Monday, November 28, 2005

Popularizing Chess

I recently attended the wedding of an old college friend. While there I got to catch up with a lot of people I had not seen in many years. I described my blog to them, mentioning that I provide commentary on goings-on related to evolution and creationism on a daily basis. They seemed surprised that there could possibly be enough material on this subject to support such a blog.

Well, lately I've been suffering from the opposite problem. The amount of material being published lately on evolution related subjects is simply mind-boggling. It seems like every time I browse through the magazine rack at the local Barnes and Noble I come across yet another obscure magazine publishing something about Darwin. As a result I have accumulated a large pile of periodicals containing mountains of blog fodder, much of it not available online.

Most of this week's blogging will be devoted to going through this pile. But since I haven't done a chess related entry in a while, let me say a few words about this op-ed, from yesterday's New York Times. It addresses the age-old question of how to popularize chess. It's author is Jennifer Shahade, two-time U.S. Women's Chess Chamption. She writes:

How can chess save itself? No doubt it would make purists protest, but chess should steal a few moves from poker. After all, in the past few years, poker has lured away many chess masters who realized that the analytical skills they've learned from chess would pay off in online card rooms.

And that's a shame. There are plenty of smart people playing poker (and I love playing it myself), but there's no denying that when it comes to developing mental acuity, chess wins hands down, so to speak. Dan Harrington, a former world poker champion who quit chess because there wasn't enough money in it, laments that poker is thin and ephemeral in comparison.

So here are some poker-inspired ideas for chess:

Teach it more. Web sites and TV programs that explain the rules of poker abound. Chess needs to do the same. Programs like Chess-in-the-Schools in New York and the American Foundation for Chess, in Seattle, are improving chess literacy by teaching the game to schoolchildren.

But there are very few opportunities for adults to learn the basics. Chess Web sites, like that of the United States Chess Federation, should include interactive tutorials on how the pieces move. Chess tournaments, which are now closed gatherings of devotees, should include more basic commentary and instruction.

Treat it as a sport. Poker players are now respected as athletes, and tournaments are covered as major sporting events, with extensive ESPN coverage. Why not chess?

Actually, ESPN has done some coverage of major chess tournaments, some of it very well done. But chess faces a big problem relative to games like poker (or tennis or golf). The problem is that chess is a very hard game to learn.

Remembering how all the pieces move is the least of it. You must internalize this knowledge to the point where it is automatic. And then you have to be able to recognize basic mating patterns, you have to recognize check and simple tactics, and you have to learn the basics of piece coordination. All of this is very tedious, yet it all must be done before you can derive any enjoyment from playing chess.

A non-chess player tuning into a chess broadcast will have no hope of understanidng anything that is going on. The same person, by contrast, will immediately understand the basics of tennis and golf. Poker is a little more complicated, but its rules are simple enough to be explained in a minute at the start of most poker broadcasts.

Some of Shahade's suggestions may help, but they have all been suggested and tried before. In the end I think an anonymous writer had it right when he said (roughly, I don't have the exact quote in front of me): “Chess will never appeal to the masses until the masses realize that the joy of removing an enemy's toenails with red-hot pincers pales in comparison to the satisfaction of taking his pawn on the eighth move, and forcing him, for want of that pawn, to resign on the eighty-seventh.”


At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to play chess. I was never all that good but I knew a few openings in-depth and could play with a 5 minute clock and throw my pieces in the center with good success.

For the masses you need insults and attitude and preferably alcohol, in large quantities. While I did have some fun times drinking burbon and playing games on yahoo...its just not generally done.

People should work on getting chess in elem schools and call that success.

At 1:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chess must be a lot more physical then I suspected if there needs to be a seperate league for women.

At 2:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Chess must be a lot more physical then I suspected if there needs to be a seperate league for women."

By and large, women have not fared well in chess. In part, that is probably due to the fact that few played the game. I used to play in large tournaments in New York, in the 1960s, and females were quite rare.

There are many men who have achieved the highest rank, Grandmaster, and very few women. Among the women that achieved that title, as far as I know only Judit Polgar has climbed into the top 100 in rank. Last I looked, she was #8 internationally, and refused to play in women's championships.

A person's rank in chess is determined by a mathematical formula that is strictly objective, so the disparity in ratings between the best men and women is not due to any bias.

At 2:52 PM, Blogger Jason said...

The idea of having separate tournaments for women, which nowadays seems like a chauvanistic anachronism, was actually intended as a way of getting more women to play chess. The theory was that women might be more interested in participating in segregated events.

In some ways chess is more popular now than ever. The Internet Chess Club, for example, has enormous numbers of participants. But that does not always translate into people joining the U.S. Chess Federation or particiapting in traidtional tournaments.

At 3:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

NY Times comments today on an approach to popularizing:

You ever play any of these women, Jason?


At 3:38 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Sadly, no.

At 3:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unlike the author of the NY Times bit I do not think chess sharpens mental acuity. I would very much like to see some proof that training chess makes you perform better mentally in other areas.

And I am not saying this just because I never was very good at chess myself :-)

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