Mixed Gender Tournament Revives Classic TV Show In Malta

Mixed Gender Tournament Revives Classic TV Show In Malta

Everything old is new again. Just ask producers of October's "Checkmate" tournament-turned-television show.

Openly taking a page out of BBC's "The Master Game" series from the 1970s and 1980s, organizers plan to film and produce a high-quality, multi-part series on the nine-round invitational. They are also seeking to show the series on European television.

"Checkmate" will heavily edit the classical chess content, thus preserving the quality of chess while making it fast-paced enough for an average fan to enjoy.

The players, format, location and production all combine for an enterprising and innovative event. Let's start by describing who will contest the tournament and the host site.

Five men and five women from nine different federations will play in a round-robin format without rest days from October 13-21. The location is the island of Gozo, which is the second-largest of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea.

It's OK if you've never heard of it -- this reporter will be traveling there and to me it sounded like the antagonist in "Ghostbusters" but a quick search shows that views like this are the norm:

Gozo, Malta: about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. (All images courtesy official site.)

Amazingly, one of the 10 competitors this year played in those BBC-filmed programs in the 1980s. GM Nigel Short was all of 15 years old back then. In fact, the post-game commentary could be said to be predecessor of the modern-day "confessional booth"!

GM Nigel Short's voice was a little higher as a teenager, but still recognizable today!

The four other male players will be GMs Arkadij Naiditsch (Azerbaijan), Richard Rapport (Hungary), Igor Lysyj (Russia), and Tiger Hillarp Persson (Sweden).

Organizers wanted close parity with the women's field, and recruited GMs Wenjun Ju (China) and Irina Krush (USA); IMs/WGMs Jovanka Houska (England) and Elisabeth Pahtz (Germany); and WGM Nino Maisuradze (France).

The peripatetic GM Nigel Short will "headline" the field and serve as the bridge between the old and new shows.

Monika Gergelova, the show's executive producer, said she tried to form approximate parity between the men's and women's field, but was at the whim of player schedules (the FIDE World Cup, Millionaire Chess and the World Blitz and Rapid Championships all make October a crowded calendar).

"Next series, we can get the top women or even more participants," Gergelova said. "Even now it doesn't look very equal, but we managed to get great players and some top women."

Two-time Chinese women's champion GM Wenjun Ju is the highest-rated female.

The original plan was to have the tournament back in England, but due to scheduling, prices, and the weather, Malta turned out to be a better fit (the website just recently announced that next year's second edition will be in London in the summer). Malta's second island, Gozo, became the host site. One presumes the players won't mind -- London's average high temperature in October is 55F (13C), while Malta's is 70F (21C).

Even though the field is equally split between men and women, it's an individual tournament and all will play all.

The show will have two hosts -- professional television personality Anna Richardson, and for the chess commentary, GM Simon Williams.

Among the more recent shows Anna Richardson has hosted was Secret Eaters, a program about "widening waistlines."

Gergelova expects the show to bounce around among different countries each year. They will also be filming Gozo's outdoor attractions and "glamourous landscapes" before and during the event. The planned release date for the DVD and possible television series is December 2015 or early 2016.

"Also we are going to use new technology and make the audience who has no idea how to play chess interested to watch," she said. "Our CGI guy is an expert to make it slick and a high standard of TV show. The players will be going through the game which will be picked by Simon (Williams) and they have to voice over it and how they felt, (explain) why they did the move they did, similar to 'The Master Game' version."

A screenshot of the players from one episode of "The Master Game" from 1981.

Gergelova wants the chess content to be "simple to understand." Just like in the predecessor version, players will not be done with their games each day after the handshake. They will then record a voice-over of their thoughts to be spliced into a chess viewer for the final cut. In this way it will resemble a poker broadcast -- all the long thinks are cut and only the exciting moments are shown.

The idea to revive chess via television has been in the works for a while for Gergelova, a chess player herself (despite David Letterman's famous quote while playing Garry Kasparov by phone on his show: "There just isn't enough televised chess.").

Former late-night host David Letterman, on the phone with Garry Kasparov to get the next move in their eight-month telephone match in 1989. Kasparov: "My move is Queen's Bishop to King's Bishop Four (Bf4)." Letterman transferred the move as a2-a3!

"The whole idea started two years ago...I had a thought, 'Why is nothing being done with chess on TV?'" she said. Malcom Winter pointed out "The Master Game" and Gergelova decided to resurrect and improve upon the format and presentation.

"Our team is very professional in what they are doing and will make a slick, high-standard TV show," Gergelova said.

Here's an impressive game Short played on the show as a teenager against a 12-time Yugoslavian champion:


Gergelova studied them and said, "I wanted to make it interesting to add women as well and we came up with five men versus five women; more interesting as not only men play chess. Then the name came up one day...we called it 'Checkmate.'"

Chess.com will be on site to write several reports on the event, but for the full presentation, you'll have to grab the DVD of course. According to the website, the presentation will be split up into either six or 12 segments of 30 minutes each. DVDs from the original series have been reissued and can be purchased here.

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