BBC Radio 4 to broadcast chess chats

by Albert Silver
12/19/2013 – Believe it or not, but on Monday, December 30, BBC Radio 4 will start a week-long series of 15-minute chat shows on… chess! The program Across the Board will feature Dominic Lawson, the Sunday Times and Daily Mail columnist, who will play against and interview a different guest each episode on five consecutive days. This is the first time in 50 years since the 1960s radio show with Bobby Fischer.

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Call it the Carlsen Effect, or what will you, but on Monday, December 30, BBC Radio 4 will start a week-long series of 15-minute chat shows on… chess! The program “Across the Board” will feature Dominic Lawson, a chess aficionado and the Sunday Times and Daily Mail columnist, who will play against and interview a different guest each episode on five consecutive days.

Not only can one hear the current live programs at the website, but also archived programs

The games will be played at 30 minutes per player for all moves, after which Lawson will review the game with the player, asking questions pertaining to life, politics, work, and anything and everything that chess is reflected in. The show will last 15 minutes and will be edited so as to be palatable for audiences. Listeners will be able to see all of the players' moves on the BBC website, which will link to a graphic recreation of the game at the ChessBase site.

For fans wondering whether this can really work, the show's producer, David Edmonds, had this to say: "If we can get Test Match Cricket to work on the radio, then we can get chess to work as well."

British media has been all over this (click on picture to see article)

Needless to say, chess players and writers are delighted and excited

It would be easy to credit Magnus Carlsen for being the inspirational catalyst, but it wasn’t thinking of the Norwegian per se that led to the program’s conception. Radio 4 controller, Gwynneth Williams got the idea after hearing Lawson take on John Humphrys in a game of chess on the Today program on BBC Radio 4 in March this year.

Click here to listen to the five-minute program

This is not actually the first time BBC Radio broadcasts a program on chess. The last BBC radio series dedicated to chess ran from 1958 until 1964 on what was then called Network Three, and featured world chess champion Bobby Fischer.

Dominic Lawson, in an article published for Standpoint magazine, was able to dig up the story behind it, and what became of the historic recordings:

The most popular element in the programmes were the "consultation games" in which two teams of two players each were put in separate cubicles and each recorded their thoughts as they discussed what moves to play against the other. It was in 1961 that the 18-year-old Fischer — already one of the strongest players in the world — took part, teamed with Leonard Barden (who won the British championship jointly with Jonathan Penrose in 1963) against Penrose himself and Peter Clarke, four-times runner-up in the British championship.

Dominic Lawson presents his story and what became of the Bobby Fischer recordings

"To find out more about this, I contacted Leonard Barden — who at 84 still writes the weekly chess column in the Guardian and who was one of the most important figures in the revival of British chess in the 1970s and 1980s. Barden told me: "The broadcast was recorded in September or October 1960. I had become friendly with Bobby Fischer during the Leipzig chess Olympiad of 1960 and was a contributor to the Network Three programme, hence the idea of a consultation match. Bobby was paid £50, which pleased him. He had come to London to buy a Savile Row suit, and this covered the costs of the suit. I was nominally Bobby's consultation partner, but my true function was to get him to talk. He was fluent and articulate for the whole of the session, which lasted eight hours and only stopped when the studio time ran out. Bobby was annoyed at the end when Penrose and Clarke would not resign."

In fact the position was not at all resignable, even though Fischer/Barden had an advantage — and remember that Penrose at that Leipzig Olympiad had won his individual game against the reigning world champion Mikhail Tal. The final position of the BBC game was sent to the former world champion Max Euwe for adjudication and he declared it drawn-to Fischer's even greater irritation.

You can find the full score of the game in Chess Treasury of the Air. This book — a collection of the best moments, games and discussions from the BBC series-was published originally by Penguin and remains available from the specialist chess publishers Harding Simpole.

You can buy it new at Amazon (for example), but cheap paperbacks of the original 1966 printing
are still found fairly easily

Unfortunately that book does not give any of Fischer's comments. When I asked Barden what had happened to the tapes of the programme he said that when the BBC had been approached about this some years ago, it responded that "the tape has been wiped and used for another programme". I am afraid this archival vandalism was all too often the practice of BBC radio in the pre-digital age."

Click here for the full article

Alas! Still, there is no chance of history repeating itself since the interviews will be available permanently on the BBC Radio 4 website after transmission. Who are the guests to be interviewed? In episode one, boxing legend and chess aficionado Lennox Lewis will discuss how his love of chess has helped him both in and out of the boxing ring. There will also be former British girls' under-14 chess champion-better known as the present Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Rachel Reeves, not to mention current Women's World Chess Champion, Hou Yifan, as well as former Soviet dissident and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky and writer and former homeless alcoholic, John Healy, who believes that the world of chess is harsher than life on the street

Make sure you add it to your calendar and don’t miss out on what promises to be a memorable series.



Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications.
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