Dark Secret to Promoting Chess (revisited)

5/11/2005 – Once again the letters poured in, this time in response to a thoughtful article written by Jamie Duif Calvin. Many readers were deeply impressed by arguments presented by the chess player and media expert from San Rafael, California. We bring you a selection of the letters, some mini articles in their own right, and Duif's reaction. Well worth reading.

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The Dark Secret to Promoting Chess

My goodness! Thanks to everyone who sent such thoughtful replies, and to ChessBase for publishing my original article. And thanks also to GM Susan Polgar, who kicked off this discussion and who does so much to promote chess. I am very impressed that we got feedback from readers in a dozen countries. That's one of the best stories that chess has to tell – that it is played in so many places, by so many different kinds of people!

Ryan Berg's idea of linking the biographies to a games database is a very good one, and I would certainly add that to my list of suggestions.

I honestly think television is not as important as we sometimes believe. Several readers pointed this out, including Bob Howe's example of Lance Armstrong. Fear Factor regularly scores ratings three times higher than any LPGA event, but while FF is on a lot more often, endorsers sign up LPGA stars, not FF champions. Why? Because companies prefer the story of long-term quality effort.

Udayan Bapat, Ryan Emmett, and others made the very good point that an LPGA type site would be of interest even to fans who already know a lot about the sport. I also apologize if I was not clear that it is not my intent that each player become a media person. Perhaps Dana MacKenzie's profile example fits here: it was the tournament organization that sent out the press releases which led to that individual story.

The one point I do want to disagree with is the idea that chess simply isn't commercially attractive, whether because the US isn't a dominant power or because the game itself is boring to nonfans, or any other reason. Chess is already used in many ads.

I'm not sure chess will ever make much sense on television, since it's visually static for so long. But it is perfect for print media. The chess world is full of passion, drama, human interest. And it is full of visually entrancing moments, easily captured in photo or sketch. Sponsorship money often comes into sports that have quite low television ratings because of the power of their stories.

I don't mind if chess only appears on ESPN2 once a year. What I'd like to see change is advertisements using chess without one penny ever going to an individual player. I'd love to see more stories about players as people. And the most important thing I'd like to change (as several readers mentioned) is that right now even diehard fans have trouble getting enough information about their heroes.

If chess were just about perfection, each game might as well be played by a computer. No one would care that Player A likes pizza for breakfast, that Player B has Black-eyed Peas music on her iPod, that Player C has come to an event five times before and never won... no one would care that one match-up is between players from different continents and another between players with a 40 year age difference.

But tournament chess is not about perfection. It is about the struggle of every player to achieve an unreachable perfection. It is about knowing that, as humans, we cannot succeed, and trying anyway. What drives us to try, what sustains us when we fail, is as individual as our fingerprints. And it is those stories that make the deepest connections with our fans, because those are the aspects they will connect with their own lives.

Thanks again to everyone who took the time to write! Your comments were most interesting.


Jamie Duif Calvin


Feedback to Duif Calvin's original article

Tony Johnson, Orlando, FL, USA
This is a great article and provides "insight" as to why our beloved game/sport of Chess is lacking in publicity and popularity! The author is "on the money" as to why chess is in its current state right now, and what to do to bring it to the forefront of the media and public's attention! I highly suggest the chess world does not take this as an insult, rather as a "creative solution" to our problem. Take it as "constructive criticism" and RUN WITH IT and let's take this beautiful game and put it on top of the world's stage and KEEP it there, where it deservedly belongs.

Christophe Ego, Nivelles, Belgium
Your comments on the article of S. Polgar was enlightening for me. I never though about the "story thing" so exactly although I somehow felt something of the kind...I always had more easy to remember things when I made stories out of them. I hope somebody (ChessBase team for instance) will follow your advice and build a complete, interesting and entertaining chess player database.

Ryan Emmett, Pontypridd, Wales
Bravo Jamie! Of course, human interest stories are crucial to promoting chess, as they are in any sport. If the general public doesn't know the personalities behind the top names in chess and the stories behind the games, why should they be interested at all? The lgpa site is excellent and I can't help but imagine how a similar site for chess would be a great source of information not just for journalists but for chess fans too! Despite the (sometimes good) coverage of the games themselves, it is difficult for ordinary chess fans like myself to get to know anything about the personalities and backgrounds of the top players. I am sure that a similar site for chess would be enormously popular. I would like to suggest that ChessBase could do this! You are already the best website for chess, especially the human interest stories, so why not? Go on, you know you want to! Think of the promotional possibilities for chess and ChessBase!

Edgar Calvelo, Napa, CA, USA
Thank you for your article, Jamie. You analyzed problem of chess popularity accurately. Chess organizations and aficionados have to promote chess with memorable stories, human drama and in simple understandable language. Promote chess with chess players who can be role models ( being done down to some extent ). Chess needs a marketing agency to promote and publicize its value in children's learning, self-esteem, educational benefits, in improving memory and in the simple pleasure of playing the game.

Philip Feeley, Surrey, BC, Canada
I agree with Jamie Duif Calvin in her assessment of the promotion of chess. I have never been able to understand why chess is not better known in North America, why snooker and poker make the sports channels, but not chess, why Europe has professional chess leagues, but tournaments in North America struggle. So, yes, all of her ideas need to be implemented by the official organizations in the U.S. and Canada. Susan Polgar can't do it all alone. As a further suggestion, publicity should reduce the use of photos of chess players sitting at a board resting their chins on their hands. Boring, boring, boring!

M. Shaw, Dallas, TX
GM Polgar has a bigger story to sell to the media than just about any chess player out there. In my opinion, she's the best chess ambassador of all time. She's also the perfect role model for countless girls and young children in America. If the mainstream media does not know enough about her yet, they will. It's not her fault that the US Chess Federation is incompetent in promoting their star players. She has done more to promote chess than the entire national federation. I checked her website and it clearly says she's the #1 ranked woman player in America. There's a red running banner that shows exactly that. Her website may not be the best but it's one of the best personal chess websites that I've seen. I agree that someone beside her team needs to promote her since they're too busy promoting US Chess. It would be a real service to all chess player if you can help get GM Polgar's name out there. Then she can reach out and attract more fans to chess.

George Simon, NJ, USA
Most of the article hits the problem right on the nose. If you want publicity, make it easy for reporters to obtain. On the other hand, the guy who went all the way to Iceland to provoke a physically and mentally broken man, might have used some of that energy to find some positive information on the subject of chess, just to offset his negative story. But, of course, it is much easier and much more fun to travel abroad and to pick a fight with a 62-year-old man, who is very-very angry after all his possessions were stolen by Beacon storage company, and then he himself was thrown in jail for nine months under rather fishy circumstances. What was his crime again? Did he murder someone? Did he sell state secrets to a foreign power? No, much worse than that: he played chess in Serbia at the same time, when USCF was ordering books from the same country... It is very easy to seat in front of a TV, eat junk food, drink soda, and despise a man, who was robbed and jailed for doing exactly the same thing, for which he was hailed as a hero some years earlier.

Edward Labate, Anaheim-Orange-Disneyland, CA USA
WOW, fabulous article!! Never have I read and realized how little I know about chess marketing and chess promotion, and I was California's #1 Chess Promoter in the 80s!! I have printed out the article and will keep it as guide for future use. Thank you ChessBase for having the wisdom in printing the article.

Sumon, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Very interesting article. I agree with her to some extent but not fully. Chess players are not playing for press. They are creative and want to create even those are not attracted by the press or media. And if the journalist always look for dark side, I prefer chess not to be covered by media at all. But it is true that chess needs professional managers and promoter. Like her mentioned web site. I hope the organisers and managers will give due considerations to those.

Udayan Bapat, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
A great article! Thanks to Jamie Duif Calvin for such a great discussion. As a seasonal chess player and chess enthusiastic, I totally agree with the views expressed in the article and I must admit that these were the points GM Susan Polgar missed in her article about ESPN.

As Jamie points out – Kasparov getting hit with a chessboard conjures big news! Why? Just because media is interested in gossip rather than triumphs? (As Susan complains about ESPN) Not really! I mean, let’s say here is a news – Kasparov wins Linares 2005. Now what is a big deal in it? Millions of chess enthusiastic people across the globe including myself know that he is the greatest. Nevertheless, after his retirement recently he also is saying that in almost all his interviews. But was he born as the greatest chess player? Well he also must have had his difficult times/struggles and of course failures. It is very natural for any human being to go through this pattern. As a chess fan, I am also interested in knowing more about his life, I want to see more photos, funny moments etc. apart from knowing all the greatest games he played.

This is also true with all the great players. I am not always interested in knowing more about him. Randomly anyone would want to know more about Anand, Topalov, Kramnik, Leko, Karjakin etc. Long back, when ChessBase published an article “Kramnik almost Karjaked”, I closely followed the game and analysis. Then I tried searching Karjakin in Google since I was curious about him. It was a really hard to find more about him apart from common news about him being a chess prodigy. (It was hard for a chess player to find something more then forget about any common man who may want to search something out of his pure interest). If I remember correctly, he finished last in Dortmund. But it really didn’t matter since as the article says – great stories don’t have to have great triumphs. They need a human face and/or a human struggle.

Forget about this complicated discussion, I visit ChessBase site twice a day on an average. I visit FIDE site rarely. May be once in a month! Why? because FIDE site is very “cold”. All it coveys is the tournament results and announcements. But ChessBase conveys a colorful reports as well as very interesting facts, statistics and stories (ah! stories again!) that makes the site interesting to read and worth visiting.

You ChessBase guys are doing everything great so far. Why you can’t have a separate link on your site, to post all the information about players? If this is too hard then at least a list of all the world events and their winners, their category, rating average etc. It is the past and not going to change. Collecting biography information from everyone is hard since it talks about the past, present and the future but at least you can try starting it!

John o'Connnell, Dublin, Ireland
Excellent article! Nothing more needs saying.

Daniel Wigley, Port Saint Lucie, Florida USA
Jamie Calvin is right on about her "dark secret to promoting chess." I agree that chess must become journalist friendly before it can ever hope to become a mainstream sport. One good thing is that chess seems to be filled with stories, stories, stories.

Dana Mackenzie, Santa Cruz, CA
What a great column by Jamie Duif Calvin! I work as a science writer, and I totally agree with her that in journalism, the story is everything. I think that she has hit the nail on the head in contrasting the poor public-relations efforts of the USCF with the very professional approach of the LPGA. As far as the LPGA is concerned, it's not quite clear to me what is cause and what is effect; maybe the reason they do such a good job of promotion is that they have already have years of corporate sponsorship. The USCF doesn't have that kind of experience -- but still, we can and should learn from the LPGA's example.

By the way, the upcoming HB Global Challenge (to be held in May in Minneapolis) seems to be taking a very aggressive approach to media relations. They have sent out press releases to the hometown newspapers of the players who have signed up in advance. At least in my case, it seems to have worked. The Santa Cruz Sentinel sent out a reporter to interview me and a photographer to take my picture, and the article is supposed to appear in tomorrow's newspaper. I'm a little bit nervous -- I have seldom been the subject of a profile; I'm used to being the writer -- but hopefully it will be a good and reasonably accurate article, and do something to promote chess here in Santa Cruz.

Andrew Donovan-Shead, Oklahoma, USA
Calvin is quite correct: the story's the thing. I suspect that is why ChessBase is a popular web-site, because of the stories and the pictures.

Joseph Amaral, New Hyde Park, NY
Chess people are not business people, for the most part. Journalism is more and more concerned with getting it quick than correct, especially in these days of 24 hour news channels and websites. If journalists are not given accurate information, one can't complain if they roll with it. I had no problem with Schaap's piece on ESPN. It wasn't gotcha journalism, though I could easily see how someone wrapped up in the ivory tower of chess would view that way. Dear me, he asked Fischer some tough questions. The nerve of him badgering Fischer. If anything, I thought Schaap was too easy on him. If ESPN had bothered to air pertinent portions of what Fischer has said on Philippine radio, there's no way the piece would have been aired. The fact is, classical chess is not a marketable sport, at least in the United States. Sorry, GM Polgar. Chess is a fringe sport. (Of course, people who go to ChessBase would disagree with this view.) The learning curve for it is too high (If you do not know how to play chess, the game consists of 2 plays shuffling pieces on a board, no matter how dramatic its package). Jamie Duif Calvin's message was a welcome tonic to the rather idealistic article of GM Polgar.

Leonel Bourque, Memramcook, Canada
Bravo Jamie Duif Calvin!! This is a great story that makes good sense, and will bring out creative juice's in EVERYONE to get chess the promotion that it deserve for all players ! It would be great to see an Image of each player with there ratings and short story, and at what age they learned how to play, on all Chess Federation Website's. When players renew there membership, they could send in there SHORT STORY ( Stat's )with a Photo. It would be a good start.

Valer Eugen Demian, Vancouver, BC, Canada
You raised a few good points in your article. However one should not be valid regardless of profession, or especially since we are discussing about journalism: being busy! We are all busy in our professions and we have deadlines to meet. This does not mean - in any way - that we should do a poor job in finding the truth and deliver it in any written or spoken form! Why does a journalist should keep high standards? Because the more prominent figure it is, more people are going to be influenced - one way or another - by their writing or speaking. Last but not least, doing the best possible job in informing ourselves regardless of obstacles, means we respect ourselves first!

Daaim Shabazz, Tallahassee, USA
I am a university professor, but also a chess journalist and player. I recently wrote an essay titled, "The Marketing of Chess" in which I point out similar problems with inaccurate and confusing data. However, I believe the chess image suffers not only because of inaccurate stories from uninformed journalists, but because of their own pre-conceived notions of chess. Chess media is certainly at fault for this as most sources focus primarily on about 25 players and certain regions of the globe. Until we market the broad appeal of chess, it will not receive the attention it deserves.

Curt Armstead
Great points! Isn't it ironic that Bobby Fischer still commands more media attention than Kasparov or the current world champion. Isn't it also ironic that most people, let alone avid players, cannot name our world champion? Today's players have no charisma, duck major tournaments (Kramnik) and matches, and create no natural rivalries or "media" news to promote the sport. Part-time fans and non-players are not going to get interested in following the complicated games of grandmasters - they may however with stories about the people. I am an avid player, but I also prefer the human interest stories. What do our chess magazines promote however-endless articles of Player A beat Player B, who then beat player C... (zzzzzzzzzz). Bring back Fisher-Spassky, Karpov-Korchnoi, or Kasparov-Karpov (or Borg-Connors, Connors-McEnroe, Lendl-McEnroe, etc.) any day- the stories fueled the interest, not vice versa.

Vladmir Sicca, Ribeirão Preto, Brazil
I'd like to bring to this whole discussion about chess in media a point that no one talks about: the fact that chess is not a sport where western countries dominate. It's known, for anyone who plays or doesn't play chess, that the Russians has been dominating the board for long years, and there you can see chess as a very important sport. So, it's more difficult to see chess in the western media. It's possible to confirm this looking at the boom that was Bobby Fischer when he won the world championship from the USSR and was considered an American hero. We have only the western view of the point, chess isn't a western sport, so it isn't searched for western journalists.

Thomas Jon, USA
As if Jamie Duif Calvin needed any more evidence for the utter truth of her contentions, I would remind American readers of the "Saturday Night Live" comedy show spoof of Kasparov's psychological meltdown after being defeated by Deep Blue. The writers of the show certainly understood that they could not rely solely on their viewers' knowledge of chess to make the spoof work.

Bob Howe, Columbia, MO
This article is so RIGHT ON. She has absolutely nailed the problem. A total lack of promotion of the individuals, there stories and successes. Just look at bicycling. A sport that no one in the US follows, except that they know Lance Armstrong because of the STORY behind his fight to overcome cancer. By promoting an individual that people can relate too, the sport gets dragged in on the publicity!

Charles Crizer, Alexandria Virginia, US
Bravo! Jamie, you have NAILED IT! Your comparison with the LPGA is perfect. Golf is an individual sport just as Chess is. There is absolutely no reason why Chess couldn’t have the same profile as professional Golf. In fact, I would say it could be much larger because everyone on the planet can play chess where not everyone can play golf.

Dave Kolarik, Pittsburgh, PA USA
The story is a powerful medium. Everybody knows about tribal communities passing on their histories via their own "religious" stories retold over generations. Jamie's points are a powerful insight into basic human cognitive capacities and preferences.

Susan Polgar simply cannot afford the $$, at this point, to present herself as Jamie suggests. And, as Jamie points out, it should not be all up to Susan. It's a classic catch-22 situation, and Susan is doing more than her part to keep the snowball rolling, which is getting bigger and bigger.

My personal images of chess involve the stories. Tal at one point being 4-0 against Fischer. Bronstein the renegade. The Goteborg Variation. Fischer's Rf6!! against Benko. Walter Browne's Bh6!! in the Petroff. Fischer's Rh7 in the Goteborg. Karpov's destruction of Polugaevsky's Najdorf with Be2. The story of Paul Keres. Botvinnik's "relationship" with Stalin. Jim Slater doubling the prize of the original Fischer/Spassky match (what ever happened to Jim Slater?). Reshevsky playing simuls at seven. My late friend Rick Abrams and what he learned from Donald Byrne at Penn State. How the late Pittsburgh master Bob Bornholz once beat Frank Marshall in a NYC league game. etc. etc. etc. Yes, these are all very chess-specific events to a very interested chess fan. And they are OLD stories, which perhaps says something about our game today and at the same time embellishes some of Jamie's points. But, they are indeed, STORIES ... with personalities that reverberate. We need more good STORIES!

Ryan Berg, Seattle, WA
Well stated, Duif! I really like your observations on the current status of the media 'friendliness' of professional chess - or lack thereof as the case may be. You're right on the mark in regard to encouraging interest in the game by fleshing out the personalities and the stories behind the players in order to bridge the gap between the hardcore chess fan, and the newcomer who has an interest in learning more about the game, but doesn't know where to begin.

Nearly every professional, and even college, sport in the States makes a 'Program' available to those attending a game. In it the vital stats, history and a couple of anecdotes about every player on each team are given in order to create a 'personality' for each player. I was at a College Basketball game recently and there was a guy selling programs in the stands and his sales-pitch, however off-color, rang true. At the top of his lungs, he was yelling, "Programs! Get your Programs here!...It's just a bunch of Black guys bouncing a ball without a Program!" I don't mean this seemingly racist remark to offend anyone, but I do think its substance is valid - without knowledge of 'who' these players were, where they came from, what they were studying in college, their stats, their age, etc. it was impossible to really 'connect' with the players.

I think chess is particularly suited to this type of information. Not only are vital stats available (rating, age, tournament record, etc.), but also a brief summary of the player's style, preferred openings, and even best games - the possibilities are endless! With the current state of interactivity with the internet, it could even be linked to a database to search player-A's record against player-B, etc. Basically, it could be an 'internet resume' that goes well beyond the typical ELO score. This is a pretty HUGE undertaking, but I hope that your well-stated argument for its existence will inspire someone to undertake the challenge.

Adrian Lucas, Zürich, Switzerland
That was an interesting and constructive statement. I love the game, but one has to admit that everything around chess is in a state of mess. Apart from chessplayers, who knows anything about the world champion Kramnik? And there is another world champion, and the unification of the chess titles seems as close to us now as the end of times. If unification isn't possible, then we should put Don King (boxing promoter) in charge of chess. He would introduce a couple of new world champion titles and associations, no-one would know who is currently the best, but there would be money.

Now more seriously, what chess needs to do to reach both journalists and fans in the mainstream, I'd like to add a few items:

-a ranking understandable by everyone, like the champions race in tennis
-a minimum number of tournaments each player has to compete in, each year
-a qualification for the world championship final round that bases on some logical system, not simply based on hazard, politics and preferences.

And of course, bring the TV to the game. Eurosport for example is showing all sorts of games, from "darts" to the "strongest man in Austria" or similar kind of little-audience-events. As long as chess is shown nowhere, there is no hope for the big money to come in. Maybe some ideas could come also from an interview with Vlad Tkachiev on this site some weeks ago, or from France, when France3 television showed Tkachiev in a simultaneous against French personalities in Cannes. Something I'm sure can be done...

Svein Solvang, Akrehamn, Norway
Very interesting article from Jamie Duif Calvin. I guess in Norway we have the kind of stories she searches for about the chess prodigy GM Magnus Carlsen, 14 years old, with headlines like "Kasparov survives teen chess scare" and "Teenager topples ex-world chess champ". Recently a 50 min TV-documentary about him was sent on the most popular Norwegian television channel (on Saturday night). The documentary has been sold to several countries. A book called "Wonderboy" has also been written and translated to several languages. Even "60 minutes" called the family, but the family turned them down (first the father asked them to call back later because they were eating dinner!). There are no doubt in my mind that stories are important. In Norway the stories of Magnus Carlsen can be very useful for the chess community.

Edd Davies, Hampshire, UK
I think this is a brilliant article and uncovers some very practical points lacking in chess media at the moment. There should be a new website giving chess player biographies, (at least for all of the overall world top 100 and the top 20 or 30 in all the other sections like Women's and Junior's, as well as preferably at least the top 10 for each country), and a number of photos of each player so that journalists researching have an easy time choosing relevant photos. Also there should be a very well presented calendar, as Mrs Calvin said, that will display dates of the main tournaments such as Linares, Wijk Ann Zee, Dortmund, and Sofia, the Olympiad, and any other major events such as world championship related events. There should also be calendars for individual countries. The need for a more efficient site for such player and event information is clear, given that for example Nakamura being US Champion 2005 isn't even mentioned on the USCF website, and the confusion about changing prospective dates for various world championship related events that are often cancelled. Also, the US women's Olympiad team winning the silver isn't mentioned on the USCF site, and the photo of the winning team wasn't on the USCF magazine cover. The site should also give 'biographies' of the tournaments, giving photos of the location, history, and the importance of the event including prize money etc, (and all of this on the site in the standard format, rather than just giving a link to the official site, though giving the links as well of course). Sports like snooker and golf give career prize money earnings as one of the main indicators of success, and the same would be good in chess, (season and lifetime earnings are given).

Ernest Hong, Reno, NV, U.S.A
I wholeheartedly support all that Susan Polgar has done and is doing for chess and I agreed that there is a gaping hole in the media attention to an event like Supernationals when the national spelling bee gets regular coverage. I read Ms. Calvin's article thinking that I'd shake my head the whole time, but I was pleasantly surprised by her insight as to how the profession of journalism is more than regurgitating facts in an orderly fashion. Her thesis that storytelling should be developed in chess so that journalists aren't so estranged was quite compelling. I must applaud her for a thorough article that promotes an idea that could be unpopular in this forum.

Paul, Fulbright, Richardson, Texas, USA
J.D. Calvin's article should be emailed to every director and/or officer of every chess-related organization in the United States and Europe. Her advice about how to make it easier for the press to write great stories about a great game is simply wonderful. Her examples make clear how poorly marketed the game really is.

David Herz, Paris France
Excellent, coherent and I can only hope its recommendations will be taken to heart.

Stephen Gordon, Salt Lake City, USA
Wow! This a story that should be on every chessplayers wall. She has got it 100 percent right. More common sense in 5 minutes than I have heard in 35 years of following chess.


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