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. ----- BODY: My only non-professional blog category is on running. 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. Play it again, Sam. 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 Fischer boom, 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 game. A recent article in the New York Times talks about the further decline of American chess. The article's author, Jennifer Shahade, 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 Hikaru Nakamura 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, reported in 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.
Carmen Kass plays chess
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 round-robin or Swiss system 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 zero. pawn and move odds 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, Paul Morphy made his reputation by beating most of America's best players, and many of Europe's best players at "pawn and move" odds. standard chess clock 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 popularity. 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 as bridge. 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. -----