Is chess not for everybody? – Feedback from our readers

by Peter Zhdanov
7/5/2012 – Boris Gelfand said he thought that chess was not for everyone, Peter Zhdanov wrote a piece saying it was. Chess must be presented to the general public for what it is: a sport, an art and science. Many readers agree: "Let us make a Smörgåsbord and have everyone decide what is tasty for them," writes one, and another says we should emulate the mentalist Derren Brown.

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Is chess not for everybody?

Feedback on the article by Peter Zhdanov

Ken Hollister, Colorado, USA
I very much enjoyed Peter Zhdanov's article responding to Boris Gelfand's recent comments ("Chess is for people who want to make an intellectual effort"). Zhdanov made several good points in his examination of chess as a sport, art form, and science. However, I think his ideas concerning televising chess needed clarification. While correct in saying that the format of televised games doesn't have to go to extremes, he did not mention who would make the decision on what is/is not extreme. Is the format design to be decided by the sponsor, the national chess organization where the tournament is taking place, or will it be regulated by FIDE? While an interesting thought, I must confess that I am still skeptical to Zhdanov's suggestion on having both "show" chess and tournament chess. I believe that it would hurt the long-term creditability of the chess. For example, suppose someone sees "show" chess - televised chess that has been glamorized - and enters into a tournament, only to discover that it is nothing like what was televised? The person would mostly likely feel cheated; quit the game, unlikely to play again. Obviously, this is a worst-case scenario, but I think it demonstrates the fear that many people have.

Overall, Zhdanov is correct: in public speaking, you must know your audience, and tailor your message accordingly. I understood Gelfand's comments and agree with him, but I also admit he could have chosen his words more carefully.

Luis Baquero, Medellin, Colombia
"Hence, we can safely reassure critics that chess can both be televised and not profaned in the process". Why do you want to televise chess? Obviously, to fill your pockets. This way you're not profaning just chess; also chess fans and chess players. Why? Because sooner or later you'll be forced to reduce the time per move (as GO that was a Japanese art and become a badly played sport in Korean TV) and will become, as most blitz games, a badly played sport. Fans are going to be educated with bad games and learn to play not well but time-speculative and fast moves to survive. Chess players are going to be such just in their memories because they would have become chess show men. I think most of chess players prefer to be not-rich scientists or artists rather than rich entertainers.

Randi, Mexico City, Mexico
To sum up: Gelfand's cold approach with his answers will leave him supportless. I agree with the article, although some of Mr. Zhdanov's remarks are quite strong. Gelfand simply felt attacked for the type of play he's been identified with throughout his life. Let's not forget he is a classical chess player and, above all, a true gentleman, something required before moving pieces.

Kele Perkins, West Covina
Zhdanov argues that "... I am not sure what Boris [Gelfand] is arguing against. We don't really have to make chess simpler to entertain the fans." But Gelfand did not say in the quote that we would have to make the game simpler to attract fans; he only said that he thinks we should not make it simpler. I don't see what Zhdanov is arguing against, since Gelfand merely claims that we shouldn't do what Zhdanov thinks we don't need to do. Where is the disagreement? It seems to me that Zhdanov has drawn an incorrect inference from what Gelfand said, then attached it to Gelfand, then wondered why Gelfand is arguing against something the Israeli GM isn't necessarily arguing against.

Tomasz Pintal, Stalowa Wola, Poland
I would like to mention just two aspects of your article.

  1. Chess as a science. Of course chess is not a science, but many scientists are using chess to verify their ideas (hypothesis). We cannot forget about many scientists who have made great effort exploring the world of chess. There are at least some areas which explore chess and chess players. Just to mention a few: human cognition, making decisions, solving problems, taking risk, choosing an optimal option among many possibilities, etc. Our beloved game could not be the same without such great scientists who used chess to show human mind potential (at least in intellectual domain) and its applications. What will it be if we would not have such great scientists as for example Shannon, de Groot or Ken Thompson? I want to speak loudly of the behalf many great people connected with science directly or indirectly who used chess to improve their achievements (matematicians, psychologists, cognitive scientists, computer and AI programmers).

  2. "If someone doesn't get you, it's your problem, not theirs." I completely agree. We should show chess in many perspectives, but most important is to adjust to our target. If we want to show and try to interest 5-6-year-old kids we should offer them chess as great fun, drawing horses, making fortress, building castles. If we are trying to convince head masters that "chess makes their pupils smarter" we should use reasearch results showing what kind of academic skills (and in what degree) chess might improve. And if we have to convince our local governments that chess is really great tool to use, we should not be afraid of showing them how cheap is chess (just a board with pieces with some teachers). The better we adjust to the public - the more benefits we gain.

So: Chess does not have to be changed - we should show the benefits in such a entertaining and interesting way, that everyone who would want to see something unusual (be it a science, art, sport or mixture) – might choose by his own. Let us make a Smörgåsbord and have everyone decide what is tasty for them.

Benedikt Wagner, Edinburgh
Forgive me, but what exactly is a "debate expert"?

In educational and competitive debates, teams compete, and one is judged the winner by some criteria. There are many different styles of competitive debate, organizations and rules. One purpose is to train young people who may in future be required to debate and resolve matters. Competitive debate is carried out at local, national, and international level. There is a really great movie on the subject: The Great Debaters which is uplifting to watch. Peter Zhdanov is a kind of Denzel Washington in Moscow. – Editor

Sameer Thite
That was an interesting article. I pretty much agree with the author. In one of the press conferences during WC match Gelfand said that they (him and Anand) are not there to entertain but to vie for WCC crown. If the viewers can't follow what is happening they should listen to the expert commentators (words to this effect). So it is clear that by way of inviting good commentators an effort can be made to convey to the spectators what is happening in a chess game. Because nobody can force players to play in a flamboyant style to attract spectators and sponsors. For example GM Shipov is a fantastic commentator and he managed to make even Anand-Gelfand games look intersting by giving insights. I guess only people with very strong understanding of chess could appreciate that match.

Kerem Yunus Camsari, West Lafayette
PhD student Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University

Peter Zhdanov tries to analyze Gelfand's recent remarks, but he goes overboard with confusing thoughts and unrelated Clang-like associations. He tries to be on the side of the "average Joe" in his apology, but then confuses himself and calls laymen "couch potatoes". He apparently has an ardent love for buzz-words while he seems to recognize the difference of knowing something and knowing the name of something. I refer him to an all time favorite on this subject, the venerable Richard Feynman.

All of this I could ignore, but I cannot ignore his naive remarks on how "real" and "unreal" science must be, as a scientist myself. Real science is by no means comprised of a 50-page calculation, sophisticated arguments or meaningless symbols. Real science is meant to be simple and even the most profound ideas in science can be described to a couch potato. In fact, one of the tenets of modern science is appreciating the simplicity of a theory; as history has time and again shown that simpler (therefore elegant) theories have been the most resistant to the battery of experiments that have continually tested them.

Please help spread the news. Math is not meant to be hard. Physics is not exclusively for the likes of Hawking and Einstein. It doesn't take a Boltzmann to understand matter is made of atoms, but it takes a Boltzmann to prove that. "Couch potatoes" have felt bad about themselves for too long now, please help spread the news and dispel the myth of the unreachable science.

Niima Aryan, Vancouver
Gelfand is right. Chess is not for everyone. As others have noted, to enjoy the chess played by the best players, one has to be a decent player. This is not true for most sports. I have played tennis once in my life, but I can appreciate the beauty of that game and watch it for hours. The above requirement excludes a large chunk of the population from following elite chess - it takes too much work! And Gelfand is right – let such people be. The rest of us are fortunate enough to have a glimpse of this beautiful and difficult game, and to appreciate the great works created by its best practitioners.

James D. Pollitt, Princeton, Indiana, USA
I absolutely agree with GM Gelfands statement. Chess is for people who want to make an intellectual effort. He did not say anyhing about feeling special or smart. When you sit at the board for four or five hours, trying to force your will on your opponent, it absolutely is an intellectual effort. Unless you don't care about winning.

Keith von Ziel, Vancouver, Canada
I can't tell what his point is. He argues against Gelfand who argues against "simplifying chess". So we can assume he whats to "simplifying chess". Does he advocate playing on a 3X3 board or what? I am truly puzzled.

Peter Zhdanov wrote us: "At a certain point I realized that I should have worded the key statements more explicitly:

  1. While chess is an elite game, it doesn't have to be elitist in the sense of not letting people with an IQ below a certain number and/or with a low level of experience enjoy it.
  2. Chess can become more popular, but there are certain crucial steps that aren't being taken.
  3. One must be very careful when talking to people, especially if it's a professional player communicating with his fans.

Rune Friborg, Copenhagen, Denmark
There is an estimated 600 million chess players in the world. How many of these follow international chess? How many even go to a club or can name an opening? Very few. The type of chess being played in what is commonly referred to as "the chess world" is very different from the chess played by regular people for whom it is just another game like any other. The elitism that has become so commonplace that it is now completely unnoticeable for any person inside "the chess world" is so thick that it alienates the millions who could actually enjoy the magic of Carlsen's latest win with black. But they don't. They don't know who Carlsen is and they don't even think they would want to. I have put a lot of work into teaching the magic of chess to my friends since I myself got addicted to the game. I started a facebook group for people who learned chess late in their life and who are not interested in any kind of serious competition. People who simply just like the game and would like to play it from time to time and maybe watch some instructional and short video when they are relaxing on Facebook anyway. The chessplayers are out there and they actually really want to become involved in a "chess world" but - not "the chess world", since it is elitist, dry, time-consuming and very much not sexy.

How can these people be reached?

  • Embrace modern technology and understand the modern mindset;
  • Understand that these people are not interested in getting humiliated by a nine-year-old in the nearest chess club. They want to play against people who also view chess as a casual thing.
  • Make it sexy, make it cool, make it hip! Carlsen works as a part time model for G-Star. That IS cool – let's get more of that!
  • Make it catchy. One of the most popular chess-related videos on youtube is one of Derren Brown fooling some British players with a trick (the old Alekhine one with alternating colours) so that he can beat them in a simul.

    If you read the comments to that video you will see that people are extremely impressed with that. How impressed would they be if they learned that Carlsen could do this without using any tricks whatsoever? Stuff like that catches peoples imagination. They want to adore, they want to be amazed, they want to wonder. Give that to them!

Peter Zhdanov is an IT project manager, debate expert, BSc in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science and final year PhD student in Sociology. In chess he is a Russian candidate master, author, husband and manager of grandmaster Natalia Pogonina. You can read more of his articles at the Pogonina web site.

Previous articles

Is chess not for everybody?
04.07.2012 – Recently Boris Gelfand said he thought that chess was not for everyone. "Chess is for people who want to make an intellectual effort, who have respect for the game, and we shouldn't make the game more simple so that more people would enjoy it,” said the world championship challenger. Do you think this is true? Peter Zhdanov, IT project manager and debate expert, begs to differ.

Do Women Have a Chance against Men in Chess?
08.03.2012 – As we know all too well: most of the strongest players in the world are male. In the past we have speculated on the reasons for this gender discrepancy, with vigorous reader participation. On International Women's Day Peter Zhdanov, who is married to a very strong female player, provides us with some valuable statistics, comparing men and women on a country-by-country basis. Eye-opening.
Do men and women have different brains?
30.06.2009 – In a recent thought-provoking article WGM Natalia Pogonina and Peter Zhdanov presented their views on the topic of why women are worse at chess than men. A number of our readers were unconviced: they think that efforts at "explaining" differences between the sexes only from environmental factors are doomed at the outset. Recent studies seem to support this. Feedback and articles.
Women and men in chess – smashing the stereotypes
20.06.2009 On June 5, 2009 WGM Natalia Pogonina and Peter Zhdanov got married – she a Women's Grandmaster, he a successful IT-specialist and debate expert. Peter is also Natalia’s manager, together they are writing a book called "Chess Kamasutra". Today they share with us their views on the perennial topic why women are worse at chess than men, and take a look at the future of women’s chess.

Copyright Zhdanov/ChessBase

Peter Zhdanov is an IT project manager, expert and author of two books on parliamentary debate


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