Why chess will never be popular

0 | Chess Event Coverage

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.

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