An Introduction and an Opportunity

by admin on September 18, 2017

I’m glad to make a two-part announcement today. First, my blog is going to start partnering with Susan Polgar’s blog, “Chess Daily News.” Don’t worry, my posts will continue to appear here as they always have, but they will also be cross-linked at CDN. The second part is that Susan is herself starting a new partnership with The Maven, a website that will have 200 channels, each devoted to one area of knowledge and curated by an expert in that specialty. Susan will be the chess guru, and she has invited me to also contribute.

You’ll notice a business slant to many of the columns at The Maven, and so it’s possible that some readers are coming here for the first time and asking, “Why chess?” So let me start by addressing exactly that question: Why should corporate America be paying attention to chess? And in particular, what are the benefits to be gained by promoting chess in America?

We are at a crucial time in the history of chess, when the center of gravity of the chess world is shifting. For a very long time, the chess world was dominated by Russians and players from Eastern Europe. I know that it was hard for American companies to see the value in promoting a sport where the stars mostly came from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

But that world has changed completely. The stars now come from America, Asia, and western Europe, just as much as eastern Europe. Three Americans are in the top ten of the world rating list; in addition, the top ten includes players from Norway (the current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen), France, and India. In the most recent World Chess Olympiad (held in 2016, the same year as the “regular” Olympics), the U.S. team finished first, in a thrilling, neck-and-neck battle with Ukraine. If only Americans had been as aware of this “brain” Olympics as they were aware of the “brawn” Olympics!

This is also a time of revolutionary growth in scholastic chess in the United States. The “super-national” championships this year drew more than 5000 players (and their parents). I can attest personally to the astonishing growth in strength and numbers of scholastic players in my own part of the country, the San Francisco Bay area. These things don’t happen by accident. In my area, a small non-profit called Bay Area Chess organizes dozens of events every year. I would like to see this kind of effort reproduced in other places, but to scale it up to the level of a whole country takes more than dedicated volunteers; it takes corporate sponsorship.

Even though scholastic chess in the U.S. is wildly successful in terms of numbers, I personally see it as a ladder without a top. We have built the infrastructure for thousands of kids to play the game, enjoy it and improve, but we have not given them a reason to stick to it after their high-school years! The most brilliant young players may achieve an International Master or Grandmaster title as teenagers, and what do they find? They discover that, practically speaking, there is no way to make a living as a chess player. Of course, some of them find other ways. Some go to Europe. (This was what Fabiano Caruana, the 2016 U.S. champion, did; from 2005 to 2015 he lived in Spain and played for Italy.) Some might be able to put together an income through chess teaching and writing. But without doubt, there is a huge “brain drain” of American chess talent as these players reach their twenties.

Here are some of the past champions who have had to give up chess: Ken Rogoff, chess grandmaster and Harvard economist, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. Patrick Wolff, two-time U.S. chess champion and manager of several hedge funds. Tal Shaked, former world junior chess champion and now a software engineer at Google. I cite their post-chess accomplishments to show how much these people have to offer the world; but all of them dreamed of being chess players first, until the dream became untenable.

Now I come to my sales pitch. I hope I have already convinced you that there is a huge opportunity. Chess is a more international game than ever before, and a company that associates itself with chess will be respected everywhere. Chess is no longer perceived as “just for nerds.” Advertising that features chess nearly always does so in a positive way. It is a way for a company to position itself as trend-setting, sophisticated, intelligent. An American company that promotes chess at the grandmaster level can associate itself with proven winners like Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, and Wesley So. Likewise, a company that promotes scholastic chess will give our youngsters a new generation of winners to look up to: young stars like Jeffery Xiong and Sam Sevian (both of whom just played in the World Cup at age 16!).

Even for players who never become stars, chess still brings clear benefits. It teaches them logical thinking, concentration, patience… and, yes, strategy and cunning (two skills that are, I believe, still important in the business world). Chess could be a potent attractor of youth into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies. Though chess is not a STEM subject per se, it demands many of the same mental abilities. Plus, it has a “cool” factor. To be blunt, you can win at chess, and kids relate to that. Once we establish an ecosystem where brains are respected, and where chess winners are celebrated, we make it possible for studies such as STEM to flourish.

That is what my proposal is about: creating a chess ecosystem. It begins with a strong scholastic program, which we have in many places in America, but not everywhere. It continues with strong support for a transition to chess as a career. Companies should sponsor young chess players in their twenties (maybe even late teens), just as they sponsor golf players and race-car drivers. Finally, at the top of the ecosystem, companies should support major international chess events—ideally, million-dollar events—here in the U.S. And we should vigorously pursue the dream of getting chess on television, because that is the route toward mainstream acceptance in our society.

Does this sound like a dream your business can get behind? If so, tell us. Tell Susan. Contact the United States Chess Federation. There will never be a better time than now.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

paul B. September 18, 2017 at 7:52 pm

This theme circles back to my previous proposal that Google and other corporations sponsor their own chess teams of possibly three to five players each. If say ten such teams were created, they would constitute a league and play against each other exclusively, traveling to each other’s corporate headquarters for the matches. The only change that I would make in my original proposal is that the shortest games be at least 15 minutes, both to avoid a blunderfest and to give viewers time to absorb the spirit of the position and do a bit of analysis.

Now the tough part – how to sex it up, how to make the contest exciting for viewers. Here’s one idea. Part of each tournament consists of games in which every move is made by a different team member. The five team members stand in a line behind each other and as a player makes his move, he steps to the back of the line. In this scenario, the personalities of each player become part of the drama. there is the player who takes too much time off the clock and elicits groans from his teammates. There is the player who is too aggressive or too passive. After the game, the post-game discussions would be brutal among the losing team as each member points fingers at others for the loss. Notice how this scenario matches the TV show CBS Survivor, where after a losing contest the losers go back to camp and snarl at each other for having failed. Hell yes, I’d watch that show.

Here’s another scenario that I would love to see. The two players both sit in soundproof rooms or booths. As a player contemplates his next move, he must verbalize his thought process to the audience so that they can read what is going through his mind. Chess analysis is always post-game; here the analysis is taking place in the heat of the battle, with the audience peering into the brain of the player.

Dana is right that chess progress falls off a cliff as serious players contemplate chess as a career. Do you really want to spend 8-10 hours a day honing a skill that doesn’t pay the rent? I believe that the purest chess, the classic competition forms that we engage in, will always be the highest form of the game, but if you want to put food on the table, then you will have to spend at least part of your playing time engaging in more popular versions.

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paul B. September 20, 2017 at 7:17 pm

You are trying to draw casual chess players into watching a chess game on TV, which is like asking someone to watch a video of a faucet dripping – remember that the key phrase here is “casual chess player” not you and me (a very bad club player). I lay in bed last night, unable to sleep, thinking about this problem. I have the answer.

A TV screen set to split screen mode; each half of the screen has the chess player in a soundproof booth. Now here is the brilliancy: in the booth with each player is a KIBITZER who chats with his player during the game about the next move. So, the viewers can watch and listen to how each team is strategizing the next move, play by play. The presence of the kibitzer elicits a more natural verbal interaction than simply having the player engage in a solo monologue. There could even be a number of kibitzers on each “team”, as long as their ELO’s are lower than their player. Dana, take this to the bank.

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admin September 21, 2017 at 7:28 pm

Paul B., I love this idea, and would love to see how it works. I think that we would need to set a rating limit on the kibitzer, say 1600, for a couple reasons. First, you don’t want to give one player an advantage by giving him a kibitzer that actually suggests some good ideas. Second, a kibitzer who is rated under 1600 will have the same questions as an average viewer. Also, every now and then (but hopefully not too often) the kibitzer might actually see something the master doesn’t, and that would be a triumph for “everyman”!

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paul B. September 22, 2017 at 6:39 am

I pictured Dana McKenzie in a booth with Magnus Carlson, kibitzing while they play against Jesse Krai and Sergei Karjakin. But you’re probably right – the kibitzer should probably be much lower rated.

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paul B. September 22, 2017 at 7:00 am

I just realized that the TV show needs a third person in the kibitzing booth: a hot girl in a bikini, cooing “Oh Magnus, you’re soooo smart” as she feeds him finger food. After Trump’s election, there’s no such thing as bad taste anymore.

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Hal Bogner September 20, 2017 at 9:16 pm

Dana – I’m sorry to have to mention this, but do you, and do the leadership team at The Maven, understand why Susan and her husband were expelled for life from the US Chess Federation? Court documents abound that make clear what many in the chess community glossed over, from fraudulent bankruptcy filings, to inducing her webmaster to break federal laws (for which he was arrested), to fabricating accusations against numerous people of a non-existent conspiracy against her (which cost USCF ~$500k in out of pocket legal expenses above and beyond what was borne by their insurers), to suborning perjury, all the while denying that her and her husband’s computers were the source of the thousands of postings that came to be known as the Fake Sam Sloan posts? Dylan McClain wrote a number of pieces for the NY Times about this throughout, and one of the more coherent and mostly-accurate summaries can be found in this writeup by Bill Wall at chess.com:

https://www.chess.com/article/view/lawsuits-chess-and-susan-polgar

It is hard to believe that the folks at The Maven will stand by what you have announced, above, when they become aware of this. Yes, she was a warrior for gender equality when young, and yes, she has many great accomplishments in chess from her younger days, and yes, she has done a lot for chess. She has also undone a lot, and has never shown the slightest bit of remorse. The events reported in New In Chess a few years ago, when Wesley So left her program at Webster University, suggest that the need for caution in dealing with her likely continues.

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admin September 21, 2017 at 7:33 pm

Hi Hal! Of course you and I have talked about Susan before, and I completely understand where you’re coming from and agree with you on “the need for caution.” However, I tried to think of a downside to this endeavor and couldn’t find one. So I’m going forward, with caution.

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