More reader comments on 'Chess on TV'

1/22/2007 – Is Rapid Transit chess really the best form for chess telecasts? Our readers continue to voice their opinions. The latest batch of e- mails on the subject can be found in the new ChessBase Workshop. ChessBase Workshop.

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I'd originally intended to publish just one column of reader responses to my prior column advocating Rapid Transit chess as the "ideal" form for televised coverage. But the responses are still hitting my mailbox by the virtual bucketload, so here's a second batch of reader feedback. As before, my responses will be in italics.

Great idea !

I don’t know how to get that going but I think it would work. Better yet would be to get people like Jen Shahade and other attractive girls playing it to spice it up for the guys. Chess is (like it or not Susan Polgar) mostly a man’s game. Men like girls. If you could do all you suggest and involve attractive girls in the process it WOULD work.

Michael Black
Pittsburgh, PA

The way to get it going is to talk about it on a major chess website like this one (wink, wink) -- that's precisely the reason why I wrote that column. I know that some of the guys at ChessBase still have contacts in the US media, so hopefully they're taking some notice.

I don't think that attractive women on the broadcast are a necessity, but I don't think they'd hurt things any. It hasn't hurt TV poker to have a nice-looking gal interviewing players after they bust out of an event.

Thanks for the e-mail! -- SL

Way back in the 70's in Britain they aired a programme called 'Master Game'. They managed several series of this format and condensed the programmes to (I think) half an hour.

After the games the players would retire to a studio and have the game replayed with their thoughts and comments, together with an interactive chess board showing the lines and combinations that complimented the players thought processes. It was great!

The End

Peter Redmond

PS they also brought out a couple of books with the players games, comments, personal profiles etc which can still be found in plenty of secondhand shops.


Back in the 1970s BBC TV in the UK put on a couple of chess series called "The Master Game". It was a great success attracting over 2 million viewers but was never continued. If I remember correctly Bill Harston won the first series and Karpov the second.

The format was this:
There was a cash prize in the knockout tournament. The game was played without commentary, and never shown. But the other unusual clause was that each player agreed that immediately after the game *both* players would go over the game giving their thoughts for the recording.

(Tough for the loser I think!)

This was then played as the "real game" on TV and the alternation of viewpoints was entertaining and exciting.

A format worth repeating.

Bernard Hill
Selkirk, Scotland

I've never seen the show, but I'm pretty sure the books are available on my side of the pond. If I'm not mistaken, the broadcasts themselves might even be available on VHS or DVD.

I'm totally convinced that chess can work on TV if it's done in a manner that the general public finds interesting/entertaining (otherwise I'd not have written the Rapid Transit column). I was very peripherally (at least vociferously) involved with the 1990's broadcasts (I had a little bit of input -- people who were directly involved with the broadcasts often asked my opinion of various elements of the shows); I recall that the biggest hurdle back in those days was format. Do you broadcast a delayed edited version of a game/match? Do you play live speed games at G/25 (to allow for commercial interruption, chancing that you could squeeze in the commercials while one player or the other was taking a longish think)? Do you run the games without commercial breaks but with a sponsor logo next to the on-screen game clock (as does soccer, showing the ad and the clock as a superimposed "bug" up in the corner of the screen)?

It was a hurdle we never quite cleared. The Rapid Transit idea never occurred to me until recently; I wasn't playing RT back in the early/mid 1990's and didn't start playing it until my sons and I got a couple of Yasser's RT clocks in the late 90's. Don't ask me why it popped into my head now; it's probably due to the fact that I've become a hardcore TV poker addict. But it was definitely one of those "DOH!" moments when you realize that the (possible) answer had been right under your nose all along. I guess we'll see...

I have no problem with the "delay" angle of a broadcast such as The Master Game; see last week's column for my thoughts on this.

Thanks for writing gents! -- SL

This was a great column, and it's really gotten me to thinking.

I actually produced a single half-hour program years ago for Dallas Communtity Television covering one of the Karpov-Kasparov match games. A terrible bore, but I'm older and wiser now, and you make some excellent suggestions for making chess on TV watchable.

Dallas Community Television is still at my disposal, as is the University of Texas at Dallas, which as I'm sure you know has one of the top two collegiate chess teams in the country. I'm sure they have a RTVF department as well.

So let me think about this a little more, and I might start making some calls. I'll keep you posted should something transpire.

Randy Spence

Randy, if you pull it off you'll be my new hero. Seriously.

I never thought of a "grass roots" movement along these lines. There have been a lot of chess shows done on public access cable, many of which have been "lecturer and wallboard" styled programs. The idea of broadcasting, say, a local event at RT time controls on public access could be an excellent test of the whole idea, as well as a great opportunity to work out any unforseen kinks in the concept. Your idea is excellent!

Thanks for writing, and please do keep me posted on your progress! -- SL

Interesting ideas you have there, Steven. Remember that until the 80's pocket billiards had no North American TV audience. Then they figured out how to market 9-ball which does reasonably well in the era of the limited attention span. I think 3 cushion billiards could also find its TV niche and in fact already may have established itself in some international markets in spite of its more cerebral quality.

1 minute per move is essentially limiting TV to blitz chess. Middlegame and endgame quality will suffer although there may still be good overall entertainment value. Commentary will also be short on depth because it takes more than 1 minute to properly discuss any complex position. It could be reduced to comparing the moves to output from chess engines which can analyze very fast.

I don't necessarily like this. It involves fundamental distortions of what I like most about chess, the challenge of human minds imaginatively dissecting complex puzzles. Chess at its root is not fundamentally well-suited for television, but personalities can make a big difference. For those who remember Spassky-Fischer 1972 with Shelby Lyman on PBS, that worked quite well as live entertainment even with long gaps between moves.

Just some food for thought,

Scott Schneider
Toronto, Canada

You covered a lot of ground in three short paragraphs! Let me consider each one in turn:

1) One facet that really helped TV billiards was the rise of some charismatic and/or interesting personalities, both as players and commentators. Bear in mind, too, that there are a heck of a lot more billiards players than chessplayers, so you had a ready-made audience (the demise of the traditional smoky, seedy pool halls which were replaced by brightly-lit "family billiards centers" was also a great help). The trick with TV chess will be to build the audience with personalities and presentation. Even though there are more billiards players than chessplayers in the general population, there are a heck of a lot of people out there who are still very interested in chess, at least on a casual level (for more on this, see my oft-reprinted column "The Crossroad" from back in 2000).

2) Linking to my previous point, we're not necessarily looking for any great depth or chess brilliance here -- we want mass media exposure for the game. As I mentioned in my RT column, poker commentators aren't explaining in great detail why a raise, call, or fold was a good or bad idea -- they keep it general and basic for the core audience of casual or semi-serious poker players. TV chess would work the same way; thirty to sixty seconds is plenty of time to explain the basic idea of why a move is good or bad (I recorded a few thousand radio commercials back when I was in that line of work, and you'd be amazed at how much verbage can be packed into that short a period of time). The commentary angle would be the most delicate balancing act of all of the aspects we've discussed. Too basic and the show's not interesting; too complex and you lose your core audience. It'll be the trickiest part of the broadcast, but it'll evolve. If you go back and watch reruns of early WPT broadcasts, you can see how poker commentary has evolved in just that manner over the last three years. It's a bit more in-depth these days, but not so much so that it goes whizzing over the heads of the casual viewers.

3) I agree that chess isn't a prime candidate for TV viewing for a MTV, fast food, "I want it right now" culture. The trick is to adapt the game a bit at first to court the viewers and then reap the rewards later (as Bruce Pandolfini once said in one of his books, "You must give to get"). I'm willing to give a little on the "depth/beauty" angle now on the chance that it'll pay later dividends. As for the Fischer-Spassky broadcasts, keep in mind that the major "hook" for the casual viewer wasn't the chess -- it was "Us versus the Soviets"; the 70's chess boom came as a result of hooking the viewers and then reeling them in.

Thanks for a very thought-provoking letter! -- SL

Great column. You forgot to include Jennifer Shahade as the game timer. That [gal] is surely good looking and sexy. I will never miss the show.

Julio Guzman

Sorry I had to edit your message, Julio. (He made a joking reference to the controversial title of Ms. Shahade's recent chess book). But the point is well-taken. National TV needs "eye-candy", but that's another major tightrope walk (along with the commentary; see above). There are fine lines between "attractive", "titillating", and "offensive", and different viewers will draw the lines at different places. To steal a line from one of my favorite bands, Reckless Kelly, it's "a wicked twisted road" we're travelling.

Look, I'm guilty here. I love watching Jennifer Tilly play poker and it's not only for her poker skills, I readily admit it. But I never lose sight of the fact that the lady's an awesome poker player; I greatly respect her considerable poker talents.

Attractive female chessplayers on a chess TV show would be a great thing (and I have several other candidates in mind along with Ms. Shahade), as long as we don't lose sight of the fact that they're great chessplayers, not merely "eye candy". We need to make sure that we're not just being shallow. "Respect" is the key word here.

Thanks for the letter Julio! -- SL

Interesting article, and with an idea that I think has merit. However, I offer one modification to your proposal...

Make the time control G/15 with a 35 second delay (instead of your pure rapid transit G/0 with a 30 second delay). The G/15 part allows a couple of longer thinks, which will allow in depth analysis and color commentary at particularly important places in the game. The 35 second instead of 30 second delay allows 30 second commercials without (usually) missing a move. This would only increase the game about 40 minutes or so, basically having a 60 move game come in at 1 hour and 40 minutes or so -- just enough time for a 5 minute pre-game, and a 15 minute post game wrap up. The whole event could take place in approximately two hours.

Thanks for your interesting (and informative) articles.

Rob Bernard
Glen Ridge, NJ USA

Thank you for writing, Rob! I like the idea of "sneaking" the commercials in singly (instead of in the usual four-minute blocks) and your proposal for achieving this. My only concern (and it's not a huge one by any means) is the illusion of "too many commercials". For example, when you compare WPT/PPT coverage to WSOP, the former's commercial breaks are shorter but there are more of them. I sometimes catch myself saying, "I'd enjoy this a lot more if there weren't so many commercials." But it's not really the number of ads, it's the number of breaks. I'm still pondering that (potential) issue. -- SL

I'd been thinking about this a little bit, trying to find a 'tweak' or two to make the games a bit better.

Nearly all chess games have periods of quiet and periods of intense tactics. To this end, I like your idea about the 1-minute per move 'transit' chess, but with a twist: Allow a predetermined amount of 'overtime' for each player. This overtime is automatically used and counted down from once a player has exceeded the time limit allowed per move. In complex positions, this will allow the players to spend a little more time when necessary.

For example, a 40-move game at 30 seconds a move, with 10 minute overtimes, would translate to a maximum alottment of 1 hour for the entire game.

This I feel is a nice modification to your Rapid Transit idea.

Mark Goodwin
Providence, RI

You know, I like that idea. The PPT (Professional Poker Tour) has added a "shot clock" concept: when it's a players turn to act, he has x seconds to call, raise, or fold. But each player gets some number (I forget the actual quantity) of "extensions" they can use at their discretion to extend their maximum allotted time.

That's similar to what you're proposing; I think you've got a pretty good idea there. Thanks for sharing it! -- SL

I had never heard of Rapid Transit Chess, but I really believe this is the way to go to get chess on TV. I think the idea of moving within, say, 30 seconds, with an intelligent/humorous commentator and the contestants TALKING to each other is a winning formula.

The purpose of this email is to point out the problem with resignations.

When a good player resigns, the reason is not apparent to anyone under a grade of, say, 1000. For a TV audience, this will be the VAST majority -- eg 99.98%. Their reaction will be:- "Eh? What? Rubbish. Don’t understand. Not watch that again".

Solution: A rule for these games should be that the players must play on until mate (or an obvious dead draw). These moves could of course be made faster, but I believe this to be essential for this type of chess to become popular on TV.

I teach youngsters in a school and they absolutely hate their opponent resigning. They love to make the killer (mating) move. After all, for them, that’s what it’s all about.

Most chess enthusiasts would like to see their sport on TV and many talk about it. With your ideas perhaps something can be DONE. I don’t suppose many TV people read Chessbase so they need to be contacted and convinced. Just think. You could eventually make some decent money from chess while bringing chess delights to millions.

Lindsay Ridland
Woodpusher from Scotland

Hmmmm. I'm not sure how you could make a player sit there and get crushed. Of course this could lead to some interesting personal pyrotechnics, like players yelling, "I refuse to play this out!" before storming off the set in a huff (what I'll call the "Phil Factor" in honor of Phil "Poker Brat" Helmuth, who never, ever leaves a tournament silently). That's the kind of "personality thing" that'll keep viewers coming back for more.

I'm pretty sure that ChessBase still has TV contacts from the old PCA days (and later -- remember Kasparov vs. Deep Junior from a couple of telecasts in 2003?); hey, yo, guys, it's your move.

Thanks Lindsay! -- SL

The idea is great. Here's an suggestion that improves upon the Idea provided in the article.

A sport can be sustained on TV only if it can make money -
1. Either through pay-per-view
2 Or through advertizing

For chess, internet is more suited than TV, for pay-per-view format, as you can do your own analysis. And Internet it is only moderately successful for pay-per-view. So first option is less likely to happen.


Which sports are more suited for advertizing - those that have natural gaps during the play. American Football, Cricket, Golf, Tennis. The ones which don't have natural gaps like soccer and Car Race, have to rely on in-stadium Or Equipment advertizing. [Soccer uses unobtrusive on-screen advertising in an "ad bug" next to the clock superimposed in an upper corner of the screen, with a brief "ad blurb" spoken by the commentators each time the ad is changed. -- SL] Gaps can be created - by delayed telecast - but then public interest is only on "How it happened" rather than "What will happen". For chess, again, computer is better for "How it happened"

Now, Objective is yo make live chess:
1. Advertizer friendly - By creating Natural Gaps / Equipment Advertizing
2. Make it interesting for viewers

For #1, Rapid Transit is a very good format, as this creates natural gaps - one minute between every move. We can also do equipment advertizing - Chess Board, Pieces, Clocks, Clothes, Drinks, Computer Engines, Computer Hardware

#2 - Making it interesting for viewers. Target Public - ELO 1000 to 2000. I believe 90 % of all chess players fall in this category [Yes, that figure is accurate. -- SL]

"Different Initial Conditions in Every Game" and "There's always a winner"
Won't these two really make it more interesting. For the former, Fischer Random is an option, but amateurs like me don't understand much for the first 10 moves or so.

Here's a proposal to kill both birds with one stone. Lets borrow it from Poker.
A bidding process. [Somewhat marginally related to the optional "betting" element in Fritz' rated game mode -- SL]

A player will bid that "I will play with Black, Take half the time of what you take, then Draw would be a win for me" The other player can accept it or outbid that with another proposal.

Here's how the formal process would work.

Initial Setting could be
RT 60/ SB 120/ D 10.
Which means that It's a Rapid Transit with 60 seconds for each move, Starting Bid is 120 Seconds, Bid Decrement is 10 seconds. These 3 numbers can be pre decided by the game organizer.

Now there are four things Players Can Bid on
I will Play with White, With X seconds for me for every Move, You get 60 seconds for every Move. A Drawn Game would be Loss for me. This would be abbreviated as WDL X ( White, Draw Loses, X seconds/per move )

Other 3 things players can bid on are WDW, BDW, BDL. ( Play-While-Draw-is-win, Play-Black-Draw-is-Win, Play-Black-Draw-is-loss respectively ). I don't see people bidding for BDL, however if there's double the time, somebody might give it a shot.

The Rules are Bid on any of the 4 options, and keep on decreasing the bid till its accepted. Or bid on another of the 4 options

A toss may decide who bids first - which has almost no impact on anything.
Thus a typical Bid may proceed as
RT 60/ SB 120/ D 10
P1 WDW 120
P2 WDW 60
P1 BDW 120
P2 BDW 60
P1 WDL 120
P2 WDL 110
P1 WDW 50
P2 BDL 120
P1 BDW 50
P2 BDW 40
P1 Accept
Note: We can have bridge like Bidding Card for this.

This game would be defined as: RT 60/ SB 120/ D 10/ BDW 40

Now Player 2 plays with Black and gets 40 seconds for each move. And a Draw is a win for Player 2. Player 1 will have to pull something out of hat to win the Game. Wasn't 24th game of Karpov-Kasparov and 12th game of Kamnik-Leko more interesting that any of the games in their Match, at least for people like me they are. A chess game is more interesting when somebody desperately tries to win. And we will always have one of the players doing that.

Other additions for TV could be:
1. Multiple Engines evaluating the position after every move.
At move 25: Wow ! Rybka says Anand is now +1.54. Spike says its just +0.96.
At Move 32: Oh a blunder! The Evaluation is now just +0.88 and +0.71 by Rybka & Spike.

2. Two trash Talking commentators, who are IMs or above

3. Live Email comments from viewers. Lucky winner gets a Dinner-with-Kasparov invitation

4. Post match press conference - call in with your question.

5. Jennifer Tilly moderating the Trash Talking commentators.

Isn't that a winner for chess

Darshan Singh

Wow! There are a lot of good ideas here and it would take a whole column to do them all justice. For now I'll just make two observations:

1) I like the bidding idea a lot, but I'm concerned that it might be too involved for the casual chess viewer. It's worth a try though -- it's very interesting.

2) Make the e-mail commentary prize dinner with Ms. Tilly instead of Kasparov and I'll wear out my mouse clicking the "Send" button.

Darshan, thank you for a very challenging and thought-provoking letter! -- SL

I just read your column, entitled Chess on TV, and greatly enjoyed it! I, too, remember those teletype chess games that were broadcast on PBS and enjoyed watching them as a kid (even before I was a chess player!). It is for this reason that I have always been a strong proponent of chess on TV---I know it can work if it is presented properly. I greatly disliked ESPN speed chess programming for the very reason you cite in your article (it's just too fast to follow) and knew the better route was a slower form of chess. After reading your article, I think you are correct in suggesting that Rapid Transit Chess may be the perfect compromise between slow, thoughtful chess (for hardcore chess fans) and exciting speed chess (for the casual viewer) . Well done! The only thing I would add is that I think the contestants should not be chess pros, who are largely unknown to the general public anyway, but celebrities of various sorts. After all, who could resist watching, say, Colin Powell battle Norman Schwarzkopf over the chess board (for charity, of course)?

S. D. Tortorice
Long Island, NY


You know, I really dig this idea in a twisted way. Stormin' Norman vs. Saddam Hussein. Monica Lewinsky vs. that woman who ratted her out with that phone tape (I forget her name and I'm too lazy to look it up) -- winner gets to play Hillary Clinton. Jessica Simpson vs. Paris Hilton (nah, never mind -- the demands for "green room" accomodations would be staggering). Team matches: FBI vs. CIA, Yankees vs. Red Sox, Manchester United vs. Liverpool, and on and on. "You wanna go out tonight?" "No way! The Army-Navy match is on at nine!"

Seriously, though, the celebrity idea has some major possibilities (poker has celebrity shows -- it's astoundingly bad poker, but I do watch from time to time). Willie Nelson is a hardcore chessplayer; I'm no "celeb" but I'd be willing to play Willie on TV with proceeds going to Farm Aid, on one condition -- Willie must autograph one of my guitars.

S.D. I like it -- thanks for sending it in! -- SL

I said at the start of last week's column that I was blown away by the e-mails I'd received on the TV chess idea. Not only by the sheer number of them, not just by the fact that they were nearly 100% positive, but that they were also so enthusiastic in supporting the idea.

I think we might have a real winner here. Fred, are you listening?

I'm sure that these responses will generate some additional reader feedback. So don't be afraid to write in; I'm pretty sure we'll be coming back to this topic again soon.

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments on ChessBase Workshop. All responses will be read, and sending an e-mail to this address grants us permission to use it in a future column. No tech support questions, please.

© 2006, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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