over the World Championship and in 1948 held a tournament to crown Alekhine's successor; Soviet star Mikhail Botvinnik won that event and for the next four and a half decades--with one brief exception--the World Chess Champion was a Soviet citizen."

My version is 64 words longer than Szalay's version but my version is written much more clearly and it is historically accurate. The problem with what Szalay wrote is not just that he erroneously called Botvinnik "the first champion" but that he asserted that Botvinnik "to a large extent established the modern nature of the game." Botvinnik certainly made a significant contribution to the evolution of chess but it is wrong to deny or diminish the contributions made by Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz, Aron Nimzovitch and other great players/theoreticians. Szalay clearly is not an informed student of chess history, nor did he do the necessary homework prior to writing his article and that is why his text is littered not only with the most basic factual errors but also presents a slanted take on the history of the sport.

Neither Saenger's email nor the Wall Street Journal's published correction address Szalay's confusion about the difference between a "match" and a "game"; Szalay bizarrely stated that Kasparov and Karpov drew a "speed chess match" in 1999, when in reality Kasparov beat Karpov three times while ceding only one draw en route to winning a rapid chess event in Frankfurt that year. Szalay oddly neglected to mention that Karpov defeated Kasparov in a four game rapid chess match in 2002.

I don't understand how writers, editors and fact checkers who have access to proper research materials make so many mistakes; switching gears to basketball, it befuddles me when the "crawl" on ESPN calls the legendary Oscar Robertson "Oscar Robinson" or when Chris Berman declares that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed game six of the 1980 NBA Finals due to a migraine (Abdul-Jabbar sprained his ankle during game five and that injury kept him out of game six, opening the door for Magic Johnson to author a legendary performance). Granted, anyone can make a mistake but why do so many people/organizations who are purportedly the leaders in their fields make so many basic mistakes? If you don't know a fact or statistic then before you write it or say it, take five minutes to confirm it. Szalay's mistaken references to Bobby Fischer's opening repertoire are easily refuted by consulting any number of sources, including the book Bobby Fischer's Chess Games (Wade and O'Connell, 1972), which contains all of Fischer's tournament and match games prior to his 1972 World Championship Match with Spassky and indexes each of those games by opening variation. Half of Kasparov's final World Championship match with Karpov took place in New York City in 1990, so it is ironic that the New York City-based Wall Street Journal is apparently unaware of a significant event that took place so close to their headquarters--and it is hard to take Szalay seriously as a chess writer if he does not know such recent history.

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, who is now perhaps ESPN's best NFL analyst, refers to quarterbacking as a "craft," insisting that quarterbacks should study the game and practice their techniques with the mindset of perfecting their craftsmanship; Young certainly took that approach during his playing career, evolving from a scrambler to become the highest rated passer in NFL history. Writing and editing are also crafts and the practitioners of those crafts should have enough pride in their work that they put forth the effort to know their subject matter and express their ideas clearly.

The Wall Street Journal properly corrected Szalay's basic factual errors but this does not change the reality that Szalay's piece distorts chess history by belittling Russia's great chess tradition, minimizing the greatness of Botvinnik's predecessors and inexplicably contending that during their recent match Kasparov and Karpov reprised "their younger, fiercer, hungrier selves." Szalay's article fails at all levels because he does not know the basics of chess history, he does not appreciate the subtleties of how the sport has evolved and he obviously has no familiarity with the Kasparov-Karpov rivalry past or present.

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