Action photos of last week’s World Chess Championship final were about what one would expect. Images of the two adversaries, deathly still, bent over the playing surface, frowning slightly, a hand to the face, hair a bit unkempt. Staring at little castles and horses and thimbles with crowns.
To all of us unschooled in the “combative nature” of the Sicilian Defence (as it has been branded by English chess grandmaster John Nunn), not to mention the wily possibilities of the Noah’s Ark Trap or the Morphy Defence’s ability to “put the question to the white bishop,” it is easy to miss the presence of tension and danger.
Maybe if there were BrainCams, affording a glimpse of the players’ cognitive wheels turning, lightbulbs suddenly flashing, adrenaline coursing. That could help educate the unintentionally apathetic among us.
To those in the know, there were gushing reports of the two-week combat, which so excited The Guardian’s Stephen Moss that he fantasized about a future of Norwegian champion Magnus Carlsen and Russian runner-up Sergey Karjakin “playing in stadiums filled to overflowing, while [English soccer superstar Wayne] Rooney and Co. play in local parks in front of a handful of aging spectators clutching plastic bags.”
Moss called Carlsen’s winning move “akin to the holy grail in chess—a queen sacrifice…bold, brave, brilliant….Something,” he wrote, “that makes you continue to believe in the sport even in the bad times.”
There are folks who contend that chess isn’t a sport in the first place and, based on my half-century of experience as a sports journalist, I hold that belief to be reasonable—and no insult to chess players or chess fans. If a sport requires physical exertion—as well as skill, competition, defense and strategy—chess appears to fall into the category of games.
More to the point, possibly, is a discussion of whether the sound minds of chess stars ever can vie for the kind of widespread spectator passion stirred by the sound bodies in football, baseball, basketball, soccer and so on. (This may parallel Masterpiece Theater’s inability to match the ratings of shows with exploding aliens and heavy artillery and, furthermore, could be evidence that we are not a profound people.)
It is a fact that the closest chess came to water cooler discussion and barstool arguments was in 1972, when impetuous, egocentric American Bobby Fischer tangled with the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. The Cold War implications of that duel weren’t nearly as arresting as the weird circus Fischer created by demanding a larger prize pool, walking away from a second game rather than continue with the presence of TV cameras and finally, that forfeit loss behind him, conjuring his first victory in a small backstage room and forcing organizers to ditch cameras in the main stage for the rest of the tournament.
The cloak-and-dagger maneuvers fueled surprising attention to coverage on public television, first aired in New York but soon spread to national outlets. Because there were no pictures from Iceland, the TV show consisted of updates by a chess amateur, Shelby Lyman, mostly filibustering from a bare-bones studio in Albany, N.Y.
Lyman, a Harvard-educated sociology teacher, went about occupying the mostly dead time—long stretches of absolute inaction while Fischer and Spassky pondered their next moves—by interviewing chess experts. Eventually, a little bell would ring, stirring Lyman to announce, “We have a move!” and to hustle to a huge chess board behind him to illustrate the latest play.
Against all odds, Lyman—who kept various chess pieces in his pockets to be ready to demonstrate the match progress—became an instant sensation, proclaimed the Julia Child of Chess, even compared to flamboyant football and boxing commentator Howard Cosell. As Fischer set about his comeback from an 0-2 game deficit to win Games 3, 5, 6, 8 and 10, there were reports of bartenders being asked to switch their TVs from Mets games to the chess, as an aid to the clientele’s friendly wagering; of the flagship station pressured into pre-empting “Sesame Street” to expand its chess show; of public preference for Lyman’s play-by-play over coverage of the Democratic National Convention.
Still, it was chess. My friend Dave D’Alessandro, for years a crack sports journalist before going on to bigger things as a member of the Newark Star-Ledger editorial board, parodied those oddball Fischer-Spassky dispatches by emailing me this sendup of the Shelby Lyman narration:
“We’re talking with grandmaster Max Euwe, live on the phone from Reykjavik. Doctor, what do you think of the match so far?”
“Eh, I think they oughta move the horses and ashtrays more.”
The thing is, Dave happens to know what a Nimzo Indian Defence is. And probably a fianchetto, too. And I can’t tell a knight from a rook, wallowing in ignorance while the New York Times quoted chess experts who declared the Carlsen-Karjakin confrontation of wits “one of the most exciting championship matches in history,” with Carlsen “applying unrelenting pressure” on Karjakin and Karjakin, in turn, showing a “remarkable ability to eke out draws [and] defending brilliantly….
“The energy of the crowd [at the Manhattan competition site] at moments was unmistakable,” the Times reported, “if never exactly at the level of Alabama versus Clemson.”
Magnus Carlsen was referred to as “The Mozart of Chess.” Slate’s headline on its match coverage judged Carlsen’s title-clinching play “one of the most beautiful, stunning moves in the history of the World Chess Championship….a beautiful coda” after Karjakin had “slipped from his opponent’s grasp repeatedly….”
Gladiatorial stuff, no? While Carlsen stroked his chin, And Karjakin rubbed his forehead.