Sunday, November 27, 2005

Two Pieces in the New York Times

There were two pieces in today's New York Times related to chess.

One, from the Styles section, was titled "Sex and Chess: Is She a Queen or a Pawn?" and is really a fluff piece focused on the recent Tkachiev's "Chess Beauty Pageant." It has already generated some discussion at the Daily Dirt Chess Blog. The article should have been about how some female chess players have to use all of their assets to support themselves as professional players.

The second and not unrelated piece was by Jennifer Shahade on the Op-Ed pages and titled "All the Right Moves." There she suggests that chess promoters could learn a lesson or two from the Poker phenomenon. Again, the real issue is that even Nakamura is having trouble supporting himself as a professional player, so how can we get Americans (who are so money- and career- focused) to embrace the game?

The answer, I think, is that you cannot succeed in the same way Poker has. And devoted chess players will always have to support themselves much like starving artists: any way they can. Interestingly, Shahade's argument for Chess is mirrored on the same page by Sharon Osberg regarding Bridge. Osberg, at least, admits the real problem: "Bridge will never have the spectator appeal of games like poker. It's just too cerebral. Moreover, the learning curve is steep." Chess is exactly the same, of course. But at least Bridge has Warren Buffett and Bill Gates on board with some bucks to fund education programs and tournaments. We should have the same.

What chess needs most of all is not media coverage but some passionate philanthropists (like the HB Foundation) to help make big tournaments and education initiatives possible. We can't build a broad base -- the game will never appeal to a broad base of people -- but we can find the select few to support our game that is "symbolic of intelligence and good taste." Philanthropy is the only way to go. That's how Frank James Marshall built the Marshall Chess Club and sustained himself as a professional at the turn of the last century: by cultivating chess players with money to help organize events and sponsor his work. And I think it is still the most viable answer for chess in the near future.

Poker simply is not a good analogy for chess. Two better ones, as J. C. Hallman has suggested in several places, are religion and art -- both of which survive not because they get air time on ESPN2 but because those who can afford freely give their money to bankroll the good works they believe in and to help establish institutions to aid others in learning more about the things they love. I hope some rich chess players (or chess players with rich friends) are listening....


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