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.