Chess as Spectator Sport

If chess players are taking half an hour to make some moves, how can you honestly enjoy watching it live?

This question is the core problem with chess becoming a spectator sport. Of course, I’m talking here about classical chess, not rapid or blitz, which are more easily “sold”.

The answer to the question is: you don’t. Unless you’re a strong chess player yourself and have the time to immerse yourself in the game in progress. The key word here is the conjunction and. Because in order to be appreciated chess must be understood and that understanding requires the time to put in the effort.

The main issue that prevents the “casual player” to enjoy chess is lack of chess understanding. This is a problem because the true excitement in chess (unless it’s a flashy sacrifice) lies behind the moves that are played. The moves played are just the tip of the iceberg, therefore spectators only see a movement of a hand. That is hardly an action-packed sequence.

Another hugely interesting aspect of a chess game is the whole process the players go through before sitting at the board – the preparation for the game. There are so many intricacies in the preparation that it’s a whole new (and well-hidden!) world. But only the chess player and his/her team would know of them, so the rest of us can only make educated guesses. For me personally, this aspect of trying to get into the heads of the players and to understand their opening choices is one that gives me huge pleasure. I will not talk about this aspect now, as you could have seen some of it in my comments to the games, especially the last World Championship match.

In this post I would like to illustrate the common “boredom” people whine about. In order to do this I’d ask you first to play over the following moves as if watching it live. Or even after the game finished, but without too much of a thought.

So what did you see? Just some senseless to-ing and fro-ing and then somehow White made some progress. Honestly, without pausing to understand the moves even I would have no idea what happened and how White achieved something. In short: no sacrifices, no flashy moves, boring stuff.

Now I would like to offer a new perspective of the fragment above.

This is quite different, isn’t it? It shows all the action behind the moves, the ideas, often the psychological moments. But in order to unearth all this you really need to understand chess at a relatively high level and to want to spend the time to understand the actual moves.

This means that the casual player’s only chance is to have high-level commentators doing this work for him/her. Not all commentators are created equal and they really need to have a feel how to present the iceberg undeneath the tip. Only then chess has a distant chance of becoming a spectator sport, though even then only for a selected audience.

Going back to the question at the beginning. What to do for half an hour when a player is thinking? In such situations it is up to the commentators to try to delve into the position deeply. After all, if a strong player spends so much time then there must be something in the position that is worth that time! The commentators should understand what that is and then explain it to the audience.

Chess is not a visual sport, the pleasure from watching chess comes from the joy of understanding ideas. It is an intellectual pleasure and as such it depends less on the visual and more on the hidden.

Botvinnik liked to say that chess is a combination of sport, art and science. While it is impossible to compete to the visual attraction of football or basketball, the watching of chess should develop in the direction of explanation of the hidden. That is where the art and science are concealed.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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1 Comment
  • Mar 7,2019 at 10:53 am

    […] skriver en popoulær engelsktalende blogg. Han er ute med flere nye saker som kan anbefales. 1.Chess as a spectator sport. 2.The Najdorf sicilian- a repertoire 3.Square off-World’s smartest chess […]

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