Chess in Norway – wall-to-wall coverage on TV

6/21/2015 – The country if famous for its inventions – the cheese slicer, the paper clip and – slow TV (e.g. 12 hours of wood fire). But in the last couple of years, for reasons you might guess, Norway is gripped by chess fever, and TV stations are vying rights to broadcast entire tournaments – every game, live on national TV. Our correspondent Thomas Robertsen tells us how it came about.

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Chess in Norway

By Thomas Robertsen

Norwegians have invented famous and useful devices such as the cheese slicer and the paper clip – with some controversy surrounding the latter claim. But have you ever heard about Slow TV? It can briefly be described as extremely long broadcasts with almost nothing happening.

It all started with a live transmission in 2009 when a camera was mounted on a train going from Oslo to Bergen. The broadcast of the seven-hour trip, «Bergensbanen minute by minute», was an immense success. Slow TV was invented. Here is the whole broadcast for those interested:

You are going to need seven hours and 14 minutes to watch it. Pure enjoyment.

In rapid succession there followed 24 hours of salmon fishing from the Gaula river, 12 hours of wood burning, the so-called «National wood burning night» (not joking), and then piece the resistance, 132 hours of broadcasting of the Coastal Liner (Hurtigruten) going from Bergen to Kirkenes. A whole nation was captivated.

The typical Norwegian sports hero is a person doing extreme endurance sports, like cross-country skiing, marathon running, speed-skating and so on. The longer the competition and distance, the greater the hero. In recent years we also had to put bicycle racing on the list. With athletes such as Thor Hushovd and Alexander Kristoff, we suddenly did well in a new endurance sport. Not surprisingly hours and days of broadcasting from Tour de France became an instant success.

But when it comes to chess in Norway things have developed rather slowly. Before 1980 there were very few notable exceptions and only in single games. For instance did Ernst Rojahn (picture right from ara.org) drew no other than José Raoul Capablanca in the famous and dramatic Olympiad in Buenos Aires in 1939. One also has to mention his game against the Greek player Angos in the Olympiad in Munich in 1958. It is said, at least here in Norway, that even the «Wizard of Riga» and future World Champion, Mikhail Tal, was smiling and nodding while watching the finish of this game.

[Event "13th olm final C"] [Site "Munich"] [Date "1958.10.14"] [Round "4"] [White "Ernst Rojahn"] [Black "Alexandros Aggos"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A15"] [PlyCount "43"] [EventDate "1958.09.30"] 1. c4 Nf6 2. g3 g6 3. Bg2 Bg7 4. Nc3 d6 5. Nf3 Nfd7 6. d4 O-O 7. Bg5 c5 8. O-O Nc6 9. dxc5 Nxc5 10. Qd2 Be6 11. Bh6 Bxh6 12. Qxh6 f6 13. b3 Bf7 14. Rfd1 Ne6 15. Bh3 Qa5 16. Nd5 Nc7 17. Ne3 Ne5 18. Nd4 Ne8 19. Ne6 Bxe6 20. Bxe6+ Nf7 21. Rd5 Qc3 {[#]} 22. Rh5 $3 (22. Rh5 Qxa1+ 23. Kg2 gxh5 24. Nf5 {with Nxe7+ and Qxf8 mate to follow.}) 1-0

Still, you get the picture. Norwegian chess successes came along as often as Halley's Comet, and at the beginning of the 1980s there were still no Norwegian GMs and only a handful of IMs.

Then Simen Agdestein appeared and chess slowly became more glamorous in Norway.

A lot has already been written about Simen’s remarkable career as both a chess and a soccer player. In 1985, the 18-year-old became our first GM and the youngest in the world at that time. In the years to come he scored really impressive results at the chess board and actually peaked as number 16 in the world in 1989. The list of victims in single games includes great players like Spassky, Karpov, Shirov, Short, Ljubojevic and Polugaevsky.

Few have done more to popularize chess in Norway than Simen. Most importantly he was the main initiator for establishing a chess faculty at The Norwegian College of Elite Sports (NTG) in 1999. There he has been teaching young chess talents for 16 years now. Among his previous students we actually find two participants in the ongoing super tournament in Stavanger. In GM Jon Ludvig Hammer we might get a new world class player. But Simen is probably mostly known for being the trainer of our national icon and golden boy, Magnus Carlsen.

In a big interview in New in Chess (7/2004) Garry Kasparov was asked about a possible future world chess champion. His answer:

Among the players I have seen I think Carlsen has the best talent ... He carries a certain amount of inside power that could be transformed. He needs a good coach and a good education. He lives in a country with no chess tradition.

Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen in a training session together in 2009

Kasparov was both right and ahead of his time. In connection with an international tournament in Norway at the end of 2004, Kasparov visited Norway for the first time. Here he met with the Carlsens and the meeting is said to have laid the foundation for the future cooperation between two of the greatest champions ever. Since then the legend has probably visited Norway more than the King of Sweden, and in many ways contributed to the popularity of chess here.

But in recent years it mainly has been about Magnus Carlsen, of course. At the same time as his incredible series of great chess results have stunned the whole chess world, Carlsen has become increasingly popular in Norway. He has been a quest on all the major TV shows. He has won every thinkable «Name-of-The-Year-contest» and he has even been awarded «The Athlete of The Year», which is quite funny since chess isn`t recognized as a sport in Norway. Still, there was more to come.

In May of 2013, the politician, chess organizer, author and culture figure, Hans Olav Lahlum (above), was interviewed on web-tv by journalist Mads Andersen. For over 30 hours, only interrupted by the most urgent errands, Andersen interviewed Lahlum on a wide range of subjects and thus setting a new world record for an interview.

What the organizers didn't expect was the incredible high ratings. Large parts of the population actually saw most of the interview when it happened and was deeply impressed by Lahlum`s fantastic knowledge. Another feather in the cap for slow TV and the birth of a new TV personality, namely Lahlum.

In the autumn of 2013, Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), decided to broadcast the entire world chess championship match in Chennai. World class chess, minute by minute and slow TV in a slightly new format. And what a formidable success it was. In the studio there was a fine mixture of chess experts, TV profiles, politicians and other celebrity guests who contributed to great shows with very high ratings and entertainment value. And of course it ended well, at least from a Norwegian perspective.

After Carlsen was crowned as the new world champion, Magnus mania reached new heights. Stores quickly were emptied for chess boards and a lot of new players emerged. Most of them admittedly played on the Internet, but still. Chess and Magnus Carlsen seemed to become the focus of everyone and it suddenly felt like Norway had been a chess nation for ever.

Mark Zuckerberg vs Magnus Carlsen [Timeline photos]

Magnus visited more TV shows. He befriended, and played blitz games with, influential people like Mark Zuckerberg (above) and Bill Gates. He launched his own «Play Magnus app» and he won more awards. In between this seemingly inhuman schedule he won more tournaments. And by now TV 2, the largest commercial TV station in Norway, wanted in on the fun. They started to broadcast other tournaments where Magnus participated and people seemed to get addicted to chess on TV.

Last summer my hometown, Tromsø, hosted the Chess Olympiad. Heading the Norwegian team was the world champion. Both things would have unthinkable only a few years ago. Now the likes of Kramnik, Ivanchuk and Shirov were seen strolling down our main street. The Olympiad was of course broadcast on national TV, and so was also the return match between Carlsen and Anand in Sochi later in the autumn. Both turned out to be great successes. And don't think for a minute that interest for Carlsen or chess has declined. On the contrary: today chess is everywhere. In all kinds of workplaces, in jails, at schools and cafés.

And look at Norway Chess in Stavanger. In a few years the tournament has established itself as one of the main annual chess events. This year`s edition is even part of the new innovation, Grand Chess Tour, which includes famous tournaments later this year in both St. Louis and London.

Another exciting innovation in Norway Chess is the introduction of the so-called «Confessional». Yes, during the games the players can, if they want, enter a soundproof box where they can share their thoughts about the ongoing games or whatever comes to mind. This was actually tested a month ago in the qualification tournament for Norway Chess. In the same tournament, which of course was broadcasted at TV 2, no other than the world champion was commenting in studio and generously sharing his great insights. I guess the expression expert commentator hardly ever have been more appropriate. This is a great example of how Magnus also very concretely contributes to popularize chess in Norway.

TV 2 is also broadcasting every minute and every move from Norway Chess. An experienced TV host and two of the best possible commentators, Simen Agdestein and Hans Olav Lahlum, are providing great entertainment. The interest for chess in Norway continues to evolve. The nation seems to be spellbound.

A lot of people find it strange that a country with so limited chess traditions is currently having the world chess champion. Based on our preferences in both sports and entertainment, combined with all this creativity and newly emerged fondness for chess, I`m actually inclined to ask: Why didn`t we had a world champion before?

About the author

Thomas Robertsen is a passionate chess enthusiast who follows the great players and tournaments with great interest. He is also very fond of chess history and enjoys reading about the players and tournaments of the past. In the past three years he has been preoccupied mostly with chess administration as a Board member in the Norwegian Chess Federation. Tom also headed the sporting committee which picked players for our national teams in last year's Olympiad. Leaving the adminstration this summer he hopes to get to play more on my own. "I`m not a great chessplayer, but peaked at a decent 2275 a few years ago. Besides playing I hope to get to write more about chess in the near future." ChessBase welcomes this decision.

Thomas live in Tromsö and am the father of Sander (20) and Hannah (5). He works with children and young people as a psychiatric nurse.

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lato2 lato2 6/22/2015 12:05
More slow TV action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uXzkNYsQfM, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgGKauhpUFM
Aighearach Aighearach 6/22/2015 01:34
Cheese sandwiches are a known chess performance-enhancing substance, so it is really not that surprising.

Slow TV sounds great. In fact, if I can find a satellite provider I might just buy a TV for that one! I've always said I'd rather watch grass grow than the *beep* on the local TV.
algorithmy algorithmy 6/22/2015 12:55
Slow T.V?!! Huh, now I know where Carlsen get this patience from! he never get bored playing the most dry the positions!
Slow T.V is the secret!! slow T.V
algorithmy algorithmy 6/22/2015 12:46
HHHHHHHHHHHHHAAAAA that's Hilarious!! sometimes the most boring can be the most funny! Slow TV?!!
Now I can turn off the light, put my hands on the wheel and pretend I'm driving a train!

no wounder the Norwegian invented that, in such country, you really need something to kill the time, and that slow TV thing can kill the time and bury it!
sranj sranj 6/21/2015 11:57
Slow TV, cheese cutter and paper clip.. Hmm well, now we know the secret behind Carlsen's natural chess talent and his results..
Maturner Maturner 6/21/2015 11:34
Slow TV. What a great idea!
Logos Logos 6/21/2015 06:33
Loved the train video! It is mesmerizing :-) What a beautiful country.
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