The Legacy of International Chess Play

This week marks another round in the FIDE World Chess Championship. Grantland writer Spike Friedman explains the game:

The FIDE World Chess Championship pits the reigning world champion against the winner of a qualifying round-robin tournament between eight of the top players in the world. The finals is a best-out-of-12 tournament with draws earning half a point. If the finals end in a draw, four rapid-chess matches are played as a tiebreaker. If those draw, then blitz chess, played with a three-minute starting clock, serves as the final tiebreaker.

Chess is a global fascination — the worldwide audience members of the games last Saturday, November 9th, crashed several websites. The Netherlands version of the BBC broadcast the game and boasted numbers of 700,000 watching –14% of their whole population.

However, the BBC is unimpressed, with 10 reasons why chess will always lack mass appeal for the sport. They hit on the lack of insight on the game, the fact that personal, local games in the park have more draw than a hermetically sealed international, and the romantic notions of chess – used in media to show how brainy, strategic someone can be – are definitely not supported watching in international play.

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And really, it’s nothing compared to Ron Weasley’s chess playing in the first Harry Potter book

They bring up two reasons the game used to be so popular on an international level: The Cold War and Bobby Fischer.

First, the Cold War brings suspense to the matches by making the political personal, in a way similar to Ping Pong Diplomacy, albeit less diplomatic:

Chess’s benchmark historic occasion was the contest between American genius Bobby Fischer and Soviet champion Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972. The geopolitical backdrop added piquancy to an occasion that dominated headlines around the world – it was billed as individualist American against machinelike Soviet.

He also cites the lack of a main “personality” for the sport like the late great Bobby Fischer. We’ve discussed the importance of “personality” with athletes – or lack thereof – with Ryan Lochte, but Bobby Fischer set a tone for a chessmaster that’s hard to beat:

Fischer was a one-man highbrow soap opera in his pomp. Full of egomania, pithily arrogant quotes (“I like the moment when I break a man’s ego”) and a simply breathtaking ability to play the game, he was the source of understandable fascination. As snooker’s relationship with Ronnie O’Sullivan shows, a sport benefits from a controversial figure at its centre.

 handsome if slightly mad

He was also pretty good-looking – you could cut yourself on those cheekbones!

As the New York Times obituary for Bobby Fischer notes:

Mr. Fischer’s 1992 victory against Mr. Spassky was a sad reprise of his most glorious triumph. It was in summer 1972, in a match played in Reykjavik, that Mr. Fischer wrested the world championship from Mr. Spassky, becoming the first — and as yet only — American to win the title, which Russian-born players had held for more than four decades.

This was no doubt the inspiration for an episode of one of my favorite ‘80s sitcoms, Family Ties, where Alex P. Keaton goes up against a Russian chess player at his college chess club. Alex gets a telegram from the State Department cheering him on for his chess match. A few of his classmates tell him to “Beat that Ruski!” while his mother points out that this should be a purely cultural event. He relents when he finds out his Russian contender tells him he would rather be invest himself in the game rather than the competition, and tries to lose the match on purpose because of it – which leads to the only chess club fighting scene on television:

I doubt such intense play will occur between this year’s contenders at the FIDE: undisputed chess world since 2007 champion Anand Viswanathan, the “Tiger of Madras,” and Norwegian Magnus Carlssen, the past 4 time winner of the Chess Oscar. The chess match is being held in Chennai, India, which is why you have to wake up at 4 AM EST to watch it live-stream.

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