Going Mainstream

Television networks have long since abandoned chess but a multi-millionaire promoter plans to catapult it back into the limelight

Chess Sport

What you see before you is an exception. An exception, that is, to the marginalisation of chess in the British media. In Standpoint, thanks to the enthusiasm of its editor Daniel Johnson, a whole page is devoted to the world’s oldest and most popular intellectual pursuit, more than in any other mainstream publication. As for television, the most influential of all media, chess might as well not exist, for all the interest shown by the networks.

This was not always so. Between 1976 and 1982 BBC2 ran a series called The Master Game, a chess tournament held especially for the viewers, with the results kept secret — rather like University Challenge. Some of the world’s leading players took part, including Anatoly Karpov and other giants of the game such as Viktor Korchnoi and Bent Larsen. It was highly innovative, with the players recording their thoughts after the game, which were then broadcast as the moves were “played” on an illuminated board — in fact, old — style BBC ingenuity involving fairy lights, mirrors and puppetry techniques, since this was before the digital age.

After such trailblazing, the BBC abandoned chess, and although both it and Channel 4 ran programmes covering the 1993 London world championship match between Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short, no British broadcaster showed the slightest interest when London again hosted the world championship in 2000 — when Kasparov lost his title to Vladimir Kramnik. The fact that there was no British participant had something to do with that abject lack of commitment; but it’s no wonder that Malcolm Pein, the chief executive of Chess in Schools and Communities, has spoken furiously of “the cretinous collective that comprise the BBC controllers [who] for the best part of 20 years have rejected virtually every programme proposal on a game played by millions”.

That Pein was not overstating the grass roots popularity of chess has been made clear by research by YouGov. In August it published the result of a unique global survey, which showed that no fewer than 12 per cent of the adult British population currently play chess (15 per cent of men and 10 per cent of women). That equates to a potential domestic audience of 6 million — not taking children into account — who understand and enjoy the game, even before the effort is made to attract those who do not play regularly but could be enthused if someone came up with the kind of innovative presentation that the BBC managed a generation ago.

That is now the mission of a most unusual entrepreneur, Andrew Paulson, who funded the YouGov poll. Paulson is an American former fashion photographer who made a sizeable publishing fortune in Russia. Earlier this year Paulson somehow managed to persuade the normally indecisive official world chess organisation FIDE to sell him the commercial and organisational rights for the world chess championship and associated events. 

Perhaps because Paulson himself is now based in London (he is a partner of Alexander Mamut, the Russian owner of Waterstones bookshops) the city which has just held the Olympics will also become the hub of world chess. On September 21 the first event of the next cycle of World Chess Grand Prix, involving 12 of the world’s strongest grandmasters, will be held at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. This is a wonderful homage by the highly cultured Paulson to the history of the game. In the 19th century Simpson’s Divan was for chess what Wimbledon is for tennis or Lord’s for cricket. The leading players of the day would there take on all comers, while Simpson’s also held some of the era’s greatest tournaments, including the first-ever women’s international in 1897.

Paulson also plans to be an innovator, contracting the designers Pentagram to create a purpose-built “cockpit” so that the players will compete almost in the style of boxers or sumo wrestlers; and he has taken on the former Director of Interactive Design at the BBC, Vibeke Hansen, to — as Paulson enthusiastically put it to me over a good bottle of wine at his club, the Garrick — “transform chess into a spectator sport”.

Much has been made of the social benefits of holding the Olympics in London — that a generation of youngsters will want to emulate the determination and competitiveness of our sporting champions, whether on the running track or on two wheels. Physical fitness is obviously desirable in the young and competitive sport in schools is to be encouraged; but the argument for proselytising on behalf of chess is if anything stronger. It not only harnesses the competitive spirit, but has universally acknowledged benefits in teaching children the value of patience, planning and perseverance — the attributes most valued by employers in a developed world where manual labour is increasingly redundant and intellectual powers are in ever greater demand. Paulson recognises this, of course, and at the world championship candidates match he has scheduled for London next March, he will invite more than 200 promising youngsters to participate in tournaments and instruction before the official games begin.

Yet if no mainstream TV company deigns to broadcast or even follow the event, then Paulson’s hopes of creating a breakthrough in the appreciation of chess by young people are most unlikely to be realised. A generation ago, such hopes were dashed by the broadcasting unions: the 1982-83 series of The Master Game was never screened because of their industrial action. This was especially bitter for British chess, because that final BBC tournament was won by Tony Miles, who beat the then world champion Anatoly Karpov in their individual encounter with black. Here is that game, a truly tumultuous struggle. 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6+ gxf6 (Miles liked to play this variation against Karpov: it is positionally suspect but allows Black rapid development) 6.Nf3 Bf5 7.Bf4 Nd7 8.c3 Qb6 9.b4 e5 10.Bg3 0-0-0 11.Be2 h5 12.0-0 Be4 13.Nd2 Bd5 14.Bxh5 exd4 15.c4 Be6 16.a3 Ne5 17.Re1 d3 18.c5 Qb5 19.Rb1 Bh6 20.a4 Qa6 21.f4 Nc4 22.b5 cxb5 23.Rb5 Na3 24.Rb2 Nc2 25.Bf3 Bd5 26.Re7 Bf8 27.Bxd5 Rxd5 28.Rbxb7? (The wrong rook — Karpov blunders!) Bxe7 29.Rxe7 Qc6 30.Rxf7 Rxc5? (f5! would have been better) 31. Qg4+ f5 32.Qg7? (Uncharacteristically, Karpov panics while short of time: 32.Rxf5 would have kept good chances) Re8 33.h4 Ne3 34.Bf2 Rc1+ 35.Kh2 Ng4+ 36.Kg3 Nxf2 37.Nf3 (If 37.Kxf2 Re2+ and then Qxg2 mate) Ne4+ 38.Kh2 d2 39.Nxd2 Nxd2 and here, in a totally hopeless position, the world champion’s clock flag fell. But this drama was never broadcast.