Thursday, March 7, 2013

Is Golf About to be Challenged by ... Chess?

There's an interesting article in the March 2013 issue of Wired magazine. The focus is on international chess grandmaster Susan Polgar and her desire to turn chess into a spectator sport. The article is titled "The Queen's New Gambit: Chess as a Great American Spectator Sport."

Did you know that many American colleges and universities field competitive chess teams? Which means, they hire chess coaches, recruit chess players, travel to other schools to play chess matches and tournaments? And that this college "sports" world is rife with intrigue and squabbles and coaches being fired and coaches being hired away by rival schools? That some schools spend lots of money to construct chess "arenas," and that students attend pep rallies with marching bands and cheerleaders yelling about the upcoming chess match against the school's bitter chess rivals?

I didn't know any of that, but it's all true. Polgar - a k a, "the Queen" - is one of the superstars of this scene, as much for her talent as a college chess coach and recruiter as for her standing within the international chess community.

What does this have to do with golf? Polgar believes that chess can be transformed into a spectator sport in the United States, complete with major media attention and big-dollar television contracts. And she sees inspiration for the idea in golf.

Polgar, Wired writes,

"... wants to win the hearts of soccer-addled adolescents and cable TV executives; she wants Americans to think of chess as a sport every bit as legitimate as golf or poker."

ESPN televises poker, it even televises the National Spelling Bee, Wired points out. What if chess had some charismatic public faces in the United States, and a network committed to innovations in the way the matches are broadcast?

Polgar finds parallels to our own game:

"I have all the respect in the world for golf and golf players," she says. "I think watching golf is not the most exciting thing, but look at all the resources it gets."

Polgar is not insulting golf when she says that. What she's saying is this: Look, I understand that people look at chess and think, "How in the world are you going to make that watchable on TV?" And yet, lots of people thought (and lots of people still think) the same thing about golf: "Watch golf? That's like watching paint dry!" But golf is now a huge presence on television. If it can happen for golf, why not chess?

Golf does have some inherent advantages, as a televised sport, compared to chess: Golfers actually move from Point A to Point B around a golf course, and make large, physical movements (the golf swing) to complete the requirements of our game. Chess players sit in one place, hunched over a board, and make very small motions.

But Polgar isn't wrong to find inspiration in golf. The key to the success of golf on television is that television doesn't broadcast golf from the perspective of a fan at the golf course, but from an omnisicient perspective.

What is it like to watch golf at the site of the tournament? Hey, there's Tiger Woods, wow, look at that swing! OK, only 10 minutes until the next group comes through ... Right: Watching a golf tournament live, in-person, means watching a whole bunch of nothing. Almost nothing happens at a golf tournament! The "action" in golf - the swinging of the club to hit the ball - can be measured in seconds for the entire round. Seconds of big, forceful golf swings, and delicate, nervy putts, along with another four or five hours that consists of: people walking, people standing around.

And you want to put that on TV? Imagine the first TV executives being pitched to broadcast golf: How in the world are we going to make that exciting to watch on television?

The answer, it turns out, was charismatic superstars (starting with Arnold Palmer) plus major innovations in broadcast techniques - some of which drove major changes in golf itself.

Cover golf with a single camera? That's what they did on the earliest broadcasts. But if you want to make it more exciting, you need to add another camera. And another. And more. You need to quick-cut from this player to that one, from this drive to that putt. You need to drop in shots that happened a few seconds or a few minutes ago. That giant roar we just heard in the background of the live shot? Here, we have it on tape for you. And microphones placed all around the golf course - pick up the sounds of the game and the voices of the players and their caddies and the fans. Through these means you eliminate much of the walking and standing around that, in fact, make up the vast majority of the "action" at golf tournaments.

Some of the television-based innovations in golf were things that seem very minor. The cup on every golf putting green is white on the inside. Why? Because CBS Sports producer Frank Chirkinian, back in the 1950s, realized that if you paint the inside of the hole hole white, it makes the hole stand out on television. It helps the viewers to know where the golfer is aiming, after all.

And some of the television-based innovations in golf were huge. Tee time order? The players in last place tee off first, the players in first place tee off last. That ensures, nearly all the time, that the golfers who are in contention as the tournament winds down are the ones who are still on the course, and, therefore, still on your TV screens. In the early days of golf, the leaders might be scheduled to tee off at any point - at the start of the round, the middle or the end. They might have finished playing hours ago by the time the final round wrapped up. This practice was already fading away by the time of the first golf telecasts, but television put the nail in its coffin. Broadcasters needed the guys leading the tournament to be the ones showing on screens.

And relation to par. Relation to par is the biggest thing television did for golf. Scoring in relation to par - 4-under par, 3-over par - existed prior to television's entry into golf, but it was rarely used for tournament scoring. Golfers' scores were listed as stroke total only.

Popularizing scoring in relation to par (another Chirkinian innovation) gave golf fans an easy to way to always know who the leaders were. So television helped standardize a way of setting tee times (leaders start last), and popularized a scoring method (relation to par), which, combined, created far more opportunity for drama and suspense as the tournament moved towards its conclusion.

So: Can chess ever become a television sport? Will we ever see chess tournaments competing against golf on sports networks? It sounds absurd, at first blush, to suggest that. After all, in chess, almost nothing happens. Why, it's like watching paint dry!

Polgar's comparison of golf broadcasting to potential chess broadcasting is very astute. Chess - if it ever gets on the air - will benefit from going on TV in ways unimagined at this point. The very nature of chess tournaments might themselves change. But broadcasters will find ways, through innovations in camerawork, analysis, graphics, sound, even tournament and match structures to make chess not just palatable on television, but even popular.

If chess ever gets on TV to begin with. And that will only happen if young, charismatic superstars emerge within chess.

For chess to become a TV sport, it first needs its own Arnold Palmers, and then it needs its own Frank Chirkinians.

1 comment:

  1. You should check out some high-ranking chess players like Magnus Carlsen (Norwegian, currently #1 ranked, but not world champion) and Hikaru Nakamura (American #1). I think these players and more like them have the potential to be the Arnold Palmers, as you suggest.

    Major tournaments that have many of the top grandmasters would be fun to watch - viewers would only need a telecast that switches between all the games, which happen simultaneously, and master-level commentators that would likely have some assistance from chess engines (computers).

    Furthermore, blitz chess matches (wherein each player only has five minutes to move) are extremely fun to watch, and there were some broadcasts of it in the 1990s. The examples I've seen on YouTube featured commentary by GMs Daniel King and Maurice Ashley.

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