TITLE: On the Popularity of Chess
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: December 23, 2005 10:19 AM
DESC: A not-quite-off-topic reminiscence on chess and its popularity.
My only non-professional blog category is on
That reflects one of my primary personal interests in
the time since I started blogging a year and a half ago.
If I had started blogging twenty-five years ago, the
extra category would have been on chess.
From grade school into college, but especially in high
school, I played a lot of chess, more
than anyone I knew. I read chess books, I played chess
variants, and I surrounded myself with the miscellania
of the chess world. Chess didn't seem especially popular
in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but we were still in
the midst of the
which had created a resurgence in the popularity of
chess in America. The headiness of the Fischer boom
years eventually passed. Independently, I got busy
at college with computer science (and girls) and had
less and less time to play. But I still love the
in the New York Times talks about the further decline
of American chess. The article's author,
is a former U.S. women's champion and one of only
a few young native-born Americans to have accomplished
much in the world of chess over the last decade.
There are many great minds who still play chess in
the U.S. when they are young, but they are pulled
toward more attractive -- and lucrative -- endeavors
as they get older. Shahade points to poker, which
has undergone a massive boom in popularity over the
last decade, as a source of possible ideas for saving
chess from its decline.
Her suggestions are reasonable goals accompanied by
simple strategies for reaching them. The chess world
needs to offer ways for adults to learn the game
effectively on-line and to promote the sporting,
competitive element of chess. (And I can support
Shahade's claim that a long tournament game of chess
is much more tiring than many physical activities.)
But ultimately the key is finding a way to make chess
seem cool and exciting again. A breakthrough on the
world stage by a player like
could turn the trick, but it's hard to engineer that
sort of event.
Others interested in promoting chess have adopted more,
um, salacious methods. Consider the
World Chess Beauty Contest,
another NYT article
on the same day as Shahade's. The WCBC tries to
draw people -- well, at least teenage boys -- to
chess by focusing on the many beautiful young women
chess players around the world. When you are looking
at pictures of these young ladies, just don't forget
this: most of them are really strong players
who can easily defeat the vast majority of chessplayers
in the world. But, for the most part, they are not
competitive with the very best women players in the
world, let alone the top men.
Still, the thought that supermodel Carmen Kass is an
avid chess player, is president of the Estonian Chess
Federation last year, and is dating German grandmaster
Eric Lobron makes me secretly happy. (The above picture
is from the second NYT article and shows Kass playing
speed chess with Indian super-grandmaster Viswanathan
Anand, the world's #2 player.)
Shahade talks about how we could heighten interest in
chess tournaments by making them more thrilling, more
immediate. Chess tournaments are usually arranged as
affairs, neither of which tends to create do-or-die
situations that heighten in intensity as the tournament
progresses. In contrast, consider U.S. college
basketball's March Madness -- and then imagine what
it would be like as as a round-robin. Boring -- and
much less variable in its outcome.
We all love the mere chance that a Princeton or a UNI
will come out of nowhere to upset a Duke or an Indiana,
even if it doesn't happen very often. But in chess,
the chances of a much lower-ranked player upsetting a
better player is quite small. The standard deviation
on performance at the highest levels of chess is remarkably
small. When you try to cross more than one level, forget
it. For example, the chance that I could beat Gary
Kasparov, or even earn a draw against him, is essentially
My proposal to increase the competitiveness of games
among players of different skill levels comes from the
19th century: odds. Odds in chess are akin to handicaps
in golf. For example, I might offer a weaker player
"pawn odds" by removing my king's bishop's pawn before
commencing play. In that case, I would probably play
the white pieces; if I gave pawn odds and played black,
then I would be giving "pawn and move" odds. (Moving
first is a big advantage in chess.)
Back in the 1800s, it was common for even the best
players in the world to take odds from better players.
America's first great chess champion,
made his reputation by beating most of America's best
players, and many of Europe's best players at "pawn
and move" odds.
Since the advent of the chess clock, another way to
handicap a chess game is to give time odds. I spent
many an evening as a teenager playing speed chess
with Indianapolis masters who gave me the advantage
of playing in 1.5 minutes against my 5 minutes. Even
at those odds, I lost more quarters than I won for
a long time... But I felt like I had a chance in
every game we played, despite the fact that those guys
were much better than I was.
My experience offering odds has been less successful.
When I've tried to offer time odds to students and
former students, they balked or outright refused. To
them, playing at advantage seemed unsporting. But the
result has generally been one-sided games and, within
a while, one or both of us loses interest. I've never
tried to give piece odds to these folks, because
material seems more real to them than time and
consequently the odds would seem even less sporting.
Odds chess isn't the complete answer to making
top-level chess more attractive, though it might
have its place in novelty tournaments. But giving
odds could make coffeehouse chess, casual games
wherever, and local tournaments more interesting for
more players -- and thus offer a route to increased
This whole discussion raises another, more fundamental
question. Should we even care about the popularity of
chess? The conventional wisdom is yes; chess is a fun
way for kids to learn to concentrate, to think
strategically, to learn and deploy patterns, and so on.
There is some evidence that children who play chess
realize benefits from these skills in school, especially
in math. But in today's world there are many more
challenging and realistic games these days than there
used to be, and maybe those games -- or learning to play
a musical instrument, or learning to program a computer
-- are better uses for our young brainpower. As a lover
of the game, though, I still harbor a romantic notion
that chess is worth saving.
One thing is for certain, though. Poker is a step
backwards intellectually. It may be a lot of fun and
require many useful skills, but it is much shallower
than chess, or even more challenging card games, such
The article on Jennifer Shahade that I link to above
ends with a paragraph that sums up both the challenge
in making chess more popular and a reason why it is
worth the effort to do so:
"People sometimes ask me if chess is fun," Jennifer says.
"'Fun' is not the word I'd use. Tournament chess is not
relaxing. It's stressful, even if you win. The game
demands total concentration. If you mind wanders for a
moment, with one bad move you can throw away everything
you've painstakingly built up."
Modern society doesn't seem to value things that aren't
always fun and light, at least not as much as it could.
But we could do our children a favor if we helped them
learn to concentrate so deeply, to confront a challenge
and painstakingly work toward a solution.
Maybe then math and science -- and computer programming
-- wouldn't seem unusually or unexpectedly hard. And
maybe then more students would have the mental skills
needed to appreciate the beauty, power, and, yes, fun
in work that challenges them. Like computer science.