An American Chess Resurgence!?

by Vanessa West
11/23/2016 – Is chess really thriving in the U.S.? Is the game really moving forward between New York City and Los Angeles after the U.S. won the Olympiad, has three players in the Top 10 and hosts the World Chess Championship Match between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin in New York? Our author Vanessa West takes a look at the chess scene in the U.S., browses through the media coverage and provides ample food for thought...

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The cess park on the boardwalk of Santa Monica beach in Southern California. Photo courtesy of Oscar Alex Flores

The chess park on the boardwalk of Santa Monica beach in Southern California.
- Photo courtesy of Oscar Alex Flores

A VIP lounge with an open vodka bar, a stunning vista of the New York Harbor, and a virtual reality video for viewers at home - what am I describing?

The spectator experience for a chess match. 

For anyone outside of the chess world, this answer would be simply impossible to conjure up. Chess as a spectator sport is changing rapidly. Is mainstream American culture ready?

In 2012, the Atlantic Magazine published a thought-provoking article titled, "How America Forgot about Chess". The piece begins with a surprising story describing the overwhelming American interest in Bobby Fischer’s 1972 World Championship Match:

"Irate viewers repeatedly asked the television producers to drop the coverage of the Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington so that they could resume watching the play-by play of a World Chess Championship game. 

In the midst of the presidential campaign that would see Nixon reelected, the American public preferred to watch the hours-long chess games between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky."

     - Santiago Wills

After providing this glimpse of 1972, Wills asserts that, since Fischer’s match, "chess has seemingly lost its cultural significance," citing a dramatic drop in mainstream media coverage of the game:

"In 1972, the national edition of the New York Times, the major newspaper that most consistently deals with chess coverage, published 241 articles that dealt specifically with the game.

That number decreased to 148 in 1995, the year when Garry Kasparov, arguably the best chess player in history, squared off against Viswanathan Anand, an Indian grandmaster, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center.

The number fell further to 28 in 2011, the year when Hikaru Nakamura, an American grandmaster who right now is the seventh best player in the world, won the Tata Steel Chess Tournament, one of Europe's most recognized events."

Has the situation improved in the four years since the article?

It depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, there’s been an enormous amount of progress for American chess in the last few years. 

●    The U.S. now claims 3 out of the top 10 ranked players in the world, more than any other country. This includes Fabiano Caruana who is the clear number 2 overall and within 20 points of Magnus Carlsen on the live rating list. 

●    Caruana joined with four more top U.S. players, Sinquefield Cup Champion Wesley So, four-time U.S. Champion Hikaru Nakamura, Biel Masters Champion Sam Shankland, and up-and-coming grandmaster Ray Robson, to win the Olympiad for the United States.

●    A fifteen-year-old American, Jeffrey Xiong, won the 2016 World Junior Championship. 

●    There are more opportunities to play in top-notch tournaments than ever before. The Saint Louis Chess Club, supported by billionaire Rex Sinquefield, holds the U.S. Championships, GM and IM Norm invitationals, and the Sinquefield Cup, the strongest event in the country, which draws many of the best players in the world. 

●    A slew of exceptional, young talents have developed, including GM Xiong, GM Sam Sevian, GM-elect Ruifeng Li, and IM Awonder Liang, with the help of programs such as the Kasparov Chess Foundation and the US Chess School.

●    New York City was chosen as the site for the greatly anticipated World Championship battle between Magnus Carlsen, the highest rated player in history, and Sergey Karjakin, the record-holder for the youngest grandmaster of all time. 

New York, NY - November 12: General view outside during 2016 World Chess Championship at Fulton Market Building

New York, NY - November 12: General view outside during 2016 World Chess Championship at Fulton Market Building
- Photo courtesy of Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Agon Limited

 In many ways, a golden age is currently taking place in American chess:

"Homegrown grandmasters who are younger than ever, a booming scholastic chess community, and now GM Fabiano Caruana switches to the U.S. Chess Federation. It has been more than half a century since we have had it this good."

 - Chris Wainscott, "A New Golden Age for American Chess", Chess Life Magazine, July 2015

But has the American public noticed?

At a glance, chess is fairly immersed in mainstream culture. Recently, Disney released Queen of Katwe, a full-feature film centered around an aspiring Ugandan player’s chess ambitions. 

Throughout 2016, The Wall Street Journal, the newspaper with highest national circulation, has published a diverse range of chess articles, such as How a Chess Champion Trains for the Big Game to Bughouse: A Crazy, Addictive Variation on Chess to The Surprising Return of Odds Chess.

Casual games of chess seem to be increasing in popularity. Facebook even offers a command so that one can play a game of chess over its messaging application (type "@fbchess play" in a direct message to the opponent of your choice). 

Harward Square Chess

Lifesize chess in Harvard Square in Boston, MA.
- Photo courtesy of Marlenie Cardenas

And, what other board game can you find an entire parks dedicated to, in giant size by the beach, and casually located on the shelves of your favorite latte spot? 

Moreover, pop culture often uses the game to symbolize intelligence and strategic thinking. Yet, many of these references include inaccuracies, showing misunderstandings of the game at the most basic levels. 

In Captain America: Civil War, a $250 million Marvel movie, the chess board in the Avengers Tower was set-up incorrectly for multiple scenes.

Notice h3, the square in front of white’s furthest pawn, is a dark square. It should be white. The board is placed sideways.  

Despite chess sets wandering into the settings of multi-million dollar Hollywood action movies, when you look closer, mainstream culture’s actual interest in chess seems to be lukewarm, at best. 

Queen of Katwe, despite receiving very positive initial reviews, ultimately disappointed at the box office. 

"But despite rave reviews and a consistent drum beat that this was worth your time and 'the kind of movie you say you want,' the picture earned around $706,000 on Friday for a likely $2.1 million weekend, giving the film a poor $1.7k per-screen-average."

- Scott Mendelson, "Friday Box Office: Disney’s ‘Queen of Katwe’ Blunders"

And, outside of the big screen, when it comes to top players, the competitive experience, and the intricacies of the game itself, mainstream interest can often range from ambivalent to completely oblivious.

Two months ago, when the U.S. won the Olympiad for the first time in 40 years, almost no mainstream publications covered it. The New York Times, one of the few publications that did, mainly focused its coverage on the fact that Caruana and So are "imported talent". 

The article, "U.S. Wins Gold at Chess Olympiad With Help of Imported Talent", emphasizes that Caruana and So switched their federations to the U.S. recently before the Olympiad, not mentioning that Caruana’s first steps in chess were in the U.S. or that So came to the country in 2012 to study at Webster University in St. Louis, MO.

The three players that developed their chess abilities in the United States, Hikaru Nakamura (the only team member to play every round), Sam Shankland, and Ray Robson, were hardly mentioned. 

Additionally, when American-born Jeffrey Xiong won the World Junior Championship at the impressive age of 15, becoming the first U.S. player to win the event in 19 years, mainstream media didn’t seem to notice. 

While overlooking these recent successes, the media seems very open to writing about chess when it’s possible to emphasize controversy, providing ample coverage of subjects such Agon’s copyright lawsuits and the boycott of the Women’s World Championship in Iran.

Nazi Paikidze, the reigning U.S. Women’s Champion who led the campaign, "Stop Women’s Oppression at the World Chess Championship by Challenging FIDE’s Decision", initially embraced the widespread media coverage of her cause. Over time, however, she has become frustrated with some publications’ incessant search for controversy, posting an incited tweet asking HeatStreet, an opinion and commentary website, to rescind their story about her.

Fortunately, the World Championship has created an opportunity to bring chess to the forefront of mainstream media—for the right reasons. 

Contrasting its limited coverage of the chess Olympiad, The New York Times has consistently published articles about the World Championship, providing an attention-grabbing preview of the match, a profile of Sergey Karjakin, a review of Magnus, the documentary, and articles focusing on the on-site spectator experience and the VIP style venue. 

FiveThirtyEight, a blog owned by ESPN, has been covering chess frequently in its Sports section. So far, there are seven articles featured about the World Championship, discussing topics such as Kids Love the World Chess Championship - Even the Draws and Are Computers Draining the Beauty Out of Chess?, as well as providing commentary on the games themselves. The blog has also published a piece that foreshadowed the U.S. Olympiad victory, "American Chess May Finally Emerge from the Shadow of Bobby Fischer".

The World Championship’s prime U.S. location in New York City also sets the stage for great strides in the future. Agon Limited, the organization producing the championship, has made great efforts to modernize the spectator experience at the Championship, both in person and online. 

On site, spectators can shell out up to $1200 for a pass to the VIP lounge which includes a chance to watch the games with celebrities from both Hollywood and the chess world, an open vodka bar, hors d’oeuvres, and a sweeping view of the New York Harbor.

"This is a coming-out party for chess."

- Ilya Merenzon, Agon Chief Executive, "World Championship Kicks Off With V.I.P. Treatment"

Online, Agon has embraced the 3D IMAX full-immersion-in-the-experience age, offering 360 degree panoramic views of the playing arena and a virtual reality video. 

"Get closer to the action than ever before. Experience the World Chess 
Championship Match as if you had not just one but all the best seats in the house."

- World Chess Official Website

Further adapting to modern audiences, during the Candidates Tournament, the World Chess website created an "LOL" (Laugh Out Loud) page, offering cartoon profiles for some of the world’s top players, including Sergey Karjakin. 

Why go through such efforts to modernize a chess match?

"The choice to hold it here, as opposed to, say, Chennai, or Sochi, was overt: if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. If organizers could host an interesting, well-run, and successful (in terms of ticket sales and media coverage) match in the Big Apple, the thinking goes, then it bodes well for future chess matches of this caliber to be held in other cosmopolitan cities. Mainline sponsors and media partners could potentially follow, not to mention hordes of fans."

- Jonathan Zalman, "The Sleek, Hard-Fought World Chess Championship Is Locked Up After Four Games"

The plan seems to be working. The match is gathering sell-out crowds at the epicenter of American culture. 

    "Today in New York City, spectators packed the house lining up around the 
corner in near freezing weather to get a glimpse at the World Chess Championship. The 3-3 deadlocked match has tickets sold out through round 10." 

    - Dylan Quercia, "D, But Still for Draw in World Chess Championship"

And, the match seems to be experiencing similar commercial success online:

"...with roughly half a million hits on the official website  
in just the first 48 hours ("And this doesn’t include our partner sites," Murray-Watson [Agon’s Communication Director] clarified) it seems that the pay-per-view model the organizers are promoting is the wave of the future for top-level chess…"

- Dan Lucas, "Editor’s Notebooks: The Fan and Media View"


But, is this success limited to the three weeks of the World Championship Match or will elite chess really be able to build on this progress in the future? 

In "How America Forgot about Chess", the author suggests that one of the reasons for America’s lack of interest is "the absence of interesting stories and charismatic players". 

This is also certainly changing. There are many ways that mainstream American audiences could find the World Champion and the Challenger more relatable than players from older generations.

Magnus Carlsen in New York City, WCC 2016

Magnus Carlsen at the World Chess Championship opening night, Plaza Hotel, New York City, November 2016

Both Carlsen and Karjakin are in the twenty-something generation. In fact, this is the youngest World Championship match by far. The New York Times even described Karjakin as "baby-faced" in the title of his profile, "A Baby-Faced Chess Grandmaster Meets His Match".

Both players are well-suited for today’s fitness-focused culture, emphasizing exercise and sports as key elements of their training. Carlsen spent his first rest day playing team basketball at an NYC park while Karjakin’s physical trainer is tennis player Anna Chakvetadze, a former U.S. Open semi-finalist.

And, Carlsen and Karjakin are both very charismatic, often offering the crowd smiles and laughs at post-game press conferences. 

All in all, it seems that Agon’s hopes that the match will draw in new audiences to chess are well-founded. Soon, U.S. audiences will have even more opportunities to identify with the two competitors. 

Magnus, a documentary that provides a glimpse into Carlsen’s life as well as the chess world, premiered very successfully at the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan last spring, selling out its four screenings far in advance. The film opened in theatres in New York and Ohio last weekend and will be released in nine more states on November 25th. 

Meanwhile, Karjakin will return to New York City in February to support the United Nations Children’s Fund through chess. He will conduct a charitable ten-board simultaneous exhibition in which all proceeds will support UNICEF’s efforts in more than 190 countries and territories. 

The First Decisive Game

Even before yesterday’s victory, enthusiasm for the match remained high. The tied score after seven games represented a close, hard-fought match and added to the anticipation of who would strike first. 

Although game 8 began with a slow opening, the Colle Zukertort, Carlsen’s usual evasion of opening theory with the white pieces offered the potential for long-term pressure and a battle with every piece on the board. 

WCC 2016 New York. Game No. 8, after 7...b6

As the players neared time control, the game turned chaotic when Carlsen went all-in for the attack, sacrificing two pawns. Karjakin accepted the sacrifices and obtained a big advantage until he made an error in calculation, allowing Carlsen a startling combination to get back into the game.

After recovering his material, Carlsen seemed to overestimate his chances, playing for a win from a worse position. Even though he managed to open up Black’s king and win a pawn, Karjakin’s advanced passed a-pawn combined with Carlsen’s inactive bishop led to trouble.

Now that the Challenger has taken the first lead of the match, the stakes are that much higher for the World Champion, who entered the match as the overwhelming favorite. In "What the Experts Say: Predictions, Views, Opinions", every single person interviewed predicted a Carlsen match victory. 

Magnus Carlsen is as much favorite to win against Sergey Karjakin as he was favorite to win against Viswanathan Anand, perhaps a 60/40 favorite.

- GM Robert Rabiega

Since Karjakin, known for his resilience, is not the type of player to become overconfident after an unexpected victory and let it negatively impact his play, Carlsen will have to play at his very best to even out the match.

The question on everyone’s mind now will stir audience excitement further: Will Carlsen finally be able to breakthrough Karjakin’s iron defenses? 


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