Looking back at the BBC Master Game – thirty years later

by ChessBase
12/26/2011 – Until 1980 the only way to show a chess game was for a master to stand in front of a demo board and move the magnetic pieces by hand. Then BBC Television pioneered a radical new technology: using a glass chess table and chess pieces with symbols stuck to their bases they brought us animated games, commented semi-live by the players. You can watch these shows on YouTube.

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The Master Game was a BBC production of televised chess tournaments that ran for seven series on BBC2 from 1976 to 1982. Presented by Jeremy James, with expert analysis from Leonard Barden and, later, Bill Hartston, The Master Game was highly regarded for its innovative style, in which a display board with animated figurines and move notation, shown centre-left of screen, was accompanied by footage of the players cogitating, their thoughts during the game heard in voice-over.

Previously the only method for presenting games was to have experts standing in front of magnetic boards, moving pieces by hand. The Master Game producers took a radically improved path. They created a special invitational knock-out tournament, with the games played away from the television studio, the audio recordings of the players' thoughts being made immediately afterwards. The players would later be filmed in a studio reconstruction of the game, made to match the audio recordings.

Added to this intensive, unorthodox production method were the ground-breaking animated board and pieces created by designer John Bone and the technicians at BBC Bristol. This effect was achieved using a glass chess table on which the moves were made by a cloaked and gloved player. The piece symbols seen on-screen were actually on the underside of the pieces themselves, which were filmed from beneath in reflection, to correct for the left/right reversal that resulted. In addition to this, the expert commentator could use an 'electronic pointer', illuminating the squares to graphically indicate the ideas being discussed. The effect that combining all of these elements produced had never been previously achieved and is remarkably similar to a high quality, digitally produced, modern multimedia chess presentation, yet was created using only puppetry techniques, fairy lights, mirrors and much editing.

The above description is taken from Al Hughes' article on Wikipedia. We would like to mention that some of the Master Game events were staged in Hamburg, Germany, and that at the time your ChessBase news page editor was given the task of slipping into black cloak and gloves to move the pieces on the glass chess table. It was not a trivially easy task, since everything had to by perfectly synchronised with the (recorded) comments of the players.

However, it was generally great fun and a number of long-term friendships (e.g. Hartston, Short, Nunn, Karpov, Miles, Schmid, Hort, Larsen, Pfleger, Jeremy James, Robert Toner) were cemented during the sessions in Hamburg and London. I remember vividly how John Nunn at one of these events introduced me to modern science fiction literature: "It's called 'Dragon's Egg' and is about life on a neutron star." – "That doesn't make sense, John. There can't be life on a neutron star." – "Read the book, you'll see that there can." After Robert Forward's book I was permanently hooked. I also remember how people were congratulating Jan Timman and me for the birth of our sons, both on exactly the same day. And Tony Miles' famously unconventional draw offer to Nigel Short: "Space invaders?"

A selection of Master Game shows

There are a large number of Master Game videos on YouTube, posted by "Sir Bob", who also has a dedicated Master Game channel. You can spend hours or days watching the old shows, and it is extremely entertaining to do so. We have selected a few videos for you to watch on this seasonal Monday. At the end of the selection you will find the games on our JavaScript replay board.

This game between Walter Browne, USA, and John Nunn, England, was played in London in 1979.

Part two of Browne vs Nunn. The Master Game show was broadcast by the BBC in 1980.

The final of the BBC Master Game 1980 between Lothar Schmid and Walter Browne

The winner, GM Lothar Schmid, was the arbiter at the Spassky-Fischer match in Reykjavik eight years earlier

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