TV, chess, curling, Olympics

by admin on January 16, 2016

Can television, chess, and the Olympics ever mix? This is a question I was asking myself after I watched a program called “Curling Night in America” on the NBC Sports Network last night.

People sometimes call curling “chess on ice.” The comparison makes sense in some ways, not in others. Like chess, curling is quite slow-moving and cerebral, as both teams try to place stones closest to a target (similar to games like bocce, horseshoes, etc.), to knock their opponents’ stones away or block their opponents from knocking their stones away.

Unlike chess, there is a physical aspect to curling. You not only have to conceive a plan but you have to physically execute it. In chess, once you have decided to play Nf3, actually playing the move is never a problem (except in the case of extreme time pressure). On the other hand, although I am not an expert on curling by any means, my impression is that its strategy is much less deep than in chess.

From the viewpoint of television, curling faces some of the same problems that chess does. It’s very un-telegenic. A lot of people have never heard of it, and others would consider it as exciting as watching paint dry. How would a mainstream television network try to convince us to watch curling? And why would they bother?


  1. Invent a faster-moving version of the game. The show last night featured a mixed doubles match, a new version of curling with only half as many stones (so the game only lasts half as long). This will also be a new event at the 2018 Olympics.
  2. Call it “Curling Night in America.” You have to admire the chutzpah of the title. Even though it’s only curling night at a drab ice rink in some small town in Minnesota, and the fans don’t even fill up three rows of bleachers, you can still pretend that the whole nation is watching.
  3. Find young, attractive players. They hit the jackpot last night, because the U.S. team was two 20-year-olds who looked like they came from central casting. Think Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, and you won’t be far off. But they were really good, too. The woman, Sarah Anderson, made some absolutely sick shots, like knocking two of the Japanese stones out of the “house” (the bull’s-eye target) with her last shot while leaving four U.S. stones in the house, to score 4 points.
  4. Bring in a celebrity commentator. In this case, Tanith White, a former ice dancing gold medalist.
  5. Aside from that, play it straight. I thought that was the best thing about the telecast. They didn’t try to pump it up with fancy graphics or a hip-hop soundtrack. They just let the game speak for itself.


  1. It’s an Olympic sport.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no other reason, nor is any other reason needed. There are lots of more popular sports in America than curling (including, in my opinion, chess!) but when you’re an Olympic sport, you have instant credibility.

So, could there be a “Chess Night in America”? I totally think so. We’ve got young, photogenic players, we’ve got international competition, we’ve got faster-moving versions of chess. The only thing that we don’t have is the Olympic credibility.

Could chess ever be an Olympic sport? This is one of those questions, like “Can we ever harness fusion energy?”, that seems to be talked about forever but never seems to become reality.

I did a little bit of Internet searching before I started writing this, and I was surprised to see some articles from last summer saying that FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov had met with the organizer of the 2018 Winter Olympics and gotten him to agree to include chess as a demonstration sport. (This is often a preliminary to being accepted as an official Olympic sport, as it was for curling.) But it seemed as if the publicity was only emanating from Ilyumzhinov himself: I don’t see any mention of it on the International Olympic Committee’s page. And of course, Ilyumzhinov isn’t president any more. So I will just say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

I still think it’s very unlikely that chess will ever be an official Olympic sport. The fact that no actual physical skill is involved will, I think, always be a huge strike against it. Also, the Summer Olympics are so huge and so crammed with events that it’s very tough to get a new one accepted. The Winter Olympics seem like a better option, but there isn’t anything inherently “wintry” about chess.

Even though it’s unlikely to happen, I still think that chess organizers and federations should keep trying. I hope that within my lifetime, I’ll get to watch “Chess Night in America” on TV!

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

paul b. January 16, 2016 at 2:49 pm

Chess can work as a TV spectator sport. To see how, think about whats makes American football work so well – it’s the pause between plays that allows the viewer time to digest the upcoming play, with the commentators giving an overview. Chess an do that as well; here’s how.

The players sit at a touch screen instead of a chess set. Their moves are mirrored on the viewer’s home TV screen.

There is no chess clock. Instead, each player has exactly one minute to make a move. A chess computer is an integral part of the show and it appears on the home TV screen, showing the 3 best possible moves while the commentators…um…comment. If a player fails to move within the allotted minute then the computer makes the move for him, BUT the selected move is the THIRD BEST move as computed.

This being television, there are commercial breaks during which the players can study the board more deeply.

After 30 moves, the time changes from one minute per move to 30 seconds.

The viewer’s home TV shows the chess board, the computer board, the countdown timer, and the faces of the players or commentators.

And that, folks, is the future face of professional chess.


admin January 16, 2016 at 3:13 pm

Hi Paul,
I like this idea! In fact, I think there are innumerable versions that chess could put up that would be more television-friendly. For example, one nice thing about curling is that it’s a team sport. How could we make chess more of a team sport? An idea that occurred to me this morning was this: A game called “Chess Relay.”
Rules: 1) Four players on a team.
2) Each player has 30 minutes to play 15 moves (and of course, time can accumulate), except that the last player has 30 minutes to finish the game. So it’s basically game/2, except that there are intermediate time controls after each 15 moves, when the teams bring in their new players.
3) No consultation is allowed between the player currently playing and the rest of the team (who are off in a soundproofed room). But consultation IS allowed between the three non-playing players. So when the new player comes in after 15 moves, he can do so with some idea of what his teammates want him to do.

I could envision that, just as in curling or in swimming, different players on the relay team would be expert in different parts of the game. You’d lead off the game with an opening expert, then probably have an expert strategist play your second 15 moves, a tactician playing the third 15 moves (because that is when the tactics are most likely to come to ahead) and then a great endgame player as your “closer.” And it would be super-exciting for the fans because it really would be, say, the Russian team versus the American team — not four individual games.


paul b. January 16, 2016 at 4:17 pm

Teams would work – there is nothing more exciting than a relay race because it ain’t over ’till it’s over – a dropped baton or a chess blunder can change a game in a heartbeat. But from a TV perspective, the time is a problem: 4 players x 30 minutes = 2 hours per team = a 4 hour game. A TV game probably needs to be kept to one hour. But I believe a team game could be played in a hour.

BTW, does anyone know a chess board app for a tablet wherein the pieces look the same from both sides? I created an Excel spreadsheet that does it but it’s a homebrew. The only real challenges were the knight (the letter S) and the bishop (two triangles congruent at their bases).


Roman Parparov January 17, 2016 at 9:42 am

Chess has no chance on TV as long as the problem of cheating is not mastered, if it can’t be mastered, then don’t even bother with TV.

I also hope that chess never becomes an Olympic sport.


Mary Kuhner January 18, 2016 at 9:57 am

My first chess club was in Anchorage, Alaska, and we were strongly of the opinion that chess is a winter sport. It’s what you do when it’s too damned cold to go outdoors!


Hal Bogner January 18, 2016 at 8:01 pm

Dana – One aspect of making something watchable on TV is whether a relatively uninitiated viewer can make heads or tails of what is going on before their eyes. Much easier for curling than for chess. Probably easier for curling than for football, in some ways.

One way to test the viewability of either one might be to take a newbie, explain in very few sentences the basics of what they need to know to think they understand it at all, and then see if they can watch and tell you what they are seeing. This is how messages, products, web sites, etc., are ‘focus tested’. It may take a bunch of iterations of this procedure with a succession of fresh ‘newbies’ til you can decide whether you are succeeding, or have a chance of succeeding after some brainstorming and new rounds of focus test, or are trying to do something that is never going to work.

But in any case, this approach may at least answer your question of whether chess (or curling) can really succeed in (at a minimum) not perplexing and frustrating all but a few viewers.


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