Wednesday, April 03, 2013

To Mock a Pecking Bird

Every now and again, someone in the UK mainstream media will visit a chess event and say something nasty about it. They have done so before and they will do so again. The strategic question for insiders looking to promote the game more widely is: Should the chess community respond to such attacks - and if so, how? My short answer is: "yes, they should respond. In particular, chess officials should view such instances as opportunities to publicly reply - and ideally to get a positive message about chess in the mainstream media." My long answer is after the break.

Where the devil is

Chess has been on the receiving end of ill-informed mockery more than once, and there is more than one way to reply. Simple, aloof silence is certainly one way; another is to claw back scraps of ground by arguing the ins and outs of the nitty-gritty; another to lash back hard, perhaps trashing either the publication or the person responsible or both.

I want to propose a different response - and it's a response everyone can start to work on now. My proposal is simply that we - all of us chess insiders with public outlet - prepare responses that are ready to be played when the opportunity arises.  Those responses should stress the positive appeal of chess for the non-player. Of course, in any instance when we deploy them, we will need to tailor them to the occasion:  but when addressing the particularities of any attack, we should do so in a friendly, jokey way to show we are not fazed by the attack and do not wish alienate the author, publisher or reader. And we should do so briefly rather than get bogged down. These attacks are, after all, ill-conceived blunderings into our territory rather than coordinated masterly assaults on our weak spots.

I say that all chess insiders with public outlets should do this - but in particular, all English Chess Federation officials should have such statements ready to go. This is because a body such as the ECF has the maximum chance of making an impact. Any newspaper is more likely to publish a reply by the President of the ECF than it is a reply by The Grand Originator Of The S&B Chess Blog. Indeed, a quick high-quality response may well be welcomed as essentially a free article by newspaper editors. However, it's better we all do this. For instance: run a local tournament for school children, and have invited the local newspaper? Have something positive up your sleeve, just in case. None of us know when we might need to deploy that careful piece of preparation.

In case that is not clear, I have provided an example of the kind of thing I have in mind.

Dear Mr Editor

You're sat next to someone on a train who is reading a book written in a foreign script with weird symbols. One moment they are laughing, the next bemused, then tense, surprised, and so on. The last thing they are is as distracted or bored as you are. Do you think:
(a) I don't understand what they are reading, so the book must be dangerous and perhaps sending them mad. Or,
(b) I don't understand why they are responding like that; I'd be curious to know more about what is in the book.
Most of us, I hope, would go for (b). The super-curious might even ask the person what the book is, or try to work out the title and hunt down a translation. A journalist might even interview them or review the translated work, should things go that way. Now suppose the book is full of chess diagrams and symbols. Does the answer switch to (a) - uh oh, chess is dangerous and perhaps sending them mad?

Independent journalist Tom Peck, who visited the World Champion Candidate tournament in London last week, made precisely this kind of mistake in his write-up. The players look tortured, he writes - chess can send you mad; the game is incomprehensible to spectators - who even have to hand in their mobile phones on entry. What he should have said is: what is it about chess that is so enthralling these players and spectators will spend hours thinking about it, even giving up the delights of fiddling with their mobile phones? (Peck mentions mobile phones three times in his article, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion he has an unnaturally close bond with the device.)

Had he asked such questions, perhaps he would have opened up the drama of chess to his readers. Us insiders know chess as a game full of gripping turns of events:- a game of material sacrifices, of shock improbable turn-arounds, a game of sudden attacks and last ditch defences, a game of hidden plans and subtle tricks. And then there is the style, the personality. The laconic, indifferent, nudging style of Magnus Carlsen, with move after move anyone could have made, which nonetheless hang together as tapestries no-one else could have stitched. The restless yet sound creativity of Levon Aronian, his Don Quixote inquisitiveness perfectly calibrated by his steely inner Sancho Panza. The way Vladimir Kramnik's Catalan Opening flows over his opponents like a slow, inevitable tide drowning obstinate Canute after obstinate Canute. The improbable imaginative leaps of Vasilly Ivanchuk, playing chess through the looking glass. Could it be that a bit of proper investigation might even have revealed chess to be a game as gripping and enthralling as a great work of literature - like my hypothetical foreign book on a train I began with?

But this comparison demonstrates the difficulties journalists such as Mr Peck have when faced with chess. Great works of foreign literature can be translated. In fact they can be translated - badly, but approximately and easily - online for free. Non-readers can get the gist. But the intrinsic delight of chess to the expert is, by contrast, immensely hard to translate for the non-player. (And I'm guessing that Mr Peck isn't precisely up to speed with the rules of the game: horsey jump in L shape Tom, if it helps.)

So this raises a serious problem for chess, one which explains why articles such as Mr Peck's crop up from time to time. Can non-players even glimpse the glories which mean we chess devotees love the game so much? That is the kind of gap a good journalist should try to bridge. My guess is that were Mr Peck to quietly sit down with any player worth their salt, he would surprisingly quickly learn why people appreciate chess. It only takes a few minutes to learn the rules, and a few minutes more to appreciate surprises such as a smothered mate with a knight, or how to promote a pawn when it's down to three on the sixth rank opposite three on their original squares; and after those lovely little delights it's not far until the Opera Game is taking one's breath away, or at least one of Greco's delightful miniature amusements.

Chess teaches you not to make the same mistake twice, and to make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. Should Mr Peck turn his attention to our little game again, I hope he will make a different move: chess is a game that has captivated millions of minds for thousands of years, and continues to do so; surely a good journalist would wish to find out why.

What next?

Almost the end, one last thing. Agree with me? Why not email the ECF right now saying you think this would be a good thing for their Publicity Officer to get ready, for their President to sign next time. And if you're a paid-up member, maybe remind them of your registration number?


Anonymous said...

As crap as Tom Peck's article was, I think it's a bit unfair to keep banging on about his mobile phone. Reading between the lines, he had a heavily pregnant wife at home, about to drop, and was doubtless aghast to discover he'd been sent on an assignment which required him to hand in his mobile at the door.

ejh said...

Is there a Publicity Officer at the moment? I thought the post was currently unfilled, thus ensuring the same amount of publicity is issued as was the case when Tim Woolgar held the post.

Tom Chivers said...

@ejh---- Yes, I think the position is vacant. But this is the sort of thing someone over there should do routinely. They should also daily monitor the UK press for chess mentions, so they are first on the case. (This kind of thing might even also double as a daily digest.)

@Anonymous---- if you are right, perhaps the real motivation behind the article was: I missed the birth of my child for this?

Jack Rudd said...

Minor nit: Tim Woolgar was never Publicity Officer, he was Marketing Director. The most recent Publicity Officer was Ben Edgell.

(Both these posts are currently unfilled.)

ejh said...

Quite right: mea culpa.

You know, if I were in the UK still I might offer my services for the Publicity Officer post. Mind you, working relationships with the Times chess correspndent might be strained.

Anonymous said...

I'm not privy to the inner workings of the ECF, but how long have the two positions been unfilled? Is there a reason a current member cannot voluntarily step in as Acting Officer; monitor the press/news daily and seek further advice on responses where appropriate?

The editor of the Independent is Chris Blackhurst, should anyone else wish to write.

Tom Chivers said...

Hi anonymous

Re your comments about the ECF I think here is a good place to start:

I think it's too late to respond to Tom Peck's article via the Independent itself now. But hopefully next time the chess community might be more prepared.

Anonymous said...

Thank you to referring me to the ECF thread, Tom. While I do not post there (owing to the presence of our dear Delegate), I will read your projected role description with interest.