Columns | May 19, 2012 22:02

Why chess will never be popular

Why chess will never be popular

One of the good things about the Anand-Gelfand World Championship match is that it generates a lot of debate on some essential points: what’s the proper format to determine the best player in the world; should chess always be spectacular; does computer-dominated professional chess have a future; and what’s the market value of chess anyway?

Spectators watching Anand-Gelfand in Moscow | Photo by Anastasia Karlovich

It’s interesting to follow the reactions to the match so far: nobody seems to be talking about the non-chess playing audience anymore – surely they have switched off long ago and can no longer be convinced to follow our beautiful game. Now, the main question seems to be whether the players should try to please the existing chess fans, or if they should just play ‘their own game’ and not give a hoot about who’s watching.

Garry Kasparov raised the point that World Championship matches have always been the place where fundamental changes to the game originally started: having less time on the clock to make 40 moves; abandoning game adjournments, etc. He predicts more changes to come, such as the introduction of FischerRandom chess, and he implicitly suggests that this match, with six draws so far, might speed up these changes. Perhaps he’d forgotten about his own match with Anand back in 1995 which started with eight draws, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be right.

Garry Kasparov giving a press conference during game 6 in Moscow

A more interesting question, of course, is whether these changes were somehow justified at the time, or even now. Kasparov’s own position is ambivalent, as he admits himself: on the one hand, many of these changes made sense (such as the abandonment of game adjournments due to the rise of computers), but some of these changes undoubtedly decreased the overall level of play.

The measures currently proposed, such as the introduction of the 'Sofia rule' into match play, will generate similar debates. This rule in particular is aimed at pleasing the audience, as have many rules under Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s reign. But a question seldom asked is this: why does the ‘audience’ need to be pleased in the first place? Why has the ‘audience’ become so sacred?

If you think about it, playing ‘for’ an audience doesn’t make sense at all from a chess player’s perspective. I, for one, don’t know a single amateur chess player who himself plays for or cares about an ‘audience’ – so why do we expect the world elite players do behave differently?

Boris Gelfand looks at photographers and spectators | Photo by Anastasia Karlovich

The obvious answer is because we’re paying them to do so – but are we really? In general, sponsors are paying the players – but it would be foolish to assume they actually care about the quality of play. They care about exposure of their brand or, in some cases, their own egos. Of course, FIDE also has a stake in making sure the players get properly paid, but demanding that they abandon their personal style in favor of risky play would border on totalitarianism (which, unfortunately, isn’t too far off the mark in some cases.) 

Another answer is that professional chess players have a moral duty to entertain us, the spectators – it comes with the job, so to say. Again, this seems a rather artificial argument to me: like normal employees, most chess professionals choose to play chess because they like it and are good at it. In short, they need to make a living – they don’t do it primarily because they see themselves as artists or are fantastic crowd pleasers.  At best, they want to prove to themselves that they’re better than their opponents – and as audiences usually love a good fight, they should be eager to watch this at any rate.

In the end, the problem seems impossible to solve: it’s a Catch-22 situation. The aim to please the audience has already destroyed many beautiful aspects of chess, inevitable though it might have been. Chess is not destroyed by computers, but by people who say it will be. The fact is that chess will never appeal to people who don’t appreciate the intense effort and satisfaction of trying to come up with the right move, even if it’s a dull one. This is precisely why chess is such a great game, but it’s also precisely the reason why it will never be popular. So let’s stop pretending otherwise.

Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


e4rules!'s picture

Sequestered with no computers! Let's try on the opening day to the end of the match the opponents are sequestered in a hotel with no computers or media access for the duration of the games. Also get rid of the seconds, bring back the adjournment, and let them duke it out man to man with no computers after for the match a game every day locked in the same hotel. All computer preparation would be done prior to the match. Maybe make it a reality TV show too with cameras in the rooms to play after each game.

Thank you for this nice forum to discuss chess, especially during this period of high media exposure during the championship. I have some suggestions for the future. ~ E4rules!

e4rules!'s picture

It has been suggested buy David Bronstien to let the players choose where to put their pieces on the backrow prior to starting the game. This is different than FisherRandom in that the positions are not forces on the players, but rather they choose how to play with their backrow of pieces. ~ E4rules!

filiusdextris's picture

This would probably result in set patterns and the fight still won't occur until many moves into the game.

noyb's picture

Typical tosh. Chess is just fine and will be so for many decades. No need for gimmicks.

filiusdextris's picture

I'm not saying chess is not fine, but I am suggesting that elite match play could be better. I think it is more of a true test of a player's strength in chess to evaluate a random starting position than to evaluate the beginning position of a game of regular chess. I'm rated 2100, and can fake 2800 play for several moves even though those players are much stronger than myself - not so much with Fischer Random. If you want to discern innate chess ability, not preparation, FR seems like a better predictor.

hansie's picture

Instead of a suggestion made above about declaring both the players Co-Champions and make them play the next Cycle’s Qualifier, I have an alternate suggestion. This also involves abolishing the Rapid/ Blitz Tie-breaker.
After, the regular 12-game match has ended at 6-6 (it may be after 12 decisive games, or, as resented by many amateur chess fans, after 12 draws or 8-10 draws), make both the players play a 13th game with classical time-controls, with the proviso that the Challenger would be having White pieces. Then, if he loses, obviously the Champion retains his Title with a 7-6 match-score. However, if the Challenger draws (more likely) and the match-score is 6.5-6.5, the contestants share the prize money equally, but the Champion retains his Title, based on the logic, that he drew the Match even though he had Black pieces in greater number of games.
I believe that this will spur Challengers to take greater risks in the Match, and like all risky ventures, if a Challenger succeeds, rewards would be handsome.

But, what happens if a Challenger actually manages to win the 13th game with White pieces. Then the Champion is bound to cringe that he lost the game because (in his opinion) the Challenger won as he had the unfair advantage of being White in more number of games.
We see that the Champion would be having a valid point of argument. So what do we do? We throw him a lifeline. Another classical game (the 14th) would be played, but this time the Champion would be having White pieces and an onus to win. If he loses or draws, than the Challenger wins the match with an 8-6 or 7.5-6.5 score.
But what happens if the Champion wins in the 14th game and levels the score at 7-7?
Nothing, we would be back to the position obtaining at the end of the 12 games. So we would be repeating the process.
But how long it can go on? Won’t the World Championship Match again become an endless abyss like the 1984 match?
I think that it would be unlikely. In the history of the World Chess Championships, I believe, that no two contestants have managed to trade wins in more than three successive games. There is no reason that in present Draw-infested scenario it could be any different. So, a Match is likely to end after a maximum of 16 games.
However, I would love to be proven wrong and see the contestants trade wins after wins in classical games continuously for 5 or 7 or even more games.
But, for the present, that remains a pipe-dream.

hildcar's picture

It should be MAGNUS vs ARONIAN!

Manu's picture

Regarding popularity me thinks that moving to a tennis-like rating system will give us a more sellable champion ,and also something specific for the audience to follow instead of obscure matches in remote countries or endless candidate events held always in the wrong places and at the wrong time.
We should have only one number one player at any given time and focus our attention a lot more in the competitions instead of the players .
Chess events are desperate for innovations and fresh ideas ,and alternative disciplines like rapid and 960 are growing stronger all the time ,i think that we should not be so conservative about some traditions and let things reach their full potential.
Chess is a game , not a sport ,we should learn from poker tournaments and horse races that its the event what makes some games famous ,that participants come and go , and in some cases our beloved champions wont sell a coke in the desert.

neil's picture

I think people are focusing on the wrong thing!
world championships matches are not the problem, its the candidate selection system.
2 games then rapid then blitz is too much of a lottery and ultimately does not necessarily find the best Challenger.
hence we have the no. 17 taking on a tiring jaded champion. so we experience technical draws without much fight. if there had been six exciting slug-fest draws there would be no complaints.

Also I would speculate that Magnus has not been as involved with anand's prep this time- so he is more computer dependent

Lee's picture

lans said: "If we look at all sports , they all evolved and had their rules evolve in modern times after dramatic changes . Chess is still an entertainment from the sponsors point of view , i don't think it's wise to neglect this aspect , the players have short term (results ) and long term interests (make a living of chess ) , but without the sponsors and the audience , even the top professional players are doomed ."

Extremely well said. Extra points for staying on topic.

Matt's picture

As players with true passion and motivation such as Aronian, Morozevich, Nakamura or Carlsen show almost all the time, chess is rich enough to give something new even at those levels; unlucky for our game that two guys already past it who don't care so much anymore are playing the final match. 12 games are not enough for them to take risks as well.

sirschratz's picture

chess has a considerable market value - decent newspapers (guardian - new york times - el pais) do have regular advertisements of big companies which show chess pieces, the board - and usually this is linked with some catch phrase which drives at cognition and responsible thinking....

in practice, however, these companies stay clear of certain unprofessional structures which dominate the chess world and with which any decent company doesn't want to be associated with. scandals are of rather low commercial value!

additionally no company would want to deal with sinister people like Ilyumshinov or bullies like Mr Danailov. Danailov repeatedly found sponsors, but only within Bulgaria - outside of Bulgaria no serious person would even consider buying a second hand car from somebody like Danailov.

Just look at the wonderful Zurich chess club which hosted the Kramnik-Aronian match. There is a tremendous amount of money and people are willing to give it to chess. But any of these business man would NOT want even to be near people like Danailov in case a journalist would have that on a photo...

Chess has a tremendous commercial potential, but too many of its officials are involved in shabby deals and ugly behaviour - just read Kramniks interview with Tkatchiev.

MH's picture

I think that when players can share 1,5M$ for 12 games, chess is already quite popular. Also people all over the world play chess, not everybody follows chess matches, but millions play chess every day, at any level. I think the Kasparov schools initiative could also help to increase popularity, as this links playing chess to childrens development.

For me chess popularity is about people playing chess in parcs and at home, not about 2 players in Moscow.

Bernd's picture

It's not that (top-level) chess can never be popular, for example, chess was *immensely* popular in the former Soviet Union. It depends on how it is marketed, and of course on its protagonists, ie. the master players themselves. Carlsen, Aronian, Kramnik, Anand and the other top players have huge potential. Of course it would help if FIDE would not appear to be such a bunch of crooks.

Vlado's picture

I don't see any problem with the Sofia rule. It makes the game more spectacular and it is still fair to the players as they are put under equal conditions. And the rule is not that revolutionary - it is not randomizing the places of the chess pieces or something. So what is the problem since it is a win for both sides - the audience and the players (more spectacular games -> higher interest -> more sponsors and money -> higher pay) ?

Bartleby's picture

Crowd-pleasing play is for tournaments. Right now it's down to the question: Anand or Gelfand? Who is better, here and now?
Soccer yesterday was a draw, proper defensive play sucked the life out of most attacks. The one decisive attack by White was countered by an immediate and appropriate change of strategy; with a well-timed counter-blow Black equalized.

redivivo's picture

But if the soccer match had consisted of no chances at all and two teams that passed around in defense throughout the match I wonder if someone would have said that this is how it looks because the quality of the play and teams is so high. In chess some see an exciting game where someone tries hard to win as superficial crowd pleasing, while it's much more noble to like a game that is drawn out of the opening after 18-20 moves prepared at home.

Bartleby's picture

But that's not what happened in the chess WCh games. If you look them, for example, right now, it's always a fight for gaining an advantage that in turn would allow an attack. In soccer Bayern, or Barcelona before, needs the element of surprise. Otherwise Chlesea defends so well that slow, normal play isn't enough to win the game. In chess, opening prepration has the potential to surprise. We've seen this a few times in the match already, but the other player has managed to come up with a meaningful plan and precise exceution every time. Over the board. Thrilling to watch.

Ellemann's picture

Personally I don't think that Fischer Random can ever replace classical chess. It will not be as popular. One of the beauties of chess is the harmonious development of the pieces. Fischer Random can never deliver this, it's a complete mess with pieces on the most awkward places. If they want to change the opening position, they will have to come up with something else.

Bronkenstein's picture

+1 to ´Dilution of arts and sports is a trend seen everywhere; the audience gets dumber causing the art/sport to go dumber.´ , should we fight ( the neverending fight ...) against it or just sell the game? (We would have to sell it cheap anyway)

Also on ´Typical tosh. Chess is just fine and will be so for many decades. No need for gimmicks.´ - indeed, if Gelfy had played on in 1st or if Vishy had found d7! in 3rd - or even just a simple blunder by any of them @ ANY point - it might easily cut the number of ´prophets of doom´ and folks offering the solution for ´the crisis´ to zero , and the whining would return to standard ´unworthy challenger´ etc tunes.

Bartleby's picture

Wow, Queen d8-b8! Anand allows his king's position to be torn up and Leko immediately sees then Black would have solved all his problems.

Alan's picture

It seems to me that the real problem of computers in modern chess is that it gives "ordinary" chess players the ability to criticise the top grandmasters mercilessly. The moves of top players used to have mystery and surprise about them - now even a very weak player can simply look at the engine analysis. This leads to an attitude of unconscious superiority ("why did Gelfand blunder his queen? what a stupid move...") and removes the mystique of top-level chess. It becomes more like a spectacle of seeing how close the players can come to the "ideal" lines and treating them more as entertainers, with an obligation to amuse the crowd, rather than intellectual geniuses practicing an art that few understand.

Capablanca - Alekhine, generally regarded as one of the greatest world championship matches in history between two of the greatest geniuses at the height of their powers, had 32 Queen's Gambit Declined openings out of 34 games. What do you think the reaction of the chess-playing public would be to that today?

As for the non-chess-playing public - forget about it. That boat has sailed. Kasparov has noted that there were a couple of brief windows of time where the general public could have seized on chess in a big way - the Fischer-Spassky match, and his televised match with Short. Fischer destroyed a great opportunity for chess by going nuts and abdicating the World Championship, and Kasparov-Short simply demonstrated that chess is not for television.

This game will always be around in some form - it's so deep and has such rich history that I think it's inevitable. But a major rule change might breathe fresh life into it and finally (FINALLY!) remove the overwhelming influence of opening preparation. Might even start me back on playing the beautiful game...

Alfonso Jerez's picture

Awesome article. I agree 100%

Brian Karen's picture

Notions such as popular and main steam are becoming less important.

In the 1970's you were lucky to have 5 channels on TV. Now we have hundreds. This is likely to expand exponentially in the near future.

Years ago it would be difficult to find like minded individuals when you pursued an obscure interest. The internet has solved this problem.

Sponsors are adapting from mass marketed advertising to more targeted platforms.

It is not important if chess is popular. We have left the era of television and entered the era of the internet.

GeneM's picture

The only "popularity" chess needs is for --- a higher percentage of casual chess players to join in organized rated chess events.

The popularity of chess for the masses, including people who do not play chess, is a non-issue because it is hopeless.

It will always be that the vast majority of people who enjoy chess do not enter rated events.
But even a small percentage increase in participation would do great things for Tournament Organizers, and by extension for the chess players who already participate.

GeneM's picture

Arne Moll wrote:
"[Kasparov] predicts more changes to come, such as the introduction of FischerRandom chess, and he implicitly suggests that this match, with six draws so far, might speed up these changes."

Yes, but we must discard the "Random" from Fischer Random Chess!

Which one start setup would be best to reuse for a couple decades?

(Note that its mirror, RNBBKNQR, is reachable by legal moves after 1 e23 e76.)

Jason's picture

I am not a chess player, but I think that perspective helps validate my comments: Chess is a game that has failed to evolve. It is genetically dead, much in the same way that soccer has reached a dead end. That is why soccer needs shoot-outs and chess needs rapid paced "overtimes". If you enjoy playing it, then by all means, keep on playing. However, this entire discussion is taking place because there is simply no way that an antiquated game cannot continue to provide a higher level of fun and energy for the public. Again, if this is your cup of tea, then go for it. Just don't expect it to ever be anything of real value to the vast majority of the world without substantial changes in the rules.

Jarno's picture

I propose that to increase the entertainment value, we merge chess with kickboxing. Alternate 20 moves of chess, and then a round in the ring! Victory by check mate or knock out!

Your opponent has a tricky, dangerous, tactical attack going? Punch him in the head a couple of times, and the tactics may not be so easy to work out!

I'd watch it. :P

Long Quach's picture

Why was my comment deleted? I want to know.

My comment was to combine in order, 3 round of UFC, chess, backgammon.

I want to know why my comment was removed. I hope you're not stealing this idea, because it's damn genius.


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