Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chess - The Spectator Sport?

  There were three very different top level chess tournaments held this month that highlighted to me what kind of chess tournament will make chess a television sport. In early June, the 2014 No Logo Norway Chess super tournament was held in Stavanger, Norway. The tournament was sponsored by the gambling company UniBet but the promotion of gambling is prohibited in Norway, hence the moniker 'No Logo'. This is the second year of the Norway Chess tournament which not only coincides with native son Magnus Carlsen's ascension to the top of the chess world but also Norway’s prosperity stemming from its well managed government which has wisely saved the profits from its state run oil industry and amassed a surplus of almost a trillion dollars. Just a few days after Norway Chess concluded, one of the world’s most unique chess tournaments took place last week in the desert city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates where over 100 players competed in the FIDE World Blitz and Rapid championships. The Rapid tournament was held from Monday to Wednesday with 5 games at fifteen minutes per side with a 10 second increment per day and the Blitz tournament was on Thursday and Friday with 21 rounds of action with each side getting 3 minutes per side with a 2 second increment. There was a total $400,000 ($200,000 for the rapid and blitz tournaments) prize fund with the winners of each tournament collecting $40,000. 8 of the top 10 players in the world were competing including World Champion Magnus Carlsen, former world champion Viswanathan Anand, top ranked American Hikaru Nakamura, and Sergey Karjakin (the winner of the No Logo Norway Chess tournament). This year’s event was especially compelling since World Champion Carlsen participation with the stated goal of becoming the top ranked player in Classical, Rapid, and Blitz provided a ready-made storyline.

At the No-Logo Norway Chess Open, commentators Laurence Trent and Jan Gustaffson had plenty of time to follow their Twitter feeds, catch up on the World Cup, discuss rap music and current events, and take numerous breaks in between discussing the chess games during the six hour broadcasts...

   Norway Chess was 9 rounds held over 11 days with 10 players competing in a round robin. All the players were rated over 2750 except for local qualifier Simen Agdenstein (7 time champion of Norway and a former trainer of Carlsen). The players played one game a day and after 6 rounds there was a 3 way tie between Carlsen, Kramnik, and Fabiano Caruana but Karjakin won his final 3 three games (including victories over Kramnik and Caruana) to take the tournament by a half point over Carlsen who only won one of his final three games and finished second despite being the only player not to lose a game. The tournament was broadcast on Livestream courtesy of with Laurence Trent and Jan Gustaffson commentating. I got to watch much of the broadcast and each day Trent and Gustaffson would spend quite a bit of the 5+ hour broadcast responding to viewer tweets, discussing the World Cup, making jokes, and talking about everything but the tournament. They can hardly be blamed since with only five games to discuss per day and sometimes more than a quarter hour between moves on any of the boards there were plenty of occasions where there just wasn’t a lot of chess to discuss. The pair was entertaining and personable and the tournament was fascinating with top level match ups each round but I found it easier to follow the action via Chessbase reports and Daniel King’s Power Play videos on YouTube rather than keep an eye on the action while it was happening – very much like watching ESPN or reading the morning paper to catch last night’s baseball scores rather than watching the games themselves.

  The FIDE Rapid world championship tournament was also broadcast on Livestream and was naturally faster paced. Each round took around an hour and with five rounds a day it led to around the same six hour broadcast as Norway Chess. The commentator was GM Dmitiry Komarov who made up for his thick Russian accent with boundless enthusiasm, shouting the names of the players that were winning and showering praise over the leaders of the tournament and the winners of each round. Komarov would also give his opinions on who was better and why and did a reasonable job outlining what he thought the plans should be for each player. The glaring problem with the broadcast was that even though there were over 50 games in each round the games were followed with live cameras (instead of the moves being electronically relayed) and there were only enough cameras to focus on four boards at a time. This led to the same problems as the Norway Chess tournament broadcast – if there weren’t exciting games on the top boards there just wasn’t much for Komarov to discuss. This was highlighted in the next to last round when the first 10 minutes of the broadcast was spent watching Caruana and Levon Aronian stare at each other and Aronian continually getting up to walk around and look at the other games before the broadcast also got up to focus on Magnus Carlsen and Alexander Grischuk playing their game at the next table which was won by Carlsen around a half hour later in a less than action-packed grind it out game. Even at the relatively fast time control of a 15 minute game, there were too many dead spots in the broadcast to hold my interest for an entire round mostly because Komarov was captive to the lack of cameras and unable to focus on the most exciting game and look in on the other top boards intermittently.

In this video, two of the world's five best players (Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian) match up in the FIDE World Rapid championships. Even at a time control of 15 minutes per side (with a 10 second increment), there seemed to be so little action that the broadcast followed Aronian in watching other games.

  On Thursday and Friday, the FIDE World Blitz tournament was held at the same site as the Rapid tournament. There were 11 rounds on Thursday and 10 on Friday. The time control of 3 minutes per game with a 2 second increment meant that each round took from 10 to 12 minutes. GM Komarov was again the lone commentator and there was still a limited amount of games he could cover but the quick time controls left very little downtime between each game and never more than a few seconds between each move in every game. It seemed the fast pace emboldened the players to play in a riskier fashion and I thought most of the games were interesting and if a game turned out to be dull at least it was over quickly.

In the top video, World Champ Magnus Carlsen takes on reigning Blitz champion Le Quang Liem of Vietnam in the FIDE World Blitz. Underneath, Carlsen takes on the top American player Hikaru Namamura (at the one minute mark). If you have just ten or so minutes you can watch either game and both could be shown in a half hour TV segment with room for plenty of commercials.

  I’m sure the FIDE Blitz championship games weren’t of the same quality as the ones in Norway Chess or even the FIDE Rapid championships but I felt they were by far the most entertaining. The players had to go by their gut instincts and the live camera capturing the indecision of a player’s hand hovering over a piece with only a split-second to make the final choice added to the interest of the games. It was fascinating to see Carlsen down to seconds on his clock trying to save a draw against Nakamura and grind Quang Liem in a drawn position until he forced a mistake and time forfeit. I didn’t think the fast time controls affected the relative strengths of the players since except for Nakamura having a poor result in the Rapids and Caruana and Karjakin being pedestrian in the Blitz the top rated players at classical time controls finished at the top of the Rapid and Blitz crosstables. The best players in the world or a country or a state or a club tend to be the best players at any time controls because they are just better players. I told a fellow player how entertained I was by the blitz chess and he snickered because he thought the quality of the games were poor but by that logic only games between computers or email games that take months to complete could be worthy of attention since the best humans can’t compete with computers except in correspondence chess.

  The FIDE Blitz World Championship was chess as a spectator sport and would be the perfect tournament format for television. Ten to fifteen minutes per round and five minutes for commercials would get nine rounds in a three hour time frame with minimal dead spots. A $200,000 prize fund (the Rapid championship provided another $200,000 prize fund) and $40,000 first prize attracted most of the world’s top players. If this type of tournament could be held once a month or once a week, I can’t imagine one of the many sports networks that have recently sprung up not paying a similar amount for the broadcast rights for the weekend or two three nights of programming it would provide. I'm not saying it would get the viewership of NASCAR, golf, tennis but the fast pace and increased prominence of the sport thanks to a youthful Western European champion would guarantee a sizable audience. There will always be a place for longer time controls but I expect in the near future the suitability of the blitz format for television will be discovered and that it will eventually become the new chess standard.