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Who should write the new NYT chess column?

Matt Gaffney gives these “three essential characteristics” for writing “a relevant, interesting weekly chess column” in 2014:

1. It must be written by someone who is deeply involved in the chess world. Summaries of information that is already available online won’t cut it anymore. And since newspapers can’t afford to send columnists around the world to cover these big events firsthand, you need someone who’s already there.

2. They have to be world-class players, either past or present. Most likely past, since you won’t find too many active top players willing to spend playing and preparation time writing a weekly column for a general audience. But a great player’s personal experiences and ability to draw comparisons with players and games of yore is as essential to interpreting current chess events as it is in any other game or sport.

3. The person needs to be an engaging writer, highly opinionated, and preferably a bit of a character. Chess readers want informed, strong, and amusing opinions on events in the chess world, not just the who, what, when, and where. Experience writing a weekly column is a huge plus as well.

I agree with the spirit of these comments, and I respect his journalistic experience. But I disagree with most of what he has to say! To get a sense of where I’m coming from, see here; it’s the story of how I enjoy reading a chess blog written by players who are much much better than me, while being much much worse than world-class.

So let me go through Gaffney’s points 1-3:

1. I don’t think the author of this hypothetical column needs to be an insider. He or she just needs to care about the game. Sure, an insider perspective would be valuable, but look at the numbers: there are many thousands of thoughtful outsiders, not so many insiders (and many of them would, I assume, feel too constrained to give their most interesting opinions on the issue).

2. I don’t think the author of this hypothetical column needs to be a world-class player. Yes, “a great player’s personal experiences” would be great, but they’re hardly necessary. Indeed, I think Gaffney himself would realize this upon reflection. After all, he writes that these experiences and ability are “as essential to interpreting current chess events as it is in any other game or sport.” But many—perhaps most—of the great sportswriters were not world-class athletes. Red Smith? A. J. Liebling (ha!)? Bill James? Roger Angell? You get the picture. Great sportswriters are typically great writers. To say that the Times chess columnist has to be a world-class player makes as much sense as to say that the Times baseball columnist has to be able to hit (or have been able to hit) a major-league curveball.

OK, don’t get me wrong, there are differences between a spectator sport such as baseball or boxing, and a participatory sport such as chess, or judo, say. I could imagine someone being an OK baseball writer with no experience at all playing the game, whereas I can’t imagine being interested in a chess column written by a non-player (or, for that matter, by someone who can only play as well as I can). I don’t think the columnist needs to supply unique insights into the games, but he or she should have some sense of what’s happening.

3. I agree that it is a plus for the writer to be engaging and opinionated; this time, the analogy with conventional sportswriting seems to work very well. When we think of the best sportswriters, that’s what we get. And the Times should be aiming for the best. But I disagree with the statement that the writer should be “preferably a bit of a character.” Sometimes it’s ok to be a “character” (Liebling, Bill James, Bill Simmons), other times it’s not necessary (to the extent that Red Smith, say, was a “character,” it was through his writings, not through any personally outrageous behavior on his part).

I suspect that there are many chess writers who could do a good job at a weekly newspaper column—at least for awhile. Whether they could keep it up, week after week, for years, is another story. But maybe they could rotate through a few columnists and then keep whoever is still putting out good material a year later. Writing a column that is both accessible to patzers and interesting to experts, that’s not easy, but I think it can be done.

P.S. It’s hard to imagine that the Times will hire a chess columnist in any case. Why do I say this? Simple statistics. Gaffney’s article appeared in Slate on 14 Oct (I happened to come across it today via a link from a different piece in that magazine) and, as of 7 Dec, it’s received all of 6 comments. This suggests a stunning lack of interest in the topic! Really stunning. Actually, the number of comments is so low that it makes me wonder what’s going on. This was published in Slate, which gets about a zillion more hits than we do. And our posts on chess typically get lots more than 6 comments. So I have no idea what’s up here.

P.P.S. I posted this one on Sunday night when nobody is reading, because the topic is so damn unimportant! Still, it interests me; it relates to more general issues of communication, perhaps relevant when considering who becomes a newspaper science columnist. (I think a lot of these people have pretty advanced science knowledge but they’re not world-class scientists; in that way they’re like the chess bloggers who are solid, serious players but not grandmasters.)

11 Comments

  1. Phil says:

    Coincidentally, while Andrew was writing this post I was writing an email to my dad that included the following:

    All of a sudden I am interested in chess again. It all started when Judit Polgar announced her retirement from competitive chess, which prompted me to look up some videos of her games. It turns out there are literally tens of thousands of videos in which people analyze chess games. I think I sent you this one, about one of Polgar’s games: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrGS7iBYJKI but maybe it was a different one. That particular commentator, Mato Jelic, plays through most of the moves quickly and without commentary, highlighting just a few critical positions, so they make for quick videos and are pretty entertaining. I watched quite a few of his bits, and they got me interested enough in chess that I started taking the games against my phone app more seriously. Playing against a modern computer,e even a phone, always seems completely hopeless because they just don’t miss any three- or four-move combinations, so I always always always end up dropping a piece or some pawns in the middle-game. And that was still true after watching Jelic’s videos, but at least they gave me good motivation.

    But then I discovered some of the other commentators. For example…did you know there was just a world championship match, between Anand and Magnus Carlsen? Well, there was! And there’s excellent commentary, such as these videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdMcd2ibr8w
    These videos are a bit longer because there’s more discussion of both strategy and tactics. I found these interesting — chess as a spectator sport — and also really instructive. Just seeing examples of how these guys think made me realize that I can think that way too. Not nearly as deeply, of course, but instead of just moving pieces around looking at one target at a time, I can at least try to identify my own weaknesses and my opponent’s weaknesses and come up with a plan. I mean, I always try to have some idea in mind but even I can do a better job than I usually do.

    At least as judged by my performance against my phone app, I have gotten somewhat better. Of course I still get creamed tactically, but I feel like I understand the game a lot better. For example, the phone app has a modest book of openings that it follows until it starts thinking for itself, and I can tell when it does that (because it plays instantly when still in the book). Previously, I was almost always out of the book within six or seven moves, because I would play something that was not good for some reason. Now, I often go very deep, sometimes even running to the end of the line that the phone “knows.”

    So I’ve been looking around to see what other chess videos are worth watching. One thing that is sort of interesting is seeing very good players play fast games against each other while they talk about the decisions they’re making. Playing quickly, they often play somewhat inaccurately (more like me!) and then have to try to get out of the jam they’ve gotten themselves into. There are lots of videos in which one side or the other does that, but there are even cases in which both sides do it. I’ve chosen one example here (not necessarily the best example, but good). One of the things that isn’t surprising but is still noteworthy is the extent to which both guys immediately identify the same weaknesses and strengths in their positions. Looking at the board, I may not be able to tell that the d pawn is a weakness or that the next thing to do is for white to try to get a knight to e6 or whatever, but to these guys that is just instantly obvious.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOM1Qwhyelw
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IpISvcrD4U

    • Andrew says:

      Phil:

      Thanks for the links.

      By the way, one reason it might be a surprise to some people that there was just a world championship match is that now they schedule a new championship match every year, not every 3 years as in the old days.

      Regarding your more general point: after reading a lot about chess in the past couple of years, I’m familiar with the idea of evaluating a position and setting goals, rather than just choosing among moves and looking for tactics. Implementation remains difficult, however, partly because I need to spend so much time checking for blunders. Also in an actual game sometimes I forget the general principles. Yesterday I was playing a game where I was behind, and while I knew the general principle of trying to complicate the position (so as either to create an opportunity for me to catch up or, at least, to give my opponent a chance to blunder), I had no idea how to do so. Out of desperation I ended up making a series of threats, which in that setting is just about the worst thing to do, in that it gave my opponent no real options. I was, essentially, playing so as to not give him any opportunities to mess up.

      More to the point, maybe I’ll spend some of my free time playing against the computer. I don’t mind losing to you, but I don’t want to be completely destroyed, so I’ll have to up my game.

  2. Steen says:

    Maybe the NYT (or 538, etc.) can innovate in interactive chess game viewers and graphics.

    p.s. I agree that there is no reason for them to hire a chess columnist—because any number of chess writing enthusiasts would jump at the chance to write NYT-hosted pieces for free. Is the NYT philosophically opposed to soliciting content for free (or in exchange for covering travel costs)?

    p.p.s. by posting this on just before Monday AM you get the attention of readers like me just when we’re freshly caffeinated and trying to put off starting the work week.

  3. […] – Don’t Mourn the Passing of the NYT Chess Column. Is time to bring its chess coverage into modern times.  Andrew Gelman discrepa en cambio sobre el perfil: no tiene por qué ser un profesional, ni un insider. “Who should write the new NYT chess column?“ […]

  4. Matt Gaffney says:

    Andrew,

    Re your PS: yes, chess has never really caught on in the U.S. post-Fischer boom. When Kasparov was on David Letterman’s show in the 1980s and Dave asked him why chess was so popular in the USSR, Kasparov unintentionally got a huge laugh from the crowd by replying “Because we have nothing to do.” We’ve always had a lot to do in the U.S.

    Re Point #2: I concede that that is the least essential of the three, yes. Like if Tim Krabbe wrote a weekly chess column I would certainly read it. His website is incredible — http://timkr.home.xs4all.nl/chess/chess.html if you haven’t seen it yet.

  5. Firstly, thanks for your kind words about the blog.

    Second, with regard to …

    I don’t think the author of this hypothetical column needs to be an insider … there are many thousands of thoughtful outsiders, not so many insiders (and many of them would, I assume, feel too constrained to give their most interesting opinions on the issue)

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    An awful lot, if not everything, that is wrong with chess journalism in Britain at the moment is is the result of the journalists (I’m being generous with the term) concerned being insiders. Or *wanting* to be, perhaps.

    And I do believe there is indeed a culture within the world of chess journalism of not criticising anybody. No matter how mild the terms used and no matter how warranted, by and large it just doesn’t happen.

    A very rare exception: yesterday Danny King – who I feel is one of the very best commentators that we have – made a passing reference to being displeased with Giri’s developing habit of pulling faces on seeing his opponent’s moves. Go back a few weeks, though, and he was doing commentary at the Qatar Open with Simon Williams when the Ginger GM mentioned the words “plagiarism” and “Ray Keene” in the same sentence. GM King simply ignored it.

    Nigel Short seems to be the only person who is willing to criticise openly. He has his own list of targets, though, and his own list of people who he will never criticise. Short recently found time to tweet on Mr Susan Polgar’s financial affairs, for example, but you’ll be waiting a long time before he redirects his fire to people closer to home.

  6. […] a comment on this chess-related post, Matt Gaffney pointed me to this wonderful page full of chess curiosities by Tim […]

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