Sunday, November 12, 2006

GM Robert Byrne Retires from NY Times

Under the title "A Farewell, After 34 Years, And a Memorable 1952 Game," GM Robert Byrne announced his retirement from his long-standing Sunday New York Times chess column in today's paper, where he also shared one of his more memorable games (against Bronstein at the 1952 Helsinki Olympiad).

An Editor's note appended to the column says, "The Chess column will continue. A permanent successor to Robert Byrne has not yet been named." Several candidates come to mind, most notably super-blogger GM Susan Polgar, NY Times chess writer Dylan Loeb McClain (who did an excellent job of covering the recent World Championship match), pro-poker player and New York Masters director IM Greg Shahade, chess writer WGM Jennifer Shahade, author GM Eugene Perelshteyn, and super chess organizer and promoter GM Maurice Ashley....

Any other suggestions from my readers?

Some Additional Thoughts
After making the post above, I had some further ideas and thought I'd make a few comments about the future of newspaper chess columns generally. In this age of live chess broadcast on ICC and elsewhere, rapidly updated chess databases, mutliple sources of rapidly published chess analysis (even in video format), and chess bloggers of every stripe, you have to wonder what the best format for a chess column would be in the current climate.

One things is certain: GM Byrne's column, which had been very important (and twice-weekly) when he first began writing it had more recently become an afterthought for most chessplayers. There are at least three reasons for that.

First, it was simply too slow to have news value, often publishing games that had been contested over a month before. Ljubomir Kavalek's column at the Washington Post, meanwhile, often features games that were played a week ago or less. I have noticed a few occasions where his column features a game played on the weekend, and his column comes out Monday! Pretty amazing turn-around time and about equivalent to what you'd expect from a blog.

Second, his notes were generally very superficial. On some occasions, I have found them completely worthless, especially when I've already seen much better notes weeks before on the web. It used to be that the value of a chess column was mostly in the games themselves. But now, with all major international games available quickly on the internet, you can pretty much find major game scores -- often with commentary or analysis. So, if a column is going to stick to major games available from other sources, the notes become pretty important.

Third, there was very little news value in Byrne's column. If you compare the columns at the Post or LA Times, you'll see that they regularly feature recent chess news even when the game under review is not related to the most current events. The lack of news and notes in Byrne's columns arose, in part, because of his format--often opening with a long prelude devoted to drawing the moral lesson from the game at hand. That left no room for what was happening around the world.

Byrne's column was conceived in the pre-internet age (even the pre-computer age!) and has not changed to keep up with the times. I'd say just look at Kavalek's column in the Washington Post if you want to see something really excellent and relevant in a chess column. Everyone reads that. And I think he has won the Chess Journalist's of America award for a chess column several years running. Kavalek seems to be doing a much better job of showing that the weekly chess column can be relevant and worthwhile. If the Times wants to do the traditional chess column right, one easy way would be to woo Kavalek away from the Post...

But I think there are other ways they could make a chess column that was still relevant for the internet age. Here are three suggestions:

1) The "New York" chess column. The City is, after all, one of the centers of the chess universe -- and certainly the center of chess in the U.S. Why not feature relatively local, NY or regional games in regional events? The LA Times does that pretty often. And if you look at the great classic columns, like the Brooklyn Eagle columns of Herman Helms for many years at the beginning of the 20th century (especially great in the 1920s) you'd find a wonderful model for the coverage of local chess news. A New York chess column could be both international and local, featuring recent international news and a local game that you are not likely to see annotated elsewhere on the web (or even found on the web, since many local games never make the news or even the databases).

2) The "Feature Story" or Commentary chess column. Why, after all, does a chess column have to analyze a game? With games so ubiquitous and so few good feature stories and little authoritative commentary or news analysis, doesn't it make sense to simply drop the games altogether or make them an afterthought? I think that is one way to go. In any event, the game could be made less central to the presentation.

3) Chess for the Masses. A final suggestion would be to make a more popular presentation. Who actually reads chess columns anymore anyway? Just the few thousands of chessplayers capable of getting something out of them. Why not broaden the appeal of the column by turning it into an educational vehicle to reach a wide range of players? It could also include thoughts about the value of chess in everyday life. Sort of Chess for Living.... And maybe a puzzle or a few puzzles on a theme drawn from recent games. Maybe a discussion of good sources on the web. Stuff like that.

Obviously, these ideas are mutually exclusive. But I've tried to imagine ways that the chess column could be reconceived to keep it relevant for today or to reach a broader readership. I'd love to hear alternative ideas.

One last note: why is the New York Times's chess column in the Metro Section? Herman Helms's column generally was in the Sports section on Thursdays, many others are in entertainment. Does the chess column have to follow the Crossword Puzzle? Why not move it to the Sports section and treat it more like Sports coverage with real news value? That's the European standard.


Blogger Goran said...

Greg would be excellent, Susan is disaster

Sun Nov 12, 11:47:00 AM EST  
Blogger DG said...

Re: Polgar.

I am absolutely convinced at this point that Susan is not the author of her blog. If anyone would have some sense of the time commitment required to post 5-10 items per day it would be me. And based on my experience, there is no way she could be the blogger and still be involved in all the other chess related endeavors her blog mentions.

Frankly, I don't think there is anything wrong with her having a ghost writer, though I think she should be more upfront about it.

In any case, I mention this to say that if the NY Times chess column were given to Susan, we'd have to recognize that it wouldn't actually be Susan who would be writing it. Again, not a problem if everyone is upfront about it.

Re: format

In the Boston Globe, Harold Dondis writes two columns per week. One always includes a game annotated by GM Patrick Wolff (Harold is a B-player) -- usually an international game several weeks old but occasionally a local contest. His other column is typically topical news and never includes a game. He covers both international and local stories (you may recall that he actually did one column on BCC Weblog) and usually includes a local tournament listing or two at the bottom.

Sun Nov 12, 03:34:00 PM EST  
Blogger Michael Goeller said...

Thanks for the comments, and especially for the description of Harold Dondis's chess column in the Boston Globe, which I should add to my reading list.... We have a Sunday column in the Newark Star Ledger by Steve Doyle and (your favorite writer) Pete Tamburro that mostly features local NJ player games and news--I think that is valuable. And I like best the idea of making the Times column more local, if only so it can publish and analyze games I probably have not seen already.... Perhaps Greg Shahade would make a good choice for that sort of column (with Goran's endorsement).

You are one of many who have noted that Polgar's multiple articles and blogs are certainly ghost written--many likely by her partner FM Paul Truong (as she does admit to some extent in her Chess Life and ChessCafe columns). There are many occasions, though, where I see the same type of second-language error as I've observed in her forum exchanges and therefore suspect that it is she writing those posts. So I think it is not completely ghost written, though clearly partly so.

I suggested Polgar only because there are few chess writers now with such star status and institutional appeal. She has also demonstrated the ability to generate copy (whether solo or collaboratively) and she is a resident of the New York area. So she would be a natural to consider.

I am sure a similar conversation will be taking place this week in the editor's meeting room at the Times. I hope they will get some advice from serious chessplayers and chess fans before making a decision.

Sun Nov 12, 08:33:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why not Kasparov??? I'm sure he's following international chess rather closely despite his retirement....

Wed Nov 15, 08:47:00 PM EST  

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