How America Forgot About Chess

The once-popular game is suffering from boring grandmasters and controversial leadership.


Shortly after 2 p.m. on August 8, 1972, WNET/Channel 13 in the New York metropolitan area was swamped with phone calls protesting the station's programming. Irate viewers repeatedly asked the television producers to drop the coverage of the Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington so that they could resume watching the play-by play of a World Chess Championship game. In the midst of the presidential campaign that would see Nixon reelected, the American public preferred to watch the hours-long chess games between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.

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For many American chess enthusiasts, Fischer's time remains unparalleled. Never before or since his meteoric rise has chess managed to attract such a large audience in the United States. The 1972 PBS broadcast of the Fischer-Spassky games is still the most popular television chess show in history. After the celebrated match, the coverage of this ancient game has slowly disappeared from the country's mainstream media. In 1972, the national edition of the New York Times, the major newspaper that most consistently deals with chess coverage, published 241 articles that dealt specifically with the game. That number decreased to 148 in 1995, the year when Garry Kasparov, arguably the best chess player in history, squared off against Viswanathan Anand, an Indian grandmaster, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. The number fell further to 28 in 2011, the year when Hikaru Nakamura, an American grandmaster who right now is the seventh best player in the world, won the Tata Steel Chess Tournament, one of Europe's most recognized events.

Today, Anand, the current world champion, plays Boris Gelfand, an Israeli grandmaster, in the first game of the World Chess Federation (commonly known as FIDE for its French acronym) championship match in Moscow. While in India Anand is a national figure and in parts of Europe both players are relatively well-recognized, in the United States they are virtually unknown outside chess clubs or circles of enthusiasts. In part because of this, no one in America seems to be paying much attention to the title that once represented one of the Cold War's many battlefields. Chess has seemingly lost its cultural significance, abdicating its once revered spot to games like poker.

There are a variety of reasons for America's abandonment of the higher spheres of chess, according to professional players and long-time followers of the game. The absence of interesting stories and charismatic players in the past few years, along with FIDE's political and financial problems have all played a part in what at first glance looks like chess's march to oblivion.

The lack of a compelling story to fit the most important matches is one of the main drawbacks that contemporary chess has faced, according to Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam, the author of Finding Bobby Fischer and the editor of New In Chess magazine. "What we are lacking now is some conflict that makes certain players or matches attractive to broader audiences," he said shortly before traveling to Moscow. The Fischer and Spassky matches between 1960 and 1972, for instance, were framed by the Cold War, while the famous rivalry between Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov in 1980s and 1990s was seen as a clash between the old and the new guard of the crumbling Soviet Union. In both cases, the games surpassed the chess board and took on a significance that even people who had never played the game could relate to.

"Apart from that," Geuzendam added, "Fischer and Kasparov were much bigger personalities than the relatively modest Anand, who will rarely say things that will stir controversy." In chess's heyday, players, like boxers, would criticize their opponents before a match, offering demeaning remarks both to wage psychological war and to spike the public's general interest. Fischer, who would eventually become notorious for his anti-Semitic rants and conspiracy theories, ventured Muhammad Ali-like predictions about upcoming tournaments starting when he was a teenager. Kasparov, on the other hand, used his position as world champion to voice his political opinions regarding FIDE and the Kremlin. Statements from both men were picked up by the mainstream media, drawing attention to themselves and to the chess matches or tournaments they were playing. Anand, who became world champion in 2007, is a less polarizing and appealing figure, according to Geuzendam. He is a quiet 42-year-old who, unlike Kasparov, does not indulge in self-promotion or travel with vast entourages. A married man who had a child last year, Anand is consistenly described as a humble and calm man. A similar statement can be made about Gelfand, a passive man whose presence in the world championship has been surprising, given that he is currently ranked No. 20 in the world (Anand is No.4). Gelfand, 43, has had a long career in which he has barely caught the media's attention, either through tournament results or through his infrequent interviews.

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Santiago Wills is a journalist basted in New York City. His work has also appeared in Salon and several South American magazines.

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