The Dark Secret to Promoting Chess

5/2/2005 – "I can't believe you only published articles supporting Susan Polgar's criticism of the ESPN story," wrote William Shea from Hawaii. "I don't want candy-coated stories about chess, I want to hear the big stories. Congrats ESPN for bringing chess to the forefront." He has a point, as the following article by Jamie Duif Calvin suggests.

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The Dark Secret to Promoting Chess

By Jamie Duif Calvin

Getting people to remember

My godfather, Dr. James V. McConnell, wrote one of the best selling textbooks of all time, Understanding Human Behavior. What made the book a bestseller wasn't just that it was well written and accurate. What made it a bestseller was that every chapter included a short story. Half of the story would start the chapter, setting up a problem of some kind. Then the chapter would explain the relevant psychological issues. The chapter would then end with the conclusion of the story, a conclusion best understood if the student had read the material in between.

Sometime around the third edition, Dr. McConnell gave a lecture about teaching in the sciences. He explained that psychology was one of the most popular courses in college. And 10 years after graduating, if you asked any former student what they learned in psychology, the first thing they would mention was “Pavlov and the dogs.”

“That bell,” he said, “is ringing for educators today. It tells us an important fact – whatever subject we’re teaching, we can be sure of one thing: people only remember the stories.”

Human beings have been around a lot longer than writing. Our minds are designed to remember very complex ideas and facts but we remember them best when they’re wrapped in an interesting story.

Stories should feed into what the fans already know

It is the stories that sell chess. Why is the media still writing about Bobby Fischer? Simple. He makes a great story. GM Kasparov was right when he said that the chess dramas of the 70s and 80s were played against political backdrops. But the reason they worked is because they were dramas that people understood because of the political backdrops. They knew immediately what was at stake. They could choose a side. They could invest the stories with personalities drawing from the greater background. They understood the story.

Promoting chess means telling stories

As chessplayers, we seek the truth. We play a game with no luck and no mercy. We can't build up a huge lead in the first part of the game and then coast the rest of the way – any mistake, at any time, can end the game. We cannot afford to allow our own illusions to distract us.

But to make our sport interesting and commercially viable, we have to be willing to tell our own stories. They have to be truthful, but they also have to inspire the imagination. They have to put a human face on the struggle. And they have to leave room for the ambiguity that makes for great stories, the ability for two different people to come to two different conclusions about the same material.

Chess is already commercially attractive

In the 1960s, basketball in the US was a distant, distant third in commercial popularity to football and baseball. The argument against its ever becoming commercially viable was that no one would be interested in products “endorsed by tall black men.” Today, some of the most popular endorsers in the world include people like Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.

Even more of interest, several retail studies have shown that about half of the NBA gear bought is purchased by people who have NEVER seen an NBA game in person, and who rarely watch it on television. Even when they don't know the intricacies of the sport, the power of its stories has grown to where it’s a news story that moves beyond the typical technical fan base.

Why this success? Because the NBA set out very deliberately in the 60s to create a sport that would deliver powerful stories. It insisted that every rookie learn some of the history of the game, and that rookie interviews include a reference to classic players (to tie generations of fans together). It collected an initially large percentage of all endorsement contracts that was used for promoting the sport itself, generating new endorsement contracts for the future. It provided accurate and meaningful statistics that told their own kind of stories.

Chess is already used as an advertising icon in the US and Europe. But chess as an image is rarely tied to an individual player, and that’s why the endorsement money doesn't flow into our sport.

Journalists are busy and unforgiving

Journalists are busy. Really busy. They don't have much time to research an initial story. They need to be given enough to get started, and they need to be given it in a form they can take back to their Editors in order to be given permission to work further on the details. They need it given in the form of a story (Pavlov’s dogs). And they need it to be absolutely truthful. It should take them no more than two minutes to find a three sentence “background” they can present to their editors – because that’s all the time they have to spend.

As chessplayers, we value research. Deeper and deeper. We simply don't understand the need to direct journalists instantly to the “condensed version” of the human side of the sport.

GM Susan Polgar has done a great job of promoting the “chess is good for kids” theme. But even she has difficulty promoting herself. Go to her website at www.susanpolgar.com. There’s no special link for press. There’s no biography. The list of accomplishments is out of date and confusing to people who don't already know the sport intimately.

"For example, it says she is “Currently ranked #1 in the United States.” Of course the writer meant she was the #1 female player, not #1 overall. But if a mainstream journalist goes to the USCF site to verify the statement, they're going to get confused.

None of this is to blame GM Polgar in any way – the statement was true, in its context, when it was written. She is doing a tremendous amount to promote chess in the US. The whole point is that it should not be the responsibility of any one player to promote chess as a whole. Susan Polgar is a great chess story – someone besides her own team needs to be promoting her side by side with the other great stories.

It's easy to think like a chessplayer, and tell ourselves that we just need to keep listing more factual accomplishments in order to get media attention. But great stories aren't just about great accomplishments. They’re about human drama, about overcoming obstacles, about competition and failure as well as victory. And the sports that succeed in getting mainstream coverage are the ones that make it easy for journalists to find those details quickly.

A challenge

Here’s a challenge. Imagine you are a journalist who’s followed some of the Bobby Fischer story. You decide you might want to write a brief article about the top three players in the US today. You have literally six minutes before you have to get up and go into a story conference with your Editor.

Starting from scratch, try to find enough information to make your case to the Editor that the story deserves more play.

Let’s say you Google “top US chess players.” So far so good – you’ll go right to the Players Gallery on the official US Chess Federation website (a feature I added when I was the Webmaster there back in 97). You can pretty quickly find the following information:

1 Nakamura, Hikaru NY 2734
2 Kaidanov, Gregory KY 2731
3 Moiseenko, Alexander 2719

But there are no ages, no photos, no links to biographies. No quotations. No special press area. No information about how to contact the players for quotes.

Go back to the Players Gallery. Yes, there’s a biography of GM Nakamura. To someone who already knows the sport, it looks like it was last updated in July 2004. How do I know? It doesn't mention that he’s the current US Champion! Yes, that’s right: the current US Champion doesn't have that accomplishment listed in his official biography.

The ACP has no biographies on its site, either. FIDE at least provides a picture and birth date, but no contact information. And this year when the AF4C offered the largest money prize ever for a US Championship, their official program had biographies for only six of 64 players. (Although to be fair their site at www.uschesschampionship.com was excellent in many other regards.)

Here’s a fact: not every journalist wants to write about the #1 seed. Some want to cover a first timer, or a “barely made the cut” or another human interest story. Making it easy for journalists means giving them basic starter stories on all the participants, then letting them decide how to follow up.

Want to see a sport that is making it easy for journalists? Check out www.lpga.com, the web site of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. You'll find player bios (yes, including other interests and hobbies). Meaningful statistics like most career wins, annual prize money, most victories in a season. Ways for fans to ask questions. Players listed by state, college, and birthday. Marketing partners. Sponsor and charitable information. Information on improving your own game and how to find a teacher. A special media contact for the press.

Is it any wonder that as of this writing a Google News search for Lorena Ochoa turns up over 1,200 entries, while one for Hikaru Nakamura turns up 38? And Susan Polgar turns up 7 (3 of which come from chessbase.com)?

The dark secret: media coverage isn't based on deep research

Now the dark secret I promised. Most reporters come to a story with 80% of it already written in their head. They know if it’s about an underdog, a Hall of Famer, a personal feud, a political drama. They know that before they start their research. Research is done to fill in the details and find the unique aspects of the common theme. And they know, as Dr. McConnell did, that what people will remember is the stories. No dog, no story.

Kasparov making a speech to European economic advisers: small story. Kasparov hit in the head with a chessboard: big story. The bell rings in that one… The political conflict is wrapped in a human story.

If we want to reach the mainstream media, if we want to bring more money into the sport, if we want to more effectively reach out to those who are not professional tournament players, than the answer is always the same: we need to do a better job of telling our stories.

What chess needs to do to reach both journalists and fans in the mainstream

We can't depend on individual players to promote themselves, or chess as a whole. We need a single independent source to provide the following:

  1. Accurate, up to date player bios like those at www.lpga.com, that showcase the person as well as the player, with pictures.
  2. A press contact and marketing contact that can deliver timely access to the players for qualified parties.
  3. Statistics on money earned, wins, and other milestones as well as rating.
  4. A calendar of the year’s main events, kept up to date.
  5. An attitude like the LPGA’s “The LPGA is lucky to have you as a fan! We are working hard to build Fan Friendly programs that keep you interested in the LPGA and coming back for more!”

I understand why a great player like GM Polgar wants to put the emphasis on positive stories like what chess can do for kids. But to benefit all players, we need an independent entity that can put the emphasis on the human drama in the sport. We need one place that tells the “starter stories” a journalist, or a fan, needs to see. That’s what will inspire journalists to dig deeper and publish more.

It doesn't matter whether this source is the individual country federations like the USCF, FIDE, the ACP, the Chess Hall of Fame, the AF4C, or just some smart sports promoter who puts together a package of the top 20 players. But somebody needs to deliver the starter stories, keep the stats, and provide access to the players behind the stories.

Once that’s done, fans, journalists, advertisers, and companies looking for endorsers will be able to find what they need. And until that’s done, every attempt to promote chess as a mainstream sport will fail.

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Jamie Duif Calvin has worked with media and grassroots organizations in a number of different roles for three decades, as well as working in online communications. She was an issues analyst for a US Representative in Washington, worked in public outreach for two different international service organizations, served on the nine person Governing Board for the HTML Writers Guild (a 10,000 member organization), was the Webmaster and weekly online news editor for the US Chess Federation for several years, and was listed in Who's Who in the World in 2000 and 2001. As an ecommerce consultant, she has worked with several Fortune 500 companies and major retailers, including 12 of the top 25 most successful online stores as listed by the National Retail Federation. She is also one of the top 100 female chessplayers in the US by rating. Duif was forced to retire due to disability in 2001, but still keeps in touch with the chess community when she can.


Jamie Duif Calvin – a remarkable lady


More feedback to Susan Polgar's article

Yunus Dada Salami, Abuja, Nigeria
Susan, even if you had never learnt the moves, what you are currently doing for chess qualifies you for a place in the game's history. Someone rated 2700+ or who consistently plays top-board for his country while doing nothing to promote the game at the grassroots, isn't my idea of a chess great. You are just super! Despite living in a country where chess isn't so popular, I have ardently followed the game through the years since I learnt. I was my secondary school's champion and have won my state's championship once. My copy of Fritz 7 and Chessmaster 9000 are amongst my most valuable software. Generally, I am a better organized person because I live life like a chess game. I believe none of human leisurely endeavours compares to chess. Put simply, chess is it!! Keep up the good work and don't leave the scene too soon like Kasparov.

Scott Guthrie, Cheyenne, WY, USA
I saw the Schaap piece on ABC news last week and frankly I was astounded. While I cannot agree with many of the oppinions of Bobby Fischer over the last few years his sentiments about the USA are not unique and while un-American they do not seem to be mad rantings. I believe many Americans in their heart of hearts know "what comes around goes around." (Of course those killed in the world trade center did not deserve their fate). Comparing the self centered interview by Jeremy Schaap who acted as if Dick Schaap had some great influence in Bobby Fischer's world championship was egotistical at best, and quite frankly despite Jeremy's portrayal, Bobby Fischer came off quite cogent and with at least a few sane bones in his body. I aqree with Susan Polgar that the piece was wrong and like her, agree there are thousands of positive stories out there for the media to cover, the way ABC used the story it only gave credence to Fischer's views. Kinda Scary??

William Shea, Hawaii
I can't believe you published only the articles supporting Susan Polgar's criticism of the ESPN story. The story was fair, and when Fischer called the interviewer's father a "snake Jew" it was unprovoked. We don't need to criticize the interviewer. Do we really want to hide Fischer's comments simply because they are full of hate? It is newsworthy and it is the biggest story in chess. I was thrilled that chess made it to the mainstream sports news. I don't want candy-coated stories about chess, I want to hear the big stories, and I am glad that our non-chess fan friends get to see a little of what is going on in the chess world. Congrats ESPN for bringing chess to the forefront.

Robert Beatty, Brooklyn USA
I have nothing but good things to say about Susan Polgar. I met her once and she is terrific. On the heels of what she wrote is the negative article in Time magazine (5/02/05) about the possibility of chess causing behavioral problems for children. I think the incessant watching of television and playing violent video games could do more harm than chess ever could. There are countless chess players who became wonderful contributors to society,i.e: Michael Wilder, Michael Rhode, Rueben Fine, Samuel Reshevsky, many others. With a game of chess, logic is taught, forethought, too many other attributes to name. Its also an inexpensive game too.

Merlijn van Veen, Arnhem, Netherlands
In my opinion there are several obstructions that keep chess from breaking through in the media in a positive way. True, the worldwide organization of it is not very clear to the public as well as to the players themselves. The media want sensational stories, and because of that the public confrontations between grandmaster and FIDE will come to light on TV sooner than a beautiful game. This is a matter of mindset as well: television makers do not like two silent people in grey suits who move only one arm at a time. They seek action that is easy to understand for viewers in their lazy chairs. That is why soccer and tennis is popular and a billiard game not, though the latter would do better than chess because there are simply more colours there than only black and white. I think that is the main problem. The negative image of chess has other roots too besides the dull abstract associations of people: the one of fighting a war - comparisons regarding to this are abundant – and the high "nerd"-content it has in the eyes of the general public.


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