Amazing Things Happening in Chess that No One Noticed

A recent article about chess came out in Slate magazine titled “One of the most amazing feats in chess history happened, and no one noticed”.

It was lauded by many chess players to be the “best” article they’ve ever read on chess. I have to agree that parts of the article were really good, but I actually got a much different initial reaction from reading it. It seemed like I am one of the few people who was legitimately annoyed by one overarching theme of the article. That theme is basically that “chess events have very few viewers, and it’s popularity is dwindling”.

Before I begin to address those points, I have to admit that I’ve never seen someone from outside the chess world be able to so quickly capture the personalities and quirks of the competitors. For instance the author, Seth Stevenson, is able to recognize things in Hikaru Nakamura that are pretty hilairious. In fact he does a fantastic job of quickly intuiting the quirks and personalities of all six players in the field. 

So yes, I enjoyed reading it the second time around, after I was able to ignore the general premise of the piece. But my gut instinct was to be so insulted the first time I read it, that I had a hard time finding any joy from the article.

What is wrong with this article? Well for starters the title is a complete load of garbage. But it’s a typical formula to get people to click on things by stating: “look at this amazing thing that happened that no one even noticed”. If by “no one” he means hundreds of thousands of people then yes, he’s probably right. So right off the gate he insults the game of chess by inferring that this gigantic tournament happened and basically no one was paying any attention to it. 

Eventually he admits that 70,000 people watched the live feed of the event, which once again goes against the title of the piece. And as chessplayers know, if 70,000 watched the live feed, tens of thousands of others simply watched the games online on many of the various chess servers online. Some of these had their own live broadcasts and feeds as well. So I am pretty certain the number is well above 100,000 viewers. 

Then he uses a typical method of cherry picking to make sure that the 70,000 he quotes seems like a small number indeed. He points out that the League of Legends World Championship got 32 million viewers in comparison. Once again he managed to insult a game, because while I don’t actually play League of Legends, it is a massively popular game and just because the author or his friends don’t play it, doesn’t mean that there aren’t millions of people worldwide playing this game nonstop. Having one chess tournament, that doesn’t have anything to do with the world championship of chess, getting crushed by the League of Legends world championship is not something to be completely ashamed of. Video games that are played by massive numbers of people around the world are not something to point at as “well if you can’t beat that you obviously suck”.

Why is this cherry picking? Well let’s try this another way. The NBA is a pretty popular sport isn’t it? And the NBA All-Star game is a big deal. How many people watched the game in 2012? According tothis it managed 2.7 million viewers, 16 times fewer than League of Legends. Now you could easily argue that this is due to the fact that many viewers needed TNT to watch the game and it’s I believe it’s only counting viewers in the United States, although honestly I don’t think there’s the slightest chance in hell it would get up to 32 million. But of course League of Legends is a joke right?

Let’s keep going with this though. Since the author wants to focus on the League of Legends World Championship, maybe it’d make sense to compare it to the Chess World Championship. The World Chess Championship got an estimated viewership well into the hundreds of millions. Here is an article with details on this. 

Obviously there is no chance that the chess world championship could have more viewers than something so massive as for example, the Super Bowl, but the point is that we still had an extremely large worldwide audience. Chess is growing in China, India and in developing countries around the world. You don’t get hundreds of millions of people watching something without there being a serious growth movement. Yet the author can’t help pointing out how “popularity in chess is dwindling”, which is almost certainly untrue. 

The recent world championship was almost certainly the most watched chess event in decades. The number of kids who play chess in the United States has resulted in a boom in U.S. Chess Federation membership over the past 10 years. Basically none of these points about the lack of interest in chess, which seem to permeate the entire article, are true.

But you know what, let me digress for a moment because I’d like to see just how badly the Super Bowl crushes the viewership of chess. Oh wait a second, according this article, the World Chess Championship had more people tune in than the freaking Super Bowl!

In fact almost every article I read on the Super Bowl has their numbers around the low 100 millions, and sometimes under it. Of course the World Chess Championship lasted a few weeks and the Super Bowl is over in a few hours, but it’s the freaking Super Bowl, the most popular sporting event in the United States every year.

Now I don’t know how accurate all of the figures are for chess, the Super Bowl, the League of Legends championship and the NBA all-star game. What I do know however is that there is a massive thirst for exciting chess events throughout the entire world. 

This is why I have a problem with the article. The chess fanatics are so excited that someone actually portrays our players and events in an interesting way, and yes the author did a great job of doing that. Yeah we can all pat ourselves on the back because someone outside of the chess world writes a cool and interesting article that we enjoy reading. But the question you need to ask yourself is “what would a non chess player think if they read this article, and would the view they take away from this article be an accurate and positive one”? Here’s what they would think:

“Hmm, chess seems like it has some interesting characters, it’s too bad they are such geniuses and almost no one is paying any attention to them.”

Why would they think this? Because it’s the title of the article!

No one is going to read this article and want to become interested in chess. Instead the emotion it evokes is pity. They’ll feel pity for the brilliant chess players that sit alone in a room of 100 spectators, while some silly video game championship gets 32 million viewers. This is not a realistic or accurate portrayal of the current state of chess around the world, and this is why despite the brilliant writing in so many ways, the article struck me as an article that creates a false hypothesis (no one followed this chess event), and did as much as humanely possible throughout the article to prove this hypothesis true, even if it required ignoring some facts and simply making others up without any evidence whatsoever to support it. 

For instance let’s look at Stevenson’s claim that popularity in chess has been dwindling. I’ll do something crazy here and even and add some evidence to the table by pointing out that players with International chess ratings, ratings which can only be attained by serious players, have doubled in the past five years!

That’s a weird way of dwindling if you ask me. 

On top of this, every year a new school seems to pop up around the United States that focuses on offering chess scholarships to talented players, and fighting to win the National collegiate chess championship. Very recently there were exactly two schools that did this. Now it’s pushing ten. You are seeing chess players from all over the world moving to the United States to take advantage of these new and recent opportunities.

This overall negative viewpoint of chess bothered me so much that it was hard to take any solace in all of the things the Stevenson did exceptionally well, which was actually most of the article. 

One other thing Stevenson never mentioned is something that many may be curious about. How much money do these guys make to play a game for a living? It must not be much given the lack of general interest in chess that is constantly referred to. 

Actually Carlsen makes a huge sum of money. Do you know why he makes lots of money to play in a chess tournament? It’s because lots of people care about chess. 

Yes Hikaru Nakamura is drinking Red Bull during his games, as mentioned during the Slate article. Do you know why he’s drinking Red Bull? It’s because Red Bull sponsors him!

The last place player in this tournament received $20,000. Sure it’s not a ton, but this is for the last place finisher and it’s just for one single chess tournament, in which all of their expenses are paid for.

These are not poor and desperate chess players, fighting their brains out to a small crowd of people. These players are celebrities, who make a great deal of money on appearance fees. For instance Magnus Carlsen has more followers on twitter than quite a few good NBA players. Magnus’s prize for his match for the world championship was 1.5 million dollars. The loser of the match, Viswanathan Anand, made one million dollars as well. Not bad for a few weeks of playing a board game. 

Yes chess players aren’t at the level of major sports stars, but the top players can make huge sums of money because there is a very large audience around the world that follows chess. 

There is certainly much that we can do to increase the level of exposure that chess gets, especially in the United States. Yes it’s also quite common that a major chess event will occur and it won’t get much coverage in the mainstream news. And yes, as the author stated, the international chess federation (FIDE), is pretty much run by a Russian mafia. However despite all this, there are millions of chess fanatics in the world who are constantly following their favorite players. It’s not as big as the major sports, but it’s still quite big. 

If only Stevenson didn’t feel the need to bash away at chess and it’s popularity, this would have been a fantastic article to read. The popularity of chess is not dwindling, definitely not on the International stage. I would suggest that it’s growing stronger with every year.

The Problem with Girls Tournaments

Did you know that the most prestigious youth chess tournaments in the world are separated by gender? That’s right, in a purely intellectual game, there are two separate tournaments in each age category at the World Youth Championship. There’s a Championship section, in which anyone can play, and there’s another section that’s restricted to girls.

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Greg coaching a U.S. Chess School camp with both girls and boys.

Those of you who don’t follow chess very closely may be thinking, “Wow, that’s insane. How is something so obviously sexist happening in the year 2014?”

Well it’s not quite as simple as it seems. Boys outnumber girls by nearly 20-1 in the chess world, and therefore these tournaments exist as a way to artificially create a 1-1 ratio of girls to boys in the youth championships, so that these events are more diverse and attractive to the players, the media and sponsors. But these tournaments have also created an unfortunate side-effect:

The most talented girls in the world, who are eligible and strong enough to play in the Championship sections with the boys, almost always choose to play in the weaker girls-only sections.

The questions that need to be answered are as follows:

A. Are these all-girls tournaments a good idea?

B. Should girls play in all-girls sections?

C. Should girls play in all-girls sections, even if they qualify for the Championship section?

A. Are these tournaments a good idea?

I think so. There is a massive difference in the ratio of boys to girls playing chess. These all-girls sections do help keep the top girls playing chess much longer than they otherwise may have. Given the huge gender discrepancy, I personally think that this is a good thing as I’m guessing that most people would like the gender ratio to be as close to 50-50 as possible. 

B. Should girls play in all-girls sections?

If a girl is not eligible for the Championship section, then I think it’s generally a good idea to play in the all-girls section as it will provide some International experience and allow girls to make lifelong friendships with other girls who play chess.

C. Should girls play in all-girls sections, even if they qualify for the Championship section?

This is the key question that I think many people are getting wrong. If I was coaching a girl who was one of the best players in the country for her age, I would advise her against playing in an all-girls section for the following reasons:

1. Girls shouldn’t set lower goals for themselves.

The best female player of all time by far, Judit Polgar, refused to play in any girls’ tournaments at a very young age. She knew that she was too good for them and she also knew that if she wanted to fulfill her amazing potential, she had to play with the top players in the world and not get distracted by lesser goals. She ended up winning the Championship section of the World Youth Championships and eventually became one of the top 10 players in the world.

Read more about Judit here.

2. Girls lose valuable chances at facing top level competition

It’s well known that in order to get better at chess, you need to constantly play players stronger than you. Judit Polgar understood this and became the strongest woman chess player of all time. 

Girls invariably choose to play in the weaker girls sections for the major youth tournaments, instead of the more challenging Championship sections. Remember that girls sections are not weaker because girls are weaker at chess. They are weaker because the ratio of boys to girls in the chess world is about 20-1, and therefore for every master who is a girl, there should be about twenty who are boys.

Here’s an example from the 2013 North American Youth Championship. The tournaments remained completely segregated, with boys in the Championship section and 100% of girls playing in the girls only sections, even though some of the top girls would have been very competitive in the Championship section.

Boys have no choice but to play in the Championship sections, thereby consistently getting stronger competition than girls. Over time this difference will add up to boys having more experience playing top level opposition, and could result in an equally talented boy ending up as a stronger player than the girl.

3. There are psychological effects.

I imagine that when a girl is 4-5 years old, and just learning chess, that she doesn’t yet know that she will one day be expected to play in major chess tournaments with lower ranked opponents, simply because she’s a girl. When does this all begin? It starts when everyone around the girl, including her coaches, parents and peers, guide her towards the girls tournaments and focus on her ranking among other girls instead of her overall ranking. 

It’s hard to imagine that a young girl isn’t affected at all when instead of choosing to play with the best players in the world, they are limited to an all-girls section. Suddenly these girls will have different dreams and goals than their male counterparts. They may aim to one day qualify for the U.S. Women’s Championship. They may aim for the Women’s Grandmaster title (similar to the Grandmaster title except the required qualifications are much lower), while the boys who may have the same amount of initial talent, have much grander goals in mind. 

The chess world is extremely competitive and even the smallest difference in development between young talented players can result in a big strength difference when the players are grown. When every single talented girl chooses to play in girls only tournaments, they are giving a big handicap to the boys who are testing their mettle against much tougher opponents.

The bigger problem is that most of the time these girls don’t even make these choices, but it’s simply force fed to them by their coaches or parents on a constant basis from a very young age. Watch this awesome video to see the psychological damage that this type of thinking can cause.

If we want to see more women in the top 100 of the world rankings, more girls will have to be like Judit Polgar. They will need to eschew women’s tournaments from a very young age and say to the world: “Yes, I could play in the girls only section and have a good shot at winning a medal, but I am playing in the Championship section because that’s where I belong.”