Chess on TV: Golden Blitz in Jazz Town

9/21/2005 – Why is there so little chess on TV. Why must this great game play hundred and second fiddle to other shows? The recent Golden Blitz tournament in Moscow was designed with a television audience in mind and was a make-or-break test for chess on TV. In a big illustrated report Misha Savinov tells us how things went in this pioneer effort.

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Golden Blitz in Moscow

By Misha Savinov

Part I: Background; scroll down if bored

The future of any sport depends on how spectacular it looks on television. Public chess appearances on TV are extremely rare, therefore the yearly chess income of a player of Luke McShane's caliber is comparable to such of a substitute football goalkeeper of the Russian second division, although the latter hardly has a slightest chance of playing for SV Werder Bremen. I never asked Motylev whether he is sorry for abandoning his successful junior football career, because it's obvious that he isn't. However, a new generation of chess players is rather more pragmatic in this matter. The question is whether they are pragmatic enough to accept obligations that are required from professional sportsmen.

I asked Marina Makarycheva, who together with her husband GM Sergey Makarychev is responsible for chess on the NTV Plus Sport satellite channel (about half a million subscribers), whether their chess reports had sufficient ratings to be moved to prime time, or even to a public NTV channel (118 million potential viewers in Russia alone). The answer was: many, many times over. The fact that chess is playing the one hundred and second fiddle to other TV shows has nothing to do with the ratings.


Maria Makarycheva, NTV chess producer and anchor

I read about the TV success of the last-day show of the Kasparov-Short championship match. I remember Eurosport broadcasting rapid games. I heard that ESPN was quite satisfied with their chess shows. Or was it all thanks to Kasparov, who is still the only generally recognized chess player?

In Russia and other former USSR countries the audience is somewhat better prepared. Our taxi drivers, as it is widely known, give blindfolded simuls to national teams they drive from the Sheremetyevo airport. This phenomenon is still underexplored, although researchers have determined that perfect memory, quick calculation and Jedi reaction are not irrelevant skills for both taxi drivers and chess players. Russians can watch chess on TV and even understand something. However, these days they also want to be entertained.

Some 40 or 50 years ago Korchnoi annotated one of his games. He commented a move as follows: "Maybe this is not the strongest move, but certainly the one to have fun". These words were struck out by a censor: chess is not for fun. For some people the situation hasn't changed; the few chess pilots (do not dare calling them a show) that appeared on more or less widely available channels were made in a typical Soviet budget style: talking heads, boring voices, ancient demonstration board and limited jokes dated by early 20th century.


Former women's world champion Zhu Chen and the famous Moscow skyline

Is this the reason why national TV channels are so skeptical about chess? Or is there anything else? After all, NTV Plus does a decent job of covering the main events, and their ratings are good. I have a feeling that we are paying for very high official status of chess in the USSR. Our chess successes are strongly associated with the totalitarian state not only in minds of the audience, but also in minds of television bosses. Chess is yet to become sport, yet to enter a zone where rating is the only thing that matters.

Many representatives of the Soviet chess generation, born in 40s and 50s, often show a simply shocking lack of required professionalism, and they do not seem to realize it. A player may drop out of a super-tournament a day before it starts without any reasonable explanation. A coach, who gets paid on a regular basis by his team, may pay more attention to individual work with a player from a competing team. Another coach, accidentally a member of the Trainer's Council, refuses to discuss the play of the national team members in a recent tournament under a wonderful pretext: "I wasn't there, don't ask me". He had seen the games, but he doesn't want to discuss it, period.

They don't realize that their official position gives them not just privileges, but also demands certain openness in public debates. They don't realize that the habit of letting the sponsors down harms not only their reputation, but also the reputation of other players. They are accustomed to doing whatever they want because the Party is backing them, and the rest does not matter.


ACP President Joel Lautier and Kirill Kiknadze, the head of the NTV Plus Sport Department

It took 40 years for Moses, but the pace of life is faster in the 21st century, and hopefully we won't have to wait that long. "Responsibility" is a key word here, and – surprisingly! – we see young players showing a much greater degree of responsibility than their predecessors.

Forgive me a long foreword. One my way to Moscow I had somewhat mixed feelings. I clearly understood how difficult it is to make a show such as the "Golden Blitz", and how much depends on its success. "Golden Blitz" is a large-scale event, with a considerable budget, and it features the most spectacular form of chess – blitz without increment. If it failed, then we would be in a sorrowful situation: it is easier to live in poverty as unrecognized genius than as a hopeless looser. The failure of well-funded blitz show would mean that chess is either naturally not telegenic, or the task of making a good show of it is beyond normal people's range.


Tthe commentators Joel Lautier and Sergey Makarychev

I can't speak for all NTV Plus subscribers, as I have no feedback from them, but everything in the Jazz Town casino-club looked very promising to me. There were two skilled commentators, Sergey Makarychev and Joel Lautier, who entertained the audience and drew their attention to the critical moments of the game. There was a professional TV crew from the NTV Plus who filmed the show without noticeable lapses. Perhaps only the commercial and technical breaks were a bit too long, which took off some dynamism natural for blitz. The organization was excellent, and the atmosphere could hardly be better. And there were young and experienced participants, both men and women, who played very tense games with cunning ideas (and big blunders, too), and openly expressed their opinions in front of the cameras.


IM Valery Surenovich Tsaturian, former trainer of Sutovsky and Mkrtchian

I have to say a few words about brave men who organized the event. Please pay attention to it, as they invested a lot of time, effort and money into what may be a valid ticket to television for our game. First praise comes to Valery Surenovich Tsaturian – international master, trainer of Emil Sutovsky and Lilit Mkrtchian, developer of "Chess Music" and many other ambitious projects. This was his idea.

The ACP President grandmaster Joel Lautier was a driving force of the show, after he met with Tsaturian and discussing the issue during the Aeroflot open. An interview with Joel will soon appear on the ACP website, he has some interesting developing plans.


Irina Krush, shown around by Valery Vitalyevich Tsaturian, organiser of the event

Valery Vitalyevich Tsaturian, a nephew of IM Tsaturian and General Director of "V&V Profi", was a main organizer of the event. He was a medium between players, people from TV, casino, hotel and restaurant bosses, guests and journalists. He handled a great amount of an administrative work, and I am not aware of any complaints.

The NTV Plus Sport leadership, who believed in the idea and broadcast the tournament live for two days. Later they are going to show short films about each match, as well as a shorter version of the show. I'm looking forward to it.

With this Part I is over. I thank you all for your attention.

Part II: Two Days of Golden Blitzing

I admire a person who selected the participants for the event. I am mostly a domestic guy these days, and I rarely visit a chess tournament anywhere other than in Moscow or St. Petersburg. I would hardly have a chance to chat with people like Nigel Short, Zhu Chen or Irina Krush any time soon, if the Golden Blitz hadn't happened. Also the people I meet more or less regularly during tournaments like the Aeroflot Open, were more open and relaxed than usual. This was a perfect situation – everybody wins! No rating losses, no confidence losses – blitz is blitz! – almost no negative feelings at all. Some natural disappointment is always there, when a sportsman is eliminated from the knock-out, especially if the reason is a bad blunder, but this time such feeling disappeared very quickly. Just look at some pictures taken on the first day after the round!


The Jazz Town location with the venue on the right


The Jazz Town, where the games were played


Decoration inside the club


Evgeny Bareev vs Nigel Short in round one

The participants got used to cameras and started enjoying themselves. Revelation of a player's personality is equally possible through clever moves and clever answers. Ironic Evgeny Bareev was one of the stars, playing a small evil man who talks little, but is razor-sharp when he does. Flamboyant Vlad Tkachiev as a natural-born actor drew a lot of attention. Some people even thought that he didn't cared about the result as much as about staying in the spotlight for as long as possible.


Vladislav Tkachev interviews by Marina Makarycheva for NTV Plus


Alexander Motylev in Jazz Town


Alexander Grischuk arrives at the casino


Ruslan Ponomariov: climbing to the top


... and with his trophy after winning the event

Ruslan Ponomariov is not much of an actor, but his sincerity wins people over. And the ladies were charming, inspired, and aggressive; they called for sympathy and admiration. The tournament would lose quite a lot of its appeal if it was conducted without them – this was a general opinion to which I readily subscribe. It is impossible to choose a heroine of the event – Alexandra Kosteniuk, Almira Skripchenko, Irina Krush and Zhu Chen are equally responsible for such an impression.


Makeup before the game, for Alexandra Kosteniuk


Two women's finalists with the arbiter Igor Bolotinsky


The ladies ready to take up battle in the final


Alexandra Kosteniuk accepts resignation and congratulations from Almira Skripchenko


Waiting for prize-giving after the final


Almira Skripchenko: "We feel like movie stars here!"


The winners of women's section with Valery V. Tsaturian

I do not want to go into detail discussing chess games – blitz is a matter of form, sharpness and to some extent luck. It is especially true with two-game matches. One could say Ruslan Ponomariov was extremely lucky during the event, but being lucky against Grischuk, Tkachiev and Bareev can't be anything but an evidence of his skill. Alexandra Kosteniuk's victory appeared more convincing – she even used a brilliant novelty on a critical line of the Petroff Defence, improving over no less than a Kasparov-Kramnik game, to win the second game of the match.


Tandem match: in the above position White forced a draw

Curiously, the culminating points of the show was not planned in advance, but appeared rather as a result of participants' excellent mood. Skripchenko and Kosteniuk challenged the men's winners, Ponomariov and Bareev, to play a two-vs-two game. The brave men accepted, and the thrilling game that involved pawn breaks on the opposite wings and a spectacular piece sacrifice ended in a draw by perpetual. The rating difference between the pairs was an awesome 439 points; however, Almira Skrichenko revealed that Alexandra and she have great experience of playing as a doubles team. Their latest victims, Joel Lautier and Laurent Fressinet, had lost the match 3-5; thus Ruslan and Evgeny luckily managed to avoid quite an embarrassment. As Bareev himself summed up, next time they will be more alert!

So, if you want to see the show yourself, write to your congressman or wait for the NTV Plus to release a DVD. And meanwhile hope you like a few more photos I made in the Jazz Town Casino-Club in Moscow


Is this all going to work? Konstantin Kosteniuk and Igor Bolotinsky
test the transmission system at the venue


Konstantin Kosteniuk working in the Jazz Town ambient


From left to right: Vaiser, Tregubov, Makarycheva and Shipov


Dvoretsky, Fressinet, Short


Aa decisive game – the final between Bareev and Ponomariov


Nigel Short and Vlad Tkachiev


Ponomariov and Kosteniuk – jealous of each other's trophy?


Mark Dvoretsky and Alexander Motylev working during dinner


Zhu Chen, Igor Bolotinsky, and Alexandra Kosteniuk before the semifinal


Hunky Swiss GM Yannick Pelletier


Nigel Short meets an old friend


Irina Krush and Nigel Short at the first-day dinner


Yannick Pelletier and Zhu Chen listening to Nigel's discourse


A group picture with a cat

Previous ChessBase report on the Golden Blitz



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