The man behind the Fischer-Spassky show

1/3/2003 – In 1972 WNET/PBS aired the greatest TV show ever seen in chess, with millions of viewers glued for five hours to their sets. In a New York Time article Fred Waitzkin told the story of how a dour Latvian-American chess master and a Harvard-educated sociology teacher made the show a success (see report from 29.12.02 below). Now Wired Magazine Rudy Chelminski sets the record straight on some points and gives credit where it's due.

The Fischer-Spassky show

Rudy Chelminski gives credit where credit is due

Last Dec. 29, the New York Times Magazine published a fine article by Fred Waitzkin that was a kind of extended obit for Edmar Mednis, the Latvian-born chess master who spent most of his life in the New York borough of Queens, a long subway ride from downtown Manhattan. Waitzkin, author of the very successful Searching for Bobby Fischer, sketched a tender and even moving portrait of a gentle man who devoted his life to the great game.


Mike Chase, the man behind the milestone WNET
TV chess coverage of Fischer-Spassky in 1972

As much as I admired the article, I feel compelled to point out a serious factual error that cries out for rectification. It concerns the authorship of the famous television show that brought the 1972 Fischer-Spassky confrontation in Reykjavik direct into millions of American homes. The show was tremendously important, for a number of reasons:

  • It was the first-ever live, real-time American television coverage of a world championship match (and, for that matter, of any chess match at all).

  • It popularized the game as never before in the egregiously chess-benighted country that America was in the seventies.

  • It brought new respect to chess players as real, interesting, creative, flesh-and-bones human beings, totally at odds with the facile caricatures – screwballs, layabouts, absent-minded professors – current at the time.

  • It was the ancestor and progenitor of all the efforts at chess showmanship that have followed, from Dan-Antoine Shapira's Intel Speed Chess Grand Prix to Kasparov-Deep Blue and Kramnik-Fritz – clunky and often amateurish compared to today's expensive, elegant productions, to be sure, but the granddaddy nonetheless.

  • Created in a Public Television studio in New York State's capital city of Albany, 150 kilometers up the Hudson River from Manhattan, the show was a significant landmark for both chess and television in America.

But Waitzkin went astray in describing its genesis. "In 1972," he wrote, "a chess friend of Mednis's, Shelby Lyman, a Harvard-educated sociology teacher and a talented chess amateur, came up with the quixotic idea of televising short updates on Fischer and Spassky's World Championship match in Reykjavik, Iceland. Lyman proposed the idea to WNET, the local PBS affiliate in New York."

Ouch.

If someone had called Waitzkin's attention to the article I wrote for the American magazine Wired in October, 2001, he would have been able to trace the epochal show not to Lyman but to a gangly, affable young television executive named Mike Chase. Son of a playwright and a theater specialist himself, Chase at the time was director of operations for the New York City TV network of SUNY, State University of New York. He was also an ardent chess amateur and a member of the Marshall Chess Club.


Spassky vs Fischer in Reykjavik 1972

When Bobby's roughshod ride over the USSR's defenses finally brought him face to face with Spassky, Chase knew that there was a terrific story just waiting for him to tell. Trouble was, it was chess, and America was mired in all those caricatures.

"No one believed chess could be a spectator sport," Chase told me over lunch some years later. "The accepted wisdom was that the only way to present a chess match was by post-game analysis. But at tournaments I'd noticed that everybody used to hang around the masters while they debated what the next move might be. I realized that a lot of the excitement came from guessing. The only way to capture that excitement was to televise the games live."


The glare: Fischer's intensity is apparent during this game

Chase went to Frank Leicht, vice-president of WNET, the famous Channel Thirteen that embodied the quality of public television in America. He and Leicht had both worked in previous years for the big commercial broadcaster CBS, so there was a deep professional complicity between the two men – and a good thing it was, too, because otherwise Leicht probably would never have entertained any idea as outlandish as hours and hours of live TV time on chess.

Why not watch paint drying, the wise guys would have said, but Leicht trusted Chase, and he said yes. Besides, it was the period of the summer doldrums, and there wasn't much else going on. What the hell…

It was, then, on the strength of a shrug that Chase set about creating what would prove to be an historical event. Both producer and director of the show, he hunted around for a properly-equipped studio and finally settled on Albany, where SUNY administered the interconnection of all public stations in New York State. He borrowed a couple of big demo boards, set up an open phone line to Reykjavik, and, juggling the pathetic figures of public television's begging-bowl budget, cast about for as much help as he could get – cheap.


Tumult: Fischer arriving at the playing venue

There were no Intels, IBMs or emirs to support chess in those days. The first victim of Chase's love-of-the-game eloquence was his own actress wife, Chris, whom he recruited for the nebulously-defined position of anchor, or presenter. Chris, who went on from acting to become one of America's best writers of humor, remembered the magic moment in one of her books: " 'I got you a job don't pay a nickel, but you'll bring happiness to countless thousands.' Then he put me on a Trailways bus and took me to Albany."

While Chris could handle the introductions, color and chitchat with professional ease, Chase needed an expert of the game to work the demo boards for pure chess commentary. His choice fell on Shelby Lyman, an acquaintance from the Marshall Club who had never stood before a television camera before. The pay package he could offer Lyman was exactly the same as Chris's, but never mind: love of the game would somehow carry them all through.


Rocketed to fame: Shelby Lyman

Lyman accepted with good grace, asking no more than the chits for train fare from Manhattan and back that Chase was authorized to hand out, sweetened with a princely $10 per diem to cover lunch and odd expenses.


Edmar Mednis comments

For the next month Chase presided over an informal chess kaffeeklatsch, improvising as he went along. New to the ways of television, Lyman lent an engagingly amateurish presence to the show, occasionally engaging in phantom conversations live on screen – "What's that, Mike?" – with Chase's disembodied voice coming from the control room to his little earphone.

"Shelby was brilliant, lyrical, endearingly dopey," Chris remembered. "If he heard a voice from the control room in his ear, he looked up, startled, and answered back, for all the world like Joan of Arc, and often tried, on a dead phone, to rouse a fellow master at the Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan. ('Hello? Hello, Edmar? Are you there, Edmar?')"

Chase spiced the menu with visits from passing grandmasters, writers, and simply friends who happened by. They all happily jabbered about the developing positions, explained strategy and predicted moves. When one of the players in Reykjavik pushed a pawn or slid a bishop, a bell rang in the studio and everyone shut up for a few seconds before bursting into a new round of analysis. New Yorkers loved it, and soon the match spread around the country as other major cities began carrying it on their own PBS affiliates. This was something special.


Rare picture: Fischer resigning in a game against Spassky (Reykjavik 1972)

"As the games went on," Chris wrote, "Shelby got smoother, everybody settled down, and the match became a rage, a fad, a hit show. Every day the switchboards at Channel 13 lit up with people trying to help Bobby Fischer make his next move. Reviewers were saying it was great entertainment – one guy called it 'addictive' – and people who didn't play, or understand, chess watched it anyway. I've been told there were chess nuts in gin mills actually asking the bartenders to switch away from a Mets game. Little girls baked cookies for Shelby."

"We were a hit," said Chase. "And public television didn't have many hits in those days."

And Lyman was a hit, too. As Waitzkin wrote, his very lack of slick professionalism and his chatty, off-the-cuff style endeared him to viewers the way Julia Child's boisterous cooking demonstrations did for housewives from one end of America to the other.

Lyman became a star, then, recognized and pointed out in the street. But it is incorrect to present him as the originator of the show. All credit for that goes to Mike Chase, and the chess community should know it. His name doesn't ring any bells the way Shelby Lyman's does, but his inspiration, energy and professionalism performed a great service to the game in America and, by extension, in the rest of the world.

Now living in retirement in New York, Chase is far too shy and modest to say all this for himself, so I'm doing it for him. Even if he still beats me every damn time he pushes a pawn. But that's another story


Roving reporter Rudy Chelminski, an American freelance writer living in France.

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