Dylan McClain on the NY Times chess column

10/20/2014 – We recently published a piece on the termination of the New York Times chess column (after more than fifty years). A Slate article seemed to celebrate the event and the chance to replace the most recent columnist, Dylan Loeb McClain, with a more interesting writer. McClain thinks that Slate "got it almost completely wrong" and explains to us exactly how the NYT column worked.

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Statement by Dylan McClain

This is the pices that appeared on Slate Magazine and was reported by ChessBase:

Before I would never have responded to an article such as Mr. Gaffney's in Slate, because I would not have needed to do so. But in this case, I feel I should respond.

To be blunt, Mr. Gaffney got it almost completely wrong, partly because he did not do what any good journalist should do which is to try to talk to me, the person at the center of what is going on.

Mr. Gaffney criticized the format of the column, which is fair enough, including mentioning that in the last column I wrote about a game that was played on Wednesday, which was already several days old. If Mr. Gaffney had bothered to ask me – he was given two ways to contact me – I could have explained the reason. The column was always written on Wednesday because it was also being published in the International New York Times and, to meet their production schedule, it had to be finished by Thursday morning. The one time I revised the column later in the week, during the world championship match last year, it created an uproar because The Times had to scramble to find someone to copy edit it. I was told to never do that again.

Ironically, Mr. Gaffney extols Robert Byrne's columns, even though for the last ten years or more that he wrote the column, he did not write about anything that was more recent than three or four weeks earlier. The column as I wrote it was far more up-to-date, sometimes even including tournaments that were ending on the weekend that it was published.

New York Times article that we reported on in March 2012

And, on the Web, I could be extremely timely, as I was when I wrote the Gambit blog for The Times, which unfortunately was cut in another short-sighted decision.

Mr. Gaffney criticizes my "lack of voice" and that I am not a grandmaster or someone equally authoritative. Again, had he asked, he would have known that I could not inject my voice in the column. That is forbidden. The few times I tried, it was edited out. The idea was to write the column from an independent point of view, to appeal to a general audience and stick to facts. That is what The Times wanted.

In fact, this is what made me an ideal person to write the column – my background as a journalist and my independence. I was not beholden to anyone, so I could and did write about things as I saw them, which the people he mentions, like Kavalek and Short, would not necessarily do either because they have axes to grind or they hold some people in such high esteem that they would never criticize them. Can you imagine people tied to FIFA writing articles about the organization?

The chess world is rife with conflicts of interest. Many people who might otherwise be qualified to write about chess with authority have past or current business relationships with people or organizations they might or would have to write about, or they are friends with those people. That makes it impossible for them to be unbiased or objective.

I had none of those conflicts and I scrupulously avoided them. I certainly had opportunities as people wanted to be in The Times and wanted good publicity. (Among the inducements, I once was offered an all-expense trip to Argentina.) I never did anything in my capacity as a journalist representing The Times without prior approval and support from senior editors – something that is also required by The Times book of standards to which reporters must adhere. I suspect many people would have a tough time adhering to those standards.

And, without disclosing the figure, my compensation was not enough to enrich me. I wrote and worked out of my loyalty to The Times and my passion for chess.

Mr. Gaffney mentions Kasparov's criticism of me and the column but that is almost intentionally disingenuous. Kasparov has not been very happy with me for a while, most recently because I wrote about his contract with Ignatius Leong for securing votes in the FIDE presidential election. I am sure that Mr. Gaffney knew this and yet he chose to use Kasparov's comment.

I think that Kasparov has never really liked my independence and probably does not feel I have given him enough respect because of his accomplishments and his ideas. (I would disagree, but that is a matter of perspective and interpretation.) To his credit, over the years, Kasparov has continued to talk to me, obviously because I worked for The Times, but also perhaps knowing that while I cannot be swayed, I at least always try to be honest and fair.

Dylan Loeb McClain doing a massive interview with Garry Kasparov in 2005

Returning to writers such Kavalek and Short, they can have good anecdotes, but they are historical. The Times wanted the column to always be newsy and not about someone's personal experiences or recollections. Indeed, I approach chess from all angles – scientific, sociological, historical, educational, competitive, popular culture, etc. – and I am interested in other people's stories, often finding ones that others might miss. For example, I wrote about some up-and-coming players long before anyone else noticed them. Look for names like Carissa Yip, Awonder Liang or the Oskiper triplets in Kavalek's columns – you won't find them.

Mr. Gaffney neglects to mention my most important contribution, which is real criticism about current issues. In the last column, I wrote about the problems and dysfunction of the organization of the Grand Prix. Has anyone else done this? No, perhaps because they are afraid to criticize the powers that be. Again, I am not.

I would add that what I wrote was often constrained by having only 450 words a week in the column. And some of those words had to be about the games. Mr. Gaffney, and indeed all the other critics, have never had to do that.

In short, it is easy to be a bloviating critic with unlimited space on the Web, it takes real journalism skills and, frankly, integrity, to write about chess as I did and to make it interesting and relevant to a general audience. I invite anyone who wants proof to take a look at the links below, which represents a small portion of my work.

Biographical background

I have been a journalist for more than 25 years. I went to work for The Times in 1994 as a graphics editor – a job that I continued to do until I left The Times voluntarily in 2012 to go to work as a graphics editor for Les Echos, the French business newspaper based in Paris. Here is an example of my recent work, including the article that I wrote in French.

At The Times, I specialized in business journalism and I reported and created all the graphics for the series of articles for which David Cay Johnston won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and for which David Kocieniewski won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Good examples of my work on that series are contained in the 2012 Pulitzer citation. I also did the graphics for the articles on the bailout of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998 for which The Times won the Gerald Loeb Award for business coverage. My graphics were specifically mentioned in the citation for the quality of the explanatory reporting. I also wrote more than 200 articles on business and finance for The Times. And I wrote some of the Portraits of Grief, which was part of the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that The New York Times staff won for its Nation Challenged section following the attack on 9/11.

My chess reporting and the column

I am a master level player (FIDE rating of 2320) and my interest in chess was known to many editors at The Times. I began writing articles about chess not long after I arrived and I was adept at finding topics and ways to reach a general audience. A few of the many articles and features I have written:

The column

Here are a selection of columns. Some of them are longer than usual as I was able to get more space by appealing to the editors at The Times. At other times, I just stuck to the format.

Obituaries

Videos

Gambit blog

I wrote it for four years and during the last year, I posted up to two or three items a day – often breaking news that no one else had. There are too many posts to list, but here is the link to the blog.



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