Greengard's ChessNinja.com

Star Chess

| Permalink | 5 comments

Sometimes it seems every American football player is a chess fan. Hall of Famer Barry Sanders is appearing at a Kansas club. Top star Priest Holmes has been on TV in his home's "chess room" complete with suits of armor for decorations. Then we have boxers like the Klitschkos, tennis players like Boris Becker, and many more. Such crossover appeal is an effective, if somewhat cheesy and desperate, way to promote chess, particularly in the USA where the game has a reputation for geekiness. List a few other stars into chess, with links if possible.


I've contributed several names to Bill Wall's "famous people who played chess" list. Are we talking just sport stars or famous people in general?


I can provide "evidence" in most cases.

Anybody who believes that rich men will save chess should remember that in order to save chess they may have to get rid of the chessplayers.

A number of the Olympic athletes have chess as a hobby, of course.

More important, though, I think is that chess ALREADY has a reputation (yes, even in the US), for class, intellect, and powers of concentration. That's why it is ALREADY used as a symbol in dozens of ads and films. (I will not even begin to count the times a sport was described as "chess with..." [swords, water, etc].)

To promote chess, we must instead turn the lens the other way, and promote individual players as character stories. To ask not what kind of person has chess as a hobby, but rather what kind of person plays chess as a primary activity.

In the US, at least, every time there is an Olympics, the background pieces are not on the technique of the sport, but rather on the background of the competitors. Why is this one person interesting as a person? It is this sense of human drama that builds a fan base.

The challenge we encounter is the same one that sports encounter. Our best competitors do not want to (for the most part) be presented to the press, or to reveal their personal flaws and histories.

There are a few who truly connect as a person with the fans, who understand the human need to know the human. Kasparov, of course, comes to mind as a natural at this (it is reflected in the care he takes in book signings and interviews). Karpov, too, has always seen the fan as an interesting and important person, and makes that individual connection. My own impression is that they do not do this to "promote the sport," but because they truly value those who value chess. But they are much rarer than the grandmaster who "just wants to be left alone to play."

To turn a niche activity into something with popular commercial sponsorship, it is necessary to have a strong central organisation that can compel the players at the very moment of a great victory OR a great failure to stop for a moment and make that human connection with the fans. The compulsion can be contractual, financial, or moral. But the personal interview right after the game has to be possible and even expected.

And the more honest and individual the player is, the better. Fans want to care about the players as individuals. They want to celebrate the struggle, even if it ended in defeat.

This is the mindshift that our organisations must make in order to make professional chess financially viable. They must take a lesson from other sports, whether it is football in the EU or basketball in the US. They must respect the respect that everyday multitasking humans have for anyone who can concentrate great energy into a single activity.

Ouro rganisations must present the stories of the individual players in a way that reveals their personal struggles and challenges. Then chessplayers, as well as chess itself, can carry the iconic hopes of the audience and justify a stronger commercial interest.

It is telling that neither FIDE nor the USCF include player profiles along with their top player lists.

(I personally added the players gallery to the USCF website back in 1997 using the bios from the US championship, but it has rarely been updated, and even the usually astute AF4C group tends to remove the player bios from their homepage when the championship is over--and never updates them with the individual's results in the event, let alone a direct quotation from any player.)

One of the differences between the way we view machines and the way we view humans is that most of us are interested in the long journey any human travels to arrive at a place of excellence.

There may be only one "best move" on a chessboard, but there are dozens of different ways for humans to overcome a life obstacle. Some are humble. Some are arrogant. Some are stubborn beyond belief. Some are cheerful and gregarious with a strong social support network. Some are loners, pouring their souls into a single "pure" activity.

Once these profiles are revealed in an organised way, frequently updated, and maintained in an easily findable archive, interest in chess players, as well as chess itself, will begin to grow.

Until then, no attempt to latch onto the success of others can accomplish much. All we're doing is adding more interest to the profiles of nonprofessional chess players.

To create commercial viability for chess, I would ten times rather see a profile on a grandmaster who cooks chili for his Superbowl party every year than on a football star who plays chess. Only when we reveal who we are as individuals can fans make the personal connection that brings sponsorship into the game.


Previous to the Klitschko brothers was Lennox Lewis, who put his money where his beliefs are.


If only such support were more systematic, building into a full developmental program...

By the way, Duif nails a key point right on the button.

I was watching a cable sports program on ex-Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry, and noticed that a newspaper clipping shown described him as a chess enthusiast. Googling, I found that Guidry even appeared on the cover of _Chess Life_ in 1983. See http://www.excaliburelectronics.com/history1098.html

Twitter Updates

    Follow me on Twitter



    About this Entry

    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on September 4, 2004 12:37 PM.

    Elder Gods of Olympus was the previous entry in this blog.

    Column Like You See'em is the next entry in this blog.

    Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.