Chess in the mainstream world today

by ChessBase
4/19/2005 – Last Sunday ESPN aired a story about Bobby Fischer. Jeremy Schaap traveled to Iceland and reported on what he found. But he mainly went there to confront and provoke Bobby. Susan Polgar, who knows and admires Schaap, is distressed to see chess reduced to this theme on a national sports channel. Here are her thoughts on the subject.

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Chess – a world phenomenon

By Susan Polgar

This (Sunday) morning, I had a chance to see part of the Outside the Lines Show on ESPN, hosted by Bob Ley. It was called Finding Bobby Fischer and billed as follows: As a teenager Bobby Fischer was a chess prodigy with a 180 IQ. As an adult he won the world chess championship in 1972 in Iceland, defeating Russian Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War. The win catapulted Fischer to international fame and during his ascent he forged a close relationship with journalist Dick Schaap, who chronicled his historic moves. But shortly after the world championship, Fischer became a recluse. He renounced his Judaism, spouted anti-Semitism and ranted against the United States. Fischer emerged in 1992 to play a rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia, defying an international ban. He became a fugitive, and was detained in Japan last year. Last month, Fischer left Japan for Iceland where he had been granted citizenship. Outside the Lines' Jeremy Schaap, son of the late Dick Schaap traveled to Iceland in search of Bobby Fischer and reports on what he found. Bob Ley hosts.

More than 20 minutes of the show were dedicated to the main story about Jeremy Schaap searching for Bobby Fischer. Tonight, the same show was aired again on Sports Center, and had some serious misgivings. This time, I carefully watched the entire clip again. Unfortunately, my opinion did not change after this second, careful review.

I first met Jeremy a few years ago during the Man versus Machine World Championship Match (Kasparov versus Deep Junior) at the NY Athletic Club. I have heard many good things about him from other people and I agree with their opinions when I saw him at work, covering the last game of the Man versus Machine match live. It was not an easy task for a non-serious chess player to do but he pulled it off beautifully. My respect for Jeremy as a sports anchorman and journalist went up even further.

Susan Polgar with Jeremy Schaap (left), Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley live on ESPN during the Man vs Machine computer match in New York in February 2003

However, I must sadly take exception to the story about Bobby Fischer. In my opinion, Jeremy went to Iceland to provoke and confront Bobby. That was also the opinion of many people I spoke to. The entire show was about Fischer's attitude toward Jews, the big bad USA, Israel and about the fallout between his dad Dick Schaap and Bobby. It is very easy to provoke Bobby, and Jeremy knew how to do it.

I understand that for the media, everything is about ratings. My problem with the show is there are so many wonderful stories about chess, stories that can bring a sports channel big ratings. Why not use them? Why not talk about them? Why focus on something that the whole world already knew and knows. I think it is the duty of sports journalists and sports networks to bring to the audience sports news that is captivating, interesting, and news worthy. Chess is all of these and more! There are many chess stories that could bring tremendous ratings for Sports Shows.

Susan Polgar playing friendly games against Fischer, June 1993 in Budapest

Let’s look back to last week. The Super Nationals, largest ever tournament in the world with 5,230 young players was held in Nashville, TN. That was definitely newsworthy, especially with a chess playing population of more than 40 million people in the United States alone. What kind of rating would that achieve if promoted competently and professionally? The numbers are astounding! 5,230 participants in one place and the same time for a national championship, that is bigger than any other sport in America including Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, Tennis, etc. No other sport can match this. Where was ESPN or any other on air sports show?

Thousands of young chess players at the Super Nationals last week

Remember the Miracle on Ice? The US hockey team defeated the unbeatable Soviets in the 1980 Olympic Games! We still talk about it today! The recent Disney movie “Miracle” depicted the team and their road to the Gold medal. Remember how the Gold medals at the 1996 Summer Olympics and the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup changed women’s soccer in America? Last November, our US Women’s Olympic Chess Team came home with first ever Olympic Silver and Gold Medals for the United States. We overcame all odds, even defying death threats! We did the unthinkable! Our amateur team defeated the world powerhouse China in our individual match in the Olympic and we brought home the team Silver ahead of the powerful Russians. History was made for the United States! Where was ESPN?

In March 2005, Liz Johnson made headline news by becoming the first woman to advance to the championship round of a Professional Bowling Association event, beating Richard Wolfe 4-3 in the quarterfinals of the PBA Banquet Open. A few years ago, Annika Sorenstam and Suzy Whaley made big news by playing in PGA events. Of course the biggest story was when Billy Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, and 6-3 on September 20, 1973 at the Houston Astrodome.

But guess what? In chess, women like former Women’s World Champions Chiburdanidze, Gaprindashvili, my sister Judit and I have done this a long time ago. We competed against men and not only beat many of them in individual games, we even won professional events ahead of our male counterpart. In fact, I played two exhibition matches against two top US male grandmasters on September 20-21, 2003 to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Billy Jean King versus Bobby Riggs match. I won by the score of 4-0!

Susan Polgar vs Anatoly Karpov in Lindsborg, September 2004

Last year, I played a celebrated match against one of the greatest World Champions Anatoly Karpov (a man who has won more chess tournaments than any other player in history) in a six-game match. It was the first time ever that World Champions of different genders went head to head against each other in a match. The score was 3-3. Millions of people followed the match via the Internet and print media. Where was ESPN? Imagine what kind of ratings ESPN would receive if it could attract more female viewers. That was more than news worthy.

Bobby Fischer was Mr. Chess in 1972. The impact he made in chess was felt worldwide for decades. It can be argued that he has impacted chess more than any player in history. His genius was on the chess board. I was immensely impressed with Bobby’s understanding of chess when I got to know him during the time he lived in Budapest. It was a Cinderella story; a young American boy growing up in Brooklyn single handedly defeated the big, bad, Soviet empire. But that was over three decades ago. Why do we need to provoke him now? Why focus on one negative story? Chess has grown leaps and bounds and chess has changed ten folds since 1972. There are countless positive chess stories that can be told and at the same time bring high ratings.

Today, with the power of the media, someone like Mr. Schaap can make just as much impact for chess as Bobby did. Chess has been proven time and time again to help children do better in school and in life. Chess can do wonders in enhancing young girls self esteem and confidence. Chess is now cool! Chess is now popular! Chess is now hip! Chess is good for you! And chess is a drug-free competitive environment! Even celebrities love chess!

Chess celebrities

These celebrities include: Claude Akins (Sheriff Lobo), Alan Alda (M*A*S*H), Woody Allen, Lauren Bacall, the Barrymores, Polly Bergen, Sarah Bernhardt, Humphry Bogart (Casablanca), Richard Boone (Have Gun, Will Travel), Shirley Booth (Hazel), Charles Boyer, Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Nicholas Cage, Charlie Chaplin, Cher, Lee J Cobb, Charles Coburn, Bill Cosby, Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone), Timothy Dalton (James Bond), James Darren, Dustin Diamond, Marlene Dietrich, Hugh Downs, Erik Estrada (CHIPs) Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Peter Falk (Columbo), Mike Farrell, Mia Farrow, Jose Ferrer, Errol Flynn, Henry Fonda, Michael J Fox, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene (Bonanza), Sydney Greenstreet, Woody Harrelson, Rex Harrison, Katherine Hepburn, Charlton Heston, Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope, Anthony Hopkins, Dennis Hopper, John Huston, Kate Jackson (Charlie's Angels), Sam Jaffe (Dr. Zorba on Ben Casey), Don Johnson, Al Jolson, Boris Karloff, Ben Kingsley, Stanley Kubrick, Jude Law, David Letterman, Peter Lorre, Myna Loy, Bela Lugosi, Marcel Marceau, Dean Martin, Steve Martin, the Marx brothers, James Mason, Jerry Mathers (Leave it to Beaver), Walter Matthau, Patrick McGoohan, Ray Milland, Carmen Miranda, Yves Montand, Rick Moranis, Frank Morgan (Oz in Wizard of Oz), Paul Newman, David Niven, Chuck Norris, Maureen O'Sullivan, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Walter Pidgeon, Jason Priestley (90210), Dennis Quaid, Anthony Quinn, Tony Randall, Basil Rathbone, Keanu Reeves (Matrix), Chris Rock, Cesar Romaro, Jill Saint John, Susan Sarandon, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, George C. Scott, Tom Selleck, Peter Sellers, Omar Sharif, Will Smith, Jimmy Stewart, Oliver Stone, Barbra Streisand, Rod Taylor, Shirley Temple Black, Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, Rudy Vallee, Rudolph Valentino, Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian), John Wayne, Orson Welles, James Whitmore, Guy Williams (Zorro and Lost in Space), and William Windom.

In the sports world there are a few sports figures that also play chess. These include: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Boris Becker, Larry Bird, Jim Bouton, Jim Brown, Kobe Bryant, the Byron twins (tennis doubles), Jennifer Capriati, Reggie Carter, Bill Cartwright, Michael Chang, Sean Elliot, Roger Federer, Ron Guidry, Evander Holyfield, Bobby Jones, Chuck Knox (football coach), Ivan Lendl, Lennox Lewis, John McEnroe, Thurman Munson, Dale Murphy, Barry Sanders, Latrell Sprewell, Gene Tunney, Bill Walsh (football coach), Bill Walton, Dick Schaap and Emil Zatopek.

In the music business, chess players include: Ludwig van Beethoven, Bono (U-2), Sonny Bono, David Bowie, Enrico Caruso, Pablo Casals, Ray Charles, Frederic Chopin, Bobby Darrin, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Sticky Fingaz (Onyx), Dizzy Gillespie, the entire group in Jefferson Airplane including Grace Slick, Gene Kupra, John Lennon, Sean Lennon, LL COOL J, Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie, Johnny Marks (wrote several famous Christmas songs) Yehudi Menuin, Moby, Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, and Nash), Willie Nelson, Yoko Ono, Louis Persinger, Gregor Piatigorsky, Helen Reddy, Tim Rice, David Lee Roth, Arthur Rubinstein, Schumann, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Ringo Starr, Isaac Stern, and Sting.

Writers who had time for chess include: Cleveland Amory, Isaac Asimov (I, Robot), Frank Baum (Wizard of Oz), Art Buchwald, Lewis Carroll, Cervantes, Charles Dickens, Dostoevsky, Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), George Elliot, Goethe, O. Henry, Ibsen, Ben Jonson, Kipling, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Norman Mailer, Hermann Melville, Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), George Orwell, Edgar Allen Poe, Pushkin, Peter Roget (thesaurus), Salman Rushdie, William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Isaac Singer, John Steinbeck, Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe), Tennyson, Walter Tevis (The Hustler), Tolstoy, Kurt Vonnegut, H.G. Wells, William Yeats, and Stefan Zweig (The Royal Game).

In government and politics, chess players include: John Quincy Adams, Spiro Agnew, Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Willy Brandt, Zbigniew Brzesinski, Aaron Burr, Jimmy Carter and family, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Grover Cleveland, Francisco Franco, Benjamin Franklin, Muammar Gadaffi, James Garfield, Joseph Goebbels, Ulysses S Grant, H.R. Halderman, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ivan the Terrible, Thomas Jefferson, John F Kennedy Jr., Henry Kissinger, Lenin, Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, Ferdinand Marcos, Karl Marx, Juan Peron, Richard Riordan (former mayor of Los Angeles), Theodore Roosevelt, Anwar Sadat, Pierre Salanger, Josip Tito, Leon Trotsky, and Woodrow Wilson.

Artists include: Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Rembrandt.

There have been at least 20 Nobel Prize winners that also have played chess, including Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, John Nash, and Bertrand Russell.

Other personalities include: Bill Gates, Bob Guccione, George Custer, Robert E. Lee, John Pershing, P.T. Barnum, Al Capone, Casanova, John Hinkley (tried to assassinate President Reagan), Harry Houdini, Timothy Leary, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sigmund Freud, Voltaire, Billy Graham, Stephen Hawking, Robert Oppenheimer, and Auguste Piccard.

These are but a few of the well-known personalities that have played chess in the past.

Yes, chess does get coverage from major print media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, the NY Times, The NY Daily News, Lifestyles Magazine, etc. Chess is also on countless scenes in modern Hollywood movies and TV commercials. But for something as powerful as chess, we need more positive coverage. The media has the power to turn chess into an overnight sensation. And in exchange, the media has a direct path to more than 40 million people in America and that is a match made in heaven. ESPN televise spelling bees, fishing, billiards, etc. Chess can certainly bring higher ratings. When ESPN decided to televise chess, it received higher ratings than other programs normally aired during the same time slots. Why not chess then? After all, chess is the most popular game in the world with nearly 700 million players of this world-game!

Thanks to Bill Wall of Chessville for the research on the above lists. Below are excerpts and comments about chess from various sources. Let’s keep chess alive in the media so that all young people have an opportunity to enjoy a sport for life.

Chess quotes

  • Lennox Lewis: “Yet for all Lewis' persona as a surprisingly intelligent and deep thinking champion, he is caught up in the game but this game is not chess, his other sport of choice. It is boxing, a place where men meet to break each other's spirit.” [HBO]

  • Vitali Klitschko: "Vitali's hobbies include politics, kite surfing, listening to music and playing chess.” [HBO]

  • Will Smith: "It is cool to play chess. My father taught me how to play chess at seven and introduced beautiful concepts that I try to pass on to my kids. The elements and concepts of life are so perfectly illustrated on a chess board. The ability to accurately assess your position is the key to chess, which I also think is the key to life." He pauses, searching for an example. "Everything you do in your life is a move. You wake up in the morning, you strap on a gun, and you walk out on the street – that's a move. You've made a move and the universe is going to respond with its move. Whatever move you're going to make in your life to be successful, you have to accurately access the next couple of moves – like what's going to happen if you do this? Because once you've made your move, you can't take it back. The universe is going to respond." [Independent]

  • Nicholas Cage said he feels that chess is a good activity for kids.

  • “The game of kings owes its improved image in part to movies such as 1993's Searching for Bobby Fischer and to chess-loving celebs, such as rock star Sting, basketball star Larry Johnson, and actor Will Smith.” Researchers have found that children who play chess – even at a mediocre level – score higher on standardized reading and math tests. In a 1996 study, third and fourth graders in Los Angeles and New York City who played chess scored about 10 percentage points higher on reading tests than a control group of peers who did not play chess. Other studies done in the 1990s show that young chess players build analytical skills and self-esteem. [Board Games Express]

  • Priest Holmes may not talk much about his success in NFL, but his chess game speaks volumes. “….And I won the tournament." The point of the story is not that he won. That just shows he was a pretty good chess player. The point is that he stayed. That's Priest Holmes. He won't let anybody label him. He won't let anybody brand him. Every Wednesday evening, Holmes goes to the Police Athletic League (PAL) Center and plays chess with a few children from the inner city. He sponsors this chess club because he knows what the game did for him. He knows what chess can do for them. "All your life, you will have people tell you what you can and can't do," Holmes says. "These kids will have to hear that over and over again. But with chess, there are no limitations. It's whatever your mind imagines. Nobody can tell you who you are when you're playing chess." [Dallas Morning News]

  • Chess! The most popular game in history… Advertising for Sony PlayStation (PSX)

  • Supermarket chain Tesco today reported an unexpected surge in sales of chess sets. The company said demand for its own-brand set, launched earlier this year, was almost double what it forecast. It has seen sales of chess sets far exceed other board games in its stores such as Connect 4 and Cluedo. Tesco said it was expecting to sell more than 35,000 chess sets in the run-up to Christmas. Karen Harris, senior buying manager at Tesco, put the sales boom down the chess-playing celebrities such as Madonna and Lennox Lewis. She said: “Chess, of all the really traditional board games, has undergone an image transformation. “Being able to play chess is fast becoming a very cool skill for young people.” [The Scotsman]

The Benefits of Chess for Kids

Numerous studies have decisively proven the benefits of chess for kids:

  • "Chess in Education Research Summary" by Robert Ferguson (1995). A 14-page summary of key chess research.
  • "Chess Improves Academic Performance" summary of NY School Chess Program.
  • "The Importance of Chess in the Classroom", Atlantic Chess News, 1990 (Michael D. Wojcio). Wojcio teaches chess to slow learners in five NJ schools and this describes his program and the benefits.
  • "Chess and Education" (John Artise). After two years of psychological research in chess, Artise found cognitive improvements in memory, logic, observation and analysis, and operant conditioning.
  • "The Effect of Chess on Reading Scores" by Stuart Margulies, Ph. D.
  • "Teaching the Fourth R (Reasoning) Through Chess" (Robert Ferguson). A 1979 project teaching the gifted (grade 7-9) in Bradford Pa. Statistical "proof" that chess increases thinking scores. Also, includes description of teaching program.
  • "Chess Makes Kids Smart" (Anne Graham-PARENTS-Dec 1985). Urges parents to introduce their kids to chess and quotes work of Pete Shaw, Jeff Chesin, Bob Cotter, etc.
  • "Chess Makes Kids Smarter" (Dr. Gerard J. Dullea).
  • "Chess as a Way to Teach Thinking" (Diane Horgan).

These are only scratching the surface. In the Netherlands, the Dutch found that kids who play chess overall do 8% better in mathematics and science compared to kids who didn’t play. The statistic for girls alone is a difference of 12%.

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