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.



Topics: New York Times
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stourleyk stourleyk 8/16/2015 07:24
"The logistics of why the columns had to be published on Wednesdays aren't important; the point is that a weekly newspaper column will always lag behind the web, and can't be as timely as sites like ChessBase and chess.com, just as a printed newspaper can't be as timely as web news for non-chess events. This seems non-controversial." Then the criticism is of the newspaper medium not rather of McClain as you indeed did make it.

"You state that I extol Byrne's columns, even though in his last ten years the columns weren't very timely. <In fact less timely.> But that's my whole point: trying to make a weekly newspaper chess column timely doesn't work, since those who care to can get more information faster from online sources." And still you didn't criticize Byrne for being worse, only for being better.

"Which, all other things being equal, is true: you'd generally rather have a game annotated by a GM than an FM. " Analysis is a matter of voice as much as it is insight.

"But again, this was primarily your non-column reporting." Chess politics should not be emphasized over chess. McClain's reporting of it in the NYTimes column was duly proportionate.

"Your Leong piece was epic, but it wasn't part of your weekly column. Again, my article is *specifically about weekly newspaper chess columns in 2014*. Same with the three articles interspersed throughout your rebuttal here, and the first batch of pieces you link to: they're not from your weekly column, and they're not what I was discussing in my piece." C'mon, you criticized McClain's writing. Don't try to sneak away by saying you were only talking about his column.

"You mention that you were often constrained in what you could say since you only had 450 words per column and had to discuss a game as well. Understandable, and space constraints are just another flaw in the format of the weekly newspaper chess column." You forget again- you criticized McClain, not newspaper columns in general.

"I stated that you "competently and correctly" recounted the most important events in the past week of chess, but that this is not going to be enough now that there is so much more information about chess available quickly. I think this thesis is correct, and note that you didn't challenge it in your rebuttal." If you want to criticize newpaper columns, don't make it personal. But now I forget: that you work for Slate and that's how you guys get clicks.
CalvinA CalvinA 10/22/2014 03:49
Don't flatter yourself. 1. You only become a more obvious subject of ridicule when you decamp to a far more worthwhile and successful chess forum to whine and spout flimsy excuses about your failures. 2. My views are hardly unique: as set forth in the Chessbase main article, everyone from Kasparov to average players long ago deemed your writing to be utterly irrelevant. Plainly your employer felt shortchanged as well.
Steven E DuCharm Steven E DuCharm 10/22/2014 02:06
Best wishes to Mr.McClain going forward
Dylan McClain Dylan McClain 10/22/2014 12:22
CalvinA, or Calvin Amari, or whoever you are, I think that you are not giving me enough credit for what I have written and accomplished. After all, how many people are there who write about chess who have a dedicated troll to follow them around and attack them on the Internet? I think that you would probably disagree with me if I wrote about the color of the sky.
CalvinA CalvinA 10/22/2014 12:26
Why Chessbase is providing a forum for the sorry excuses McClain offers to explain why he got canned is beyond me. As your main article pointed out, everyone from Kasparov to your average wood-pusher found McClain's writing to lack relevance. If McClain's chess blog both merited and garnered the readership that Chessbase's respected news page does, the NYTimes plainly would not have cancelled that blog nor a well-conceived anchoring weekly column. McClain's blog and column were far from that. Personally, I found McClain's journalism cringeworthy, and I note that, when revealed to have made gross errors or misjudgments in the past, he likewise has resorted to other chess blogs to offer his unique blend of self-serving whining. Journalistic error? Not my fault. Fired? Not my fault. Unfortunately for McClain, readers of chess news are good at pattern recognition.
DavidCayJohnston DavidCayJohnston 10/21/2014 05:27
Matt Gaffney's piece is an excellent example of writing that poses as journalism, but as Dylan McClain shows does not qualify as reporting.

Gaffney failed to do the most basic reporting -- he failed to contact McClain. Slate's editors should have asked Gaffney about the lack of comments from McClain. Gaffney also makes basic errors.

For one Gaffney writes that McClain lacks the qualifications to write such a column. Nonsense. Most science writers including the very best are not scientists; politics reporters are not politicians; crime reporters are not criminals or cops (with a few exceptions). (And who am I to critique Mr. Gaffney -- the Wiki page others created about me will suffice as to my chops to wrote press criticism for more than four decades).

Disclosures: I am not a chess player. I came across this rebuttal because it mentions me in passing, so it turned upon my daily alerts.

McClain is a highly competent, careful and thorough journalist whose peers respect his work, even those who dislike him or know him only through his work.

The peculiar rules of The New York Times, including justified rather than ragged right layout that signifies to readers that the writer may not express his views but present only facts, were evidently unknown to Gaffney because he failed to report, which means to check and cross check facts until you have them both bolted down and know their relative place in the universe. (That some of the NYT rules make little sense, need updating is a valid issue, one I have written about a number of times, but that is a criticism of the paper, not McClain.)

Gaffney's response, at 11:27, reveals that he has work to do before his pieces qualify as professional journalism, and a lot of work to report and write at the level of McClain.


brian karen brian karen 10/21/2014 03:50
Dylan took Gaffney's article too personally. It seems like it was not entirely Dylan's fault that his weekly Times column was outdated. It was the policies of the NY times. But that does not change the fact that the column was outdated. I am a huge chess fan and I barely read the column. I'd be excited by a column by Nigel Short or one that is akin to Gaffney's suggestions.

But maybe a diehard chess fan is not the NY Times intended audience? In which case, Dylan's column is fine. But evidently the powers that be at the NY Times disagree.
Wastrel Wastrel 10/21/2014 02:57
There is no need to tell me that Slate got nearly everything wrong. They usually do. Last year, Slate published an absurd article criticizing the World Chess Chamiponship format. The article called for a series of tournaments to identify potential challengers and then a tournament to decide who the challenger would be -- the process that is used. Evidently the writer thought that the challenger was chosen by his rating.
Dylan McClain Dylan McClain 10/21/2014 10:26
Brabo_hf,

I was told that the reason for the decision was cost-cutting, but I can say for certain it was not because of the popularity of chess in the United States, which is growing because of the increasing number of scholastic chess programs.

Nor was it because what I was writing was not popular or noticed. My last story on the Millionaire Chess tournament was the second-most emailed story on the national news page throughout the day (The Times considers its most emailed lists to be the most representative of reader involvement and interest), my article on the World Chess Federation election results was on the top of the home page for many hours, and the two stories I wrote about the election scandals were both mentioned on the front page of The Times, as well as near the top of The Times home page. Readers, and editors, were interested in what I wrote.
brabo_hf brabo_hf 10/21/2014 09:59
The only piece of official information which I found about why the NYT chess column stops is "We are considering eliminating the chess column in order to keep freelance costs in line"

Now if we say costs then we also have to say revenues. I assume that the extra readers thanks to the NYT chess column were considered today as negligible by management. When you don't generate enough extra readers then the only conclusion management makes is that the content isn't interesting enough. There can be many reasons for that even nothing to do with the skills of the journalist or style of the defined format. Maybe chess simply decreased in popularity the last decades in US (which is certainly the case in several European countries).
Dylan McClain Dylan McClain 10/21/2014 07:59
Mr. Gaffney,

You miss the main point. Independence, a broader worldview than what happened in the columnist's own life, and criticism are essential. Those were essential elements in the column, not only in the independent feature and news reporting that I did. That reporting also was abetted by having the column as a platform.

When I said that I tried to inject my voice, that was imprecise. I meant to use the pronoun "I." It was only a couple of times and the editor took those out. The Times was right to want the column to be objective and newsy. And for that you need a journalist, not some "name," who would only be a "name" among the more passionate people in the chess world. To bring in a broader audience, that is not necessary -- journalism is.

I could speculate about your reasons for continuing to be so willfully obtuse, but I will not do what you did when you failed to contact me.
Karbuncle Karbuncle 10/21/2014 07:44
And by the way, Dylan's 2321 FIDE rating is PLENTY strong enough to write articles about chess games. Only a layperson or novice wouldn't comprehend just how strong you have to be to reach that kind of rating. We're talking well above 99th percentile in chess skill to crack 2300 like that. The only way you could argue he wasn't qualified is if he were writing the article only for IMs and GMs to read.
Karbuncle Karbuncle 10/21/2014 07:33
I have never read the NY Times Column, nor Mr. Gaffney's previous work (I only go so far as to solve the NY Times Crossword). After reviewing and weighing both side's points, I have to agree with Mr. McClain. Mr. Gaffney seems to be resorting to internet-style counter-bickering rather than appreciating that he was off base on this one. A lot of "okay, fine but" and "that's irrelevant" retorts, when Mr. Gaffney made the points relevant to begin with by nature of his criticism.
Cajunmaster Cajunmaster 10/21/2014 06:27
Bravo, Dylan!
ashikuzzaman ashikuzzaman 10/21/2014 04:38
I am not sure how anyone can undervalue the importance of weekly chess column as prestigious as of New York Times! For example, Mr. McCalin's recent article on Millionaire Chess Open a month back literally put a revolutionary impact on the media coverage on the event. Because after his coverage, many other major media across the world followed on to this. So the place for quality work by quality brands will always be there.

Millionaire Chess to Hit Las Vegas, in Gambit to Raise Game’s Profile With Big Prizes -
http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/09/01/us/millionaire-chess-to-hit-las-vegas-in-gambit-to-raise-games-profile-with-big-prizes.html?_r=5&referrer
KevinC KevinC 10/21/2014 02:20
@Matt Gaffney

I know neither of you, so I am not defending him for personal reasons, but I am not sure that you get it, or if you are just that poor a writer. Your writing is all over the place: Is your point that a chess column can't survive without a big name; or that the Internet killed chess columns (or newspapers themselves). Either way, you should have been more focused.

You really attacked Mr. McCain's work, clearly, without having an idea of the constraints he was under. Your work falls under the category of "Mickey Mouse" since you didn't even bother to contact him to get his side since that is rule number one in journalism.

Yes, the Internet has made newspapers passé, but if you manage to solve the problems that the newspaper business has with the Internet, I am sure they would love to hear from you. In the meantime, you could have easily written your article without the personal attacks on Mr. McClain's work.
Matt Gaffney Matt Gaffney 10/20/2014 11:27
Mr. McClain:

Thanks for your rebuttal to my piece. But what exactly did I get wrong? You say almost everything, but then:

***You say I criticized the format of the column, which is "fair enough." The logistics of why the columns had to be published on Wednesdays aren't important; the point is that a weekly newspaper column will always lag behind the web, and can't be as timely as sites like ChessBase and chess.com, just as a printed newspaper can't be as timely as web news for non-chess events. This seems non-controversial.

***You state that I extol Byrne's columns, even though in his last ten years the columns weren't very timely. But that's my whole point: trying to make a weekly newspaper chess column timely doesn't work, since those who care to can get more information faster from online sources.

***You say you were timely with info on your Gambit Blog, which the Times had previously cut. That's good, but not relevant here. My article is specifically about the weekly chess column format.

***You say I criticize your lack of voice in the column, but then concede that the Times didn't want you to inject your voice into the columns and edited them out when you tried. Well OK, if you start up a new non-Times chess blog that features more of your own opinions a la Mig Greengard, then I'll definitely check it out. But this is part of my thesis as well, that if a weekly newspaper chess column is going to exist in 2014 then it needs a strong voice. So we agree on this.

***You say I criticized you for not being a grandmaster. Not exactly, since you can write excellent chess columns without being a GM (like Tim Krabbe does on his incredible site). I was making the specific point that, among the many advantages that a recent ChessBase column had over your last column, was that you could get analysis from a stronger player (as well as photos of the event and reading about it sooner). Which, all other things being equal, is true: you'd generally rather have a game annotated by a GM than an FM.

***You mention the various conflicts of interest, relationships, and corruption in the chess world, and that you reported on it without bias. But again, this was primarily your non-column reporting.

***Your Leong piece was epic, but it wasn't part of your weekly column. Again, my article is *specifically about weekly newspaper chess columns in 2014*. Same with the three articles interspersed throughout your rebuttal here, and the first batch of pieces you link to: they're not from your weekly column, and they're not what I was discussing in my piece.

***You mention that you were often constrained in what you could say since you only had 450 words per column and had to discuss a game as well. Understandable, and space constraints are just another flaw in the format of the weekly newspaper chess column.

My piece is intended to highlight the coming obsolescence of the weekly newspaper chess column. I stated that you "competently and correctly" recounted the most important events in the past week of chess, but that this is not going to be enough now that there is so much more information about chess available quickly. I think this thesis is correct, and note that you didn't challenge it in your rebuttal. It is going to take a very specific kind of writer -- a Short or Kavalek -- to make weekly chess columns work from here on out.
Justin Horton Justin Horton 10/20/2014 10:50
I was very sorry to learn about the column: the thing that I valued it for was its independence. Chess doesn't have much independent journalism, and hence doesn't have much proper journalism at all. I can't imagine many other chess sources in the West breaking the Leong story as Dylan did: they're either too partisan, or too timid, or both. Losing Dylan is a serious loss.
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