Chess on TV?

8/24/2006 – Chess on TV? It's been done with varying degrees of success. In the latest ChessBase Workshop, our intrepid columnist sharpens his pen to tackle the knotty dual problems of format and presentation of chess on TV and presents his own idea for a proposed solution. More information...

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"Y'all say you're ready? [crowd cheers] IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII ain't..." -- Waylon Jennings on "Austin City Limits"

I swore after the fallout from my last couple of ChessBase Workshop rants that I wouldn't do it again for at least a year. I lie to myself so often that it's a wonder that I ever trust me anymore. Bear with me on this one; it'll be the usual ramble that all comes together at the end. The whole thing's been prompted by a number of "Poker vs. Chess" threads that I've seen (and participated in) online.

When I tell people that I've been "playing chess for more than forty years", that's kind of a shortcut. Sure, I learned how to play when I was four and that's definitely been more than forty years ago, but it's not been a continuous thing. I drifted in and out of chess a lot when I was young, since there were so many other things competing for my attention: wargaming, girls, history, girls, music, girls, poker, girls, soccer, girls, writing, girls, science fiction, girls. If I could have found a gal who was a soccer/poker/chessplaying historian with a great singing voice and a Hugo Award and a Pulitzer to her credit, you and I'd likely not be having this (so far) less than fascinating discussion right now, more's the pity (that'd be some gal!). But a restless nature (still) drives me, which is why chess and I have parted company a few times. A combination of two things brought me back to chess (for good, so far -- or so far, so good) in my late twenties. The first was being a road musician; there are few things in life more boring than waking up at noon in a strange hotel room, finishing throwing up from the previous night's excesses by 1 P.M., and having nothing to do for the rest of the day (in the event of having no girls around) until you hit the stage at nine. So we spent a lot of time playing chess (with a cigarette lighter replacing a missing Rook, as I recall) just to kill those idle eight hours.

The second was chess on TV. Yes, Virginia, there was such a thing in the 1980's: the PBS broadcasts of Shelby Lyman and company dissecting the latest battle between the "Super K's": Kasparov and Karpov. Man, those shows were great! You had Shelby, Edmar Mednis, another guest commentator (usually the ill-fated Jimmy Sherwin), and those Sarwer kids thrown in too for who knows what reason, all of them taking apart the latest K-K World Championship game in detail, explaining why the players did what they did and what they thought would happen next. I don't know that I learned much chess from these programs, but I did learn that chess was cool; man, Edmar Mednis was so uncool that he was ultra-cool, kind of like a superannuated Buddy Holly. For you young'uns, Edmar Mednis was one badass chessplayer back in the day, arguably the strongest player in the pre-Fischer 1950's US and a world-class player (and still one of my chess heroes, even though I still don't understand a damn thing that he ever played).

Take the combination of these two things, throw in my buying a chess computer while my band was on annual summer vacation (you can't draw a bar crowd for beans in August, trust me), and I was hooked all over again. And that's why you're stuck with me now. Stop cussing Edmar for a minute and hear me out.

Yes, chess on TV works if you do it right. The whole trick is to engage the audience. Keep it in mind -- we're coming back to it later.

Unless you've been living in a cave without electricity for the past three years, you're doubtless aware that poker has become a huge TV hit (yes, the numbers have slumped a bit in the first half of this year, but not so much that they're scaring anybody off). Now why is this so? I can attribute it to a whole lot of reasons:

  1. Anybody can learn the basic rules to No Limit Texas Hold'Em in about fifteen minutes (and that includes the rank of hands, the physical mechanics of dealing the cards, the dealer button rotation, the blinds, the whole magilla). Getting any good at the game takes way, way longer, but you can pick up the basics pretty quickly.
  2. Jennifer Tilly
  3. Every hand is essentially a new game, so you get something new to ponder every couple of minutes
  4. Jennifer Tilly in a low-cut dress
  5. The table talk by the players, many of whom are real "characters"
  6. Jennifer Tilly in a low-cut dress, leaning over the table to get a better look at the board cards
  7. Even though poker's a game of imperfect information for the players, the pocket cams provide the viewers with perfect information, so you always know what's going on even when the players don't
  8. Jennifer Tilly in a low-cut dress, leaning over the table to get a better look at the board cards while doing chip stack tricks and saying "When you're cute, they show you their cards"

The list can go on (I never mentioned Shana Hyatt, but she's gone now anyway, darn the luck). Go ahead and cross off the even-numbered entries from the list; I might be that shallow, but I doubt you are, right? Right?

Now let's take a similar look at chess on TV:

  1. Anybody can learn the basic rules of chess in about fifteen minutes. Getting any good at the game takes way, way longer, but you can pick up the basics pretty quickly.
  2. Ray Keene
  3. Every game, unless it's blitz/speed (or Kasparov's last game against Deep Blue or Karpov's famous game against Larry Christiansen), takes hours to play with long periods of visual inactivity by the players
  4. Ray Keene in a polo shirt
  5. The players aren't allowed to talk to each other, unless it's to offer a draw or to resign
  6. Ray Keene in a polo shirt leaning over the table -- who knows why?
  7. Even though chess is a game of perfect information for player and viewer alike, it takes a high level of experience to comprehend what the players are doing
  8. I ain't mentioning Ray Keene anymore

Here again, feel free to chuck the even numbers off the list.

When chessplayers ask, bewildered, on an Internet message board why chess isn't as popular on TV as is poker, here's your answer: time and knowledge. (You might throw in "entertainment" as well, being as how watching Kenna James loudly busting on Mike Matusow across the felt is way, way funnier than watching, say, Vlady Kramnik silently scowling at Vishy Anand, but we'll let that aspect slide for a minute).

Now before you start screaming at me, you need to understand that I dig chess on TV. But I'm a chessplayer, you see. I have some level of understanding as to what's going on (and can even find GM's moves before they do, since I'm not the one under the gun. When I'm under the gun? Man, I'm the world's biggest fish. But enough about that... *sob*). When poker's on TV I can get family and friends to watch it with no problem. When chess comes on TV? The room clears faster than if there'd been an incoming SCUD about to hit the coffee table.

Why? My kids play both chess and poker. They'll watch poker in a heartbeat but can't stand chess on the tube. What's the deal? (No pun intended)

The problem is that there's a seriously ugly paradox at work here. When blitz or speed games are televised, viewers who aren't hardcore chessplayers complain that it "goes too fast" and they don't know what's going on. But at slower time controls, when the commentators have plenty of time to explain the position, the non-hardcore chess viewer complains that it's "too slow" and it's like watching paint dry. With chess you can't have it both ways.

See, poker gets to cheat. What you're seeing on TV isn't a whole tournament -- it's highlights. A poker tournament takes hours to play -- I know, I've done it. The majority of hands never get past the flop; Texas Hold'Em is structured to not see a showdown with all five cards on the board. The TV producers are just showing you the interesting, dramatic hands, not every single hand played. Poker's fast -- I can play fifty or more hands an hour online -- but it ain't that fast.

Chess can't do that easily. ESPN tried that once, and people complained that the position after the commercial break bore no resemblance to what they'd just seen -- the producers had edited out five or six moves in the interim to make the show fit a shorter time slot. Now it is possible for chess to do that, if they do it the way Shelby Lyman did it on PBS in the Eighties. The games had already been played, and the commentators were just pretending to get the moves live from a teletype machine. Shelby'd tear off a sheet every couple of minutes and make a new move (sometimes several of them) on the wallboard, and Edmar'd proceed to tell us why one of the players was an idiot. That worked, you see -- you could watch a whole game in sixty minutes and know exactly why the players had made those moves.

But (there's always a "but"), you didn't get to see the players. And some viewers desperately want that, too.

I'm not suggesting that non-hardcore chessplayers don't want to see it on TV; I can tell you otherwise from personal experience. But few people can (or want to) spare three or more hours to watch a whole game televised live, and they get confused when trying to follow a speed game live (and I sympathize there -- I always had trouble following those ESPN PCA speed game broadcasts back in the Nineties).

What to do? Here's a suggestion. In my opinion it'll engage the viewing audience and grab some numbers -- maybe not quite as big as poker's ratings, but I absolutely believe wholeheartedly that it's worth a shot. I'll warn the "purists" up front: you're gonna hate me for this.

Way back in 2002, I wrote a column here about Rapid Transit Chess. Here's how I described it in that column:

...it was enormously popular (especially in the large metropolitan chess clubs) back in the 1940's and 1950's.

Back then, it required three participants to play rapid transit -- two to play the game and a third to act as the game timer. In rapid transit, you have an allotment of x seconds to make each individual move. Here's an example of how it works. Two players agree to play a rapid transit game with a time of thirty seconds. White opens the game with his first move. The third player (the timer) looks at his watch and silently begins counting the seconds; Black has thirty seconds to make his move. If he hasn't made his move after twenty seconds, the player acting as timer starts counting backwards ("10...9...8...7..." etc.) to let Black know that his time is running out. When Black makes his move, White now has thirty seconds to reply, and so on. If a player fails to reply within the move allotment of x seconds, he loses.

The difference between rapid transit and blitz chess is in the method of time allotment. In blitz chess, you have x minutes to play the entire game, no matter how many moves the game lasts; in other words, the entire game has an overall time limit. In rapid transit, each individual move has a time limit. It doesn't matter how long the game lasts (twenty moves or a hundred); the individual moves are themselves timed. If you lose a rapid transit game on time, it means that you failed to move within thirty seconds (or whatever the agreed-upon time was) after your opponent has made his move.

As I said, this was a wildly popular form of chess back in the mid-20th century.

In that column I then went on to describe how Yasser Seirawan tried to bring Rapid Transit back as a scholastic game in the 1980's and 1990's. It's perfect for kids; my sons and I used to play it all the time (using Yasser's special RT clocks) when the boys were small (translation: "when they were pre-Nintendo").

Here's what I suggest for a new form of televised chess, since neither blitz/speed games nor long time control games have hit especially big with the general viewing public. Make the games Rapid Transit, using special clocks instead of a human counter (and I believe some of the current crop of electronic chess clocks have this feature already built in, if I'm not mistaken). Give each player sixty seconds flat to make his move -- no added time a la Fischer controls, no carrying over time from one move to the next, no set time control for all the game's moves -- you have sixty seconds to make your move starting from the time your opponent finishes his. Have an electronic "beep" sound once a second starting at the fifty second mark, so both the player and the on-scene spectators know that his time is running out (the TV viewers will, of course, have a clock on their screens). If you fail to make a move within sixty seconds, you're done -- you've lost the game.

Sixty seconds isn't a lot of pondering time, so the chess won't necessarily be "pretty". But it's plenty of time for the announcers to make some short explanatory comments to help the audience along (look, poker commentators don't offer lengthy oratories about why seven-deuce is a crappy pocket hand either -- they just tell you and if you want to know badly enough you can always go read up later). And, if it's not "pretty" chess, it'll definitely be dramatic as all get out.

Here's one more thing to consider: let the players talk to each other while the game's in progress. The audience still has to shut up (somebody yelling "Take with the Rook you dolt!!!" is right out) but some table talk between the players should be allowed. You know why we love to watch Danny Negraneau play poker? It's not just that he's a great player (he is) but he's also really entertaining -- his bantering with his opponents (often with the ulterior motive of eliciting information) is highly watchable, and when he sometimes tells another player exactly what that player's holding, man, that's just creepy.

Everybody makes a big deal about Alekhine once throwing a tantrum after a resignation by saying "Why must I lose to this idiot?" Big deal -- Phil Helmuth does it every damn time he busts out of a poker tournament. (Remember "This guy can't even spell 'poker'!"? If that'd been me sitting there, I'd have said, "Yeah, but I can spell 'I took all your chips sucker'."). We love to hate Phil -- that's why we watch him.

Picture that kind of thing on a chess broadcast. Picture the media buzz. Picture the ratings. Picture Jennifer Tilly in a tight dress underpromoting.

Maybe Rapid Transit isn't "pure" chess. But it's fast, visual, engaging, and made for TV. Think about it. That's all I ask.

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments on ChessBase Workshop. All responses will be read, and sending an e-mail to this address grants us permission to use it in a future column. No tech support questions, please.


© 2006, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.


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