Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Let's Make a Deal

Last week we had quite a time for ourselves here at the blog. Monday we reached 2000 posts, Wednesday we found ourselves in Private Eye (again) and if that weren't enough to fill our cup of joy to overflowing we also registered hit counts two to four and a half times our usual 1000 or so a day.

Let's be honest, none of that was about us. It was RDK that interested the Eye not S&BCB and those extra page views were mostly* the result of Edward Winter linking to us in his most recent Chess Explorations column at Chessbase.

We're pretty much back to normal as far as I can tell. I picked up one or two followers on Twitter and perhaps some of last week's new visitors will stick around I suppose, but otherwise it's as you were. Maybe that makes now the perfect time to step back from the details and ponder the question of why we do what we do.  Why do we write this blog and why do you read it?

Wrong kind of bishop

Justin has been busy recently. You may have noticed the article or two he's produced on the subject of Ray Keene's plagiarism and generally shoddy journalistic practice.

Yes, maybe you've noticed. And maybe your response to each newly appearing piece has become (or always was) 'bored now', 'enough is enough', 'you've made your point, time to move on', 'this is hardly news' or something about the benefits of lashing equine livestock. I know at least some of you feel this way because, aside from the comments we've had, some of you have been kind enough to tell me so to my face. Perhaps many of the rest of you feel the same way.

And yet the flood of visitors we had last week, not to mention our (well, Justin's) appearance in what by chess standards is the mainstream media, demonstrates very clearly that there is a market for this kind of material.

Not that you'd ever know that from what by our standards is the mainstream chess media. Chessbase's introduction to Winter's piece was doublethinktastically amusing in this regard. "The Editor of Chess Notes steps back from the details of the case" they said, in order "to reflect on how the game's media outlets cover controversies and what constitutes chess news". As if they weren't one of them. As if they didn't share the same very partial and limited view of what chessers might want to read with all the others.

It's rather reminiscent of all that icky de Mooi business. Where was Fred Friedel then? Or the British Chess Magazine or Chess come to that? On holiday perhaps? Busy auditioning for the part of Constable Savage in a Not the Nine O'Clock News revival? Simply not bothered?

Well I don't know about the others, but one person very much involved at the BCM was interested. Interested enough to send me two unsolicited messages asking what I knew about the events of Sheffield 2011 and the subsequent fallout, anyway. Too busy to answer when I sent a reply suggesting an article on the matter,  but the issue was very much on his agenda. He just didn't want it on his readers', apparently**.

It was ever thus, I suppose. I've mentioned the baffling editorial policy of the 1970s British Chess Magazine before (WwwK XVIII). Probably one of the starkest example is their coverage of the 1976 Amsterdam tournament***. Specifically Korchnoi defecting from the Soviet Union as soon as it was finished. A story of more than passing interest to amateur chessers you might think - and Viktor legging it was even considered to be sufficiently newsworthy to justify a front page article in The Times - but it didn't earn so much as a cursory mention in a specialist chess mag. Forty years on that seems laughable. Are things really any different today, though?

As it was four decades ago, so it was two years ago, so it is now? Consider the various adventures of Sabrina Chevannes this summer:

  • she stiffs a venue for two tournament's worth of unpaid rent (John Lewis IIIJohn Lewis II);
  • she has a book published;
  • she wins the WIM title.

All three are valid stories. Which one do you think won't be appearing in print any time soon? It's the kind that of tricky multiple-choice question you might expect to see on a daytime TV phone-in.

Yes, I know the whole print media as an industry is struggling****. Yes, I know that not everybody cares about the stuff that the chess press doesn't cover. No, I wouldn't expect a print magazine to give the sort of coverage to Ray and the other stuff that we do.

Time and again, though, we get weeks like last week when the oft-repeated claim that this kind of material isn't published because nobody cares is exposed as nonsense. My conclusion: it doesn't appear not because the readers don't want to see it, but because - for whatever reason - the publishers don't.

So, no, I don't think that Chessbase and the rest of the mainstream chess media are covering themselves in glory today any more than they ever did. Still, credit to Fred's mob for at least running Winter's piece and allowing him to link to us (and to Chess Cafe who Justin tells me haven't written anything themselves, but have drawn attention to each of his RDK posts). That's a considerably better effort than the nothing we find elsewhere.

Happy side-benefit of ageing chess population:
I can hope that most of our readers will recognise this

Which brings us to the question of what we are doing hanging about in this particular corner of the internet. Neither writing nor reading 2000 posts takes talent necessarily, but it does require a certain commitment. Even if that's a just a euphemism for a pigheaded refusal to turn off one's internet and go out and do something more socially useful instead, it can't be denied that there's effort involved here. What's that all about?

Well, for those of us on this side of the blog I think it's us enjoying the opportunity to write about what we want to write about. Justin, I'm quite sure, is just as aware that his Predecessors series gets on the tits of some our readers as I am conscious of the dip in our page views whenever the rooks and pawns come out. Equally, Martin's Chess in Art and Asylum started as much by accident as anything else. If he'd have sat around and thought about what would be popular they'd never have seen the light of day.

What of the other side of the coin? Seven years in and I'm still surprised and delighted that anybody at all visits these pages. Why do you do it? I wouldn't presume to say. My best guess, though, is that it might have something to do with the fact that there seems to be a reasonable overlap between the subjects that we happen to enjoy writing about and those that the mainstream press don't care to prod with the proverbial ten foot pole.

There's something appealing, I think, about an opportunity to read the kind of writing - be it subject or style or attitude - that you struggle to find elsewhere. We ain't perfect by any means, but neither are we trolling or churning out pap just to fill space. Even - perhaps especially - when you don't particularly care for our topic of the day, a certain authenticity comes as part of the package.

You might not give a toss about our subject of the day, but you can be sure as shit you know that we do. For what my opinion is worth, I think this is the main reason why there are folk who are kind enough to drop by and take a look from time to time*****.

So, if it's all the same to you, why don't we all just keep on doing what we do? We'll keep writing not giving a sliver of a stuff about whether anybody will actually want to read what comes out and you'll keep turning up or not as you see fit. If every now and then we stumble into something you happen to
we'll consider that a bonus.

How's that for a deal?

* A fair chunk of the Monday action was folk looking for Let's Talk About Nigel
** The same fellow, I mention as a by-the-by later sent us a message (via an intermediary) asking if we'd remove W(h)ither the British Chess Magazine?
*** See the October 1976 BCM (No. 10 Vol. 96)
**** As it happens, I came across a piece on the forthcoming death of journalism by Christina Patterson even as I was writing this post.
***** That and habit.


Jonathan B said...

While I think of it: Chess Vibes' interview with Andrew Paulson was definitely worth a mention as a chess website stepping beyond the usual norms.

Anonymous said...

Tony Miles achieved his final GM Norm at a tournament in Dubna USSR early in 1976. That was well covered in the magazines of the time. According to wiki, he finished equal first with Korchnoi in the Dutch tournament, which perhaps didn't get quite the same publicity. The Korchnoi defection was covered by the mainstream press, so perhaps editors of the period assumed everyone already knew about it.


ejh said...

Come to that, Fischer playing Spassky in Iceland was quite well covered by the mainstream press, but I don't believe that this led editors of chess magazines to decide it wasn't worthy of ther readers' attention.

Jonathan B said...

Although that Chess Vibes interview seems to have been deleted now.

Roger, I think the fact that Korchnoi defection was covered in the mainstream press makes it more interesting not less - and I'm pretty sure it was covered in Chess.

Thanks for your comments about Tony Miles, though. I've edited that paragraph to remove the reference to him as what was there is (or was) factually inaccurate and not saying what I wanted to say. I may put something back later, but I'm not sure I'm going to have time. It might have to be another post.

Anonymous said...

Another thought on the absence of comments about Korchnoi. In that era, I would imagine the BCM had an international circulation. Was the editor perhaps worried about whether the magazine would be allowed to be read in Eastern Europe whose populations weren't meant to know about the defection?

But there was plenty of coverage when Korchnoi signed up British GMs to be his seconds. By this stage though, Korchnoi had been denounced as a renegade traitor, it being impossible to conceal his presence in the Candidates matches.

Actually Tony Miles is on the front cover of the September 1976 BCM mentioning Amsterdam and his shared first place and Korchnoi's application for asylum are mentioned under "Late News" on the back cover. I believe the logistics of magazine production was that the cover pages could run to a later deadline.

The subsequent report in the October edition is just a cross table, a couple of games and a picture of Miles and Korchnoi.

The November issue has nothing.


Jonathan B said...

I just killed a rogue apostrophe too.

ejh said...

I don't think the inadequacies of the chess press are any greater than those of the mainstream press, considered overall, and of course they vary greatly from one outlet or publication to another. Sometimes there are good rwasons for this (you write a story about a wealthy person, they may well sue) and sometimes kess good ones. But the upshot either way is that at any given times, there are stories which are covered not at all, or very inadequately, or with a large institutional bias towards more powerful individuals.

The reluctance to openly identify Ray Keene as what he is is one of these stories. I could understand this (which is not to say that I agreed) in the old days when he was accustomed to throw his weight around with the threat of lawyers: but in 2013 he's a very embarrassing penguin in the room and I don't really see what's to be gained from pretending otherwise.

Ultimately, it won't do to have open season on Kirsan or Danailov or Ivanov or whoever - all for very good reasons - but other equally vulnerable individuals (and not just Ray) don't get targeted.

I started writing in the late Eighties, in football fanzines, which started, among other resons, because of the huge inadequacies and institutional biases of the mainstream football media. That situation has changed a bit for the better, partly due to the multiplication of media, partly because a new generation of writers and editors had grown up with fanzines, partly for other reasons. Maybe this is happening in chess too. If it is, not before time.

Jonathan B said...

"The subsequent report in the October edition is just a cross table, a couple of games and a picture of Miles and Korchnoi."

Quite. I think the explanation you suggest is a bit fanciful - and even if it were true that would be even more a reason for condemnation than the editors not covering a story because they thought it wasn't important.

Perhaps you see it differently, but the rest of your comments I see as underlining how the BCM failed to cover an event of historic importance rather than the other way around. Although I'm sure you're right about magazine cover deadlines and such.

An annoying large number of typos crept in to today's post. Hopefully all caught now. Thanks to those who pointed them out.

Anonymous said...

In retrospect it does seem strange and publishing deadlines may not have been completely relevant as the author of the report on the British Championship was able to comment on Tony's poor result by comparison with the IBM in Amsterdam.

Another commercially based hypothesis is that at the time, the BCM had rights to sell Soviet and other East European publications in the West and that they were leaned on to keep relatively silent about Korchnoi. It should have been an obvious story "Chess again makes front pages".

The original article suggested that Tony Miles's result was underplayed. I think that's right, as that result established him not just as a GM but also a world class GM.

I suppose it's also possible but unlikely that the BCM editor was a closet Marxist and just taking orders from his superiors in Moscow.