The Problems of Mainstream Media Coverage of Chess...

Mar 19, 2008, 9:37 AM |

The city I live in has two local newspapers.  One does not cover chess at all.  One has one small two column article buried in the diversions section of the Saturday paper, and is published bi-weekly.  In about 300-400 words, the columnist has to cover world chess news, local and scholastic chess news, (maybe) publish a game, a puzzle and advertise upcoming tournaments and events.


I'm realistic enough not to expect wide coverage of the game in a country where chess is viewed as either the idle pastime of retired persons or the unhealthy  obsession of neurotic geniuses.  But I find myself disappointed just the same, because whenever a chess story does crack the mainstream media, it is more of a human interest story than a chess one, and lately, it seems like it rarely casts the players and the game in a positive light.


Chess journalists have a daunting task when writing about the game for people who don't play or only play casually.  While media exposure can be greatly beneficial to the game, readers have to have an understanding of chess to really get the point.  Fischer's queen sacrifice in his match against Byrne, or Marshall's queen offering against Levitsky is meaningless to people who don't play.  This is something other sports journalists don't have to contend with as such.  One doesn't need to know all the rules to watch and enjoy a game of football or hockey, to marvel at the scoring of a great goal or a save.  Playing football or hockey definitly isn't required.  Chess journalists don't have that luxury, so most of them resign themselves to writing for people who play seriously and leaving others in the dark.  Not intentionally, but there hasn't been a practical way to report chess in a manner that the layperson will understand.


The three stories I can remember in the past few years that the print media has seen fit to do features on is the death of Bobby Fischer, the so-called "Gormallygate" incident at the 2006 Chess Olympiad and the "toiletgate" incident in the Kramnik-Topalov championship series in 2006.  (I'm not including Kasparov's political life in Russia, as that is a political story more than a chess one). Bobby Fischer was covered for his status as an icon of popular culture (bolstered by his controversial statements) more than his status as former world chess champion.  Other former world champions might net a few lines in the world news section, but that's about it.  I read the Gormallygate incident in the local paper when the story broke.  I'm sad to say I don't still have the article, nor can I find the specific article anywhere online, because the colour of the article was very revealing.  In a nutshell, GM Dan Gormally punched GM Levon Aronian in a fit of jealousy over him dancing with IM Arienne Caolli.  While this may be newsworthy in the trash journalism sense, the writer then saw fit to paint chess players as social misfits who are at best emotionally unstable and at worst idiot savants, who rule the chessboard but cannot navigate romantic relationships with any trace of skill or success, hammering the point home by pointing out that the then 30 year old Gormally still lived with his parents.  Never, in any subsequent article, was Gormally's apology published, nor was it revealed who actually won the Chess Olympiad or anything else remotely chess related.  "Toiletgate" was reported in roughly the same manner, abound with bathroom and nerd jokes and sighs of "ohh, those wacky chess players!".  The title of either article could have easily been "Chess Masters Aren't Like Regular People".

This kind of reporting is unfair to both the specific subjects and the chessplaying world at large.  While other sports figures may have their dirty laundry aired in public, there is a balance of reporting, where at least their athletic endeavours and their sport are reported favourably.  All these articles serve to do is to reinforce the stereotype that chess is the game of the eccentric... not an ideal sell to most people.  Part of that, I believe, comes down to our culture, where we praise and worship athletes and regard intellectual activity with suspicion.  The athlete who forgoes all social activity to train is "dedicated".  The chess player who does the same is "obsessive" and "anti-social". 


There is a couple of things we can do to try and mend this.  First is to make chess a more accessible part of formal education.  That is a tough sell, indeed in an age of dwindling budgets for schools, but the lifetime benefits of such learning has been thoroughly documented and can no longer be denied.  The second job belongs to the media... editors need to give a little more space to the game in their pages and chess jounralists must find ways to bridge the gap between the playing and non-playing worlds.  That, I will readily admit, is not easy and I can only offer an obvious solution -- invest in chess the same as we invest in athletics.  Demystify the game and people will enjoy it.