Friday, October 30, 2009

When we were kings

Here’s something you won’t hear very often:-

The Seventies was a golden age

It sounds unlikely I know but it's true, as far as our favourite game is concerned anyway. Yes the clothes were ridiculous; yes the people were alarmingly hairy; yes the TV was shit*; but by god chess was popular.

Nowadays FIDE has to scrape around for sponsors before finally getting the cash for the Topalov – Anand World Championship match and mass media coverage of our game is so scarce that even a feature on Blue Peter is hailed as a huge success. Compare the contemporary chess world with that of three to four decades ago when matches and tournaments were fought for big money prizes and the game routinely featured in the news sections of the national press. It's no accident that Chess the musical was based on events from that time and neither, by the way, is it a coincidence that the English chess explosion of the 1980s followed a decade when the game had such a prominent position in popular culture.


Black family lives next door to White family ...
considered to be sit-'com' gold in 1970s TV land apparently

Anything that happened chesswise in the early 1970s is usually attributed to Fischer but while he was making the history it was certainly not in the circumstances of his own choosing. Bobby's great fortune was to be American at a time of cold war and the Soviets treating chess as a political weapon. Global context + Fischer not messing around and actually delivering what he promised in the 60s = chess more or less guaranteed to transcend its usual borders and come to the attention of a wider audience.

Without doubt, chess was part of the ideological struggle but that wasn't what made it so newsworthy. The importance of chess was that it provided the perfect metaphor for the cold war itself. It was a great help that the era generated a seemingly inexhaustible supply of 'wacky chess player' stories to feed the media machine - x-rays of chairs, dodgy yogurts and (my personal favourite) Spassky's refusal to come to the board during the latter stages of his 1977/78 match with Korchnoi unless wearing swimming goggles and a sun visor to name but three - but the real news value of chess was that it enabled the underlying global political narratives of the era to be personalised. Bobby and Viktor against the Russians over the 64 squares reflected bigger pictures of East against West, capitalist against communist, defector against party apparatchik and the press lapped it up.

Nikolai 'Comrade Chuckles' Krylenko:

We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess. We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess’, like the formula ‘art for art’s sake’. We must organize shock-brigades of chess players, and begin the immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess.

The threat of nuclear war might not have been a cheery prospect in most respects but it helped make chess big enough that parallels with heavyweight boxing do not seem at all out of place. For Ali, Foreman and Frazier read Fischer, Karpov and Korchnoi and while you're at it replace the Rumble in the Jungle - 35 years ago today - and the Thriller in Manilla with Reykjavik '72 and Baguio City '78.

It couldn't last of course. There's an inherent interest in one man punching another in the face. I'm not sure why, unless that other man is AA Gill, but it's just the way it is and for that reason boxing doesn't need to be a metaphor, it's going to get watched anyway. The same isn't true for chess unfortunately and the media's interest in knights, rooks and bishops drifted away along with Korchnoi's challenge and the Berlin Wall.

It might not be particularly good time for chess right now and it would probably take a shift in global politics of seismic proportions to get the game really popular again but if the world today is a very different place to that of forty years ago for the most part that's probably not a bad thing. Clothes designers, barbers and the makers of TV programmes might not be able to say the same, but we chess players can at least look back fondly and remember a time that really was a golden age. A time when we were kings.

* With the exception of Blake's 7 obviously.


Tom Chivers said...

Maybe chess will be culturally writ large again if the Chinese start to dominate it as per the Russians, whilst also ascending to global economic dominance?

ejh said...

I would have thought there was far more high-class professional chess taking place now than there was thirty or thirty-five years ago. It's rather better-paid, too.

Jonathan B said...

Perhaps, I don't think chess will have the same propaganda value in a battle of reosources as it had (could have again) in an argument about whether one form of political economy is superior to another.

You may well be right on both counts although that's a slightly different point to the amount of coverage chess receives in the general media.

If anything it underlines how expceptional the 70s was - if less quality chess then could generate more main stream media coverage than now.

Anonymous said...

I wonder who I'm going to be playing chess against in 30 odd years once the "Fischer generation" stops playing. My club has 25 members, only 3 of us are under 40 and I'm the youngest at 30.

Should I worry?

Adam B.

Matt said...

I've wondered much the same Adam (having said that my club finally has some new blood this year, mostly youngish too)

The funny thing is, most congresses I go to are far better off than most clubs are in terms of younger players. In addition there *must* be some people amongst the large number (many youthful) playing on the net who might be interested in old style chess clubs.

The problem is reaching them, of course.....

schrottvogel said...

Porn also had its golden age in the 1970s :)

And by the way, I really enjoy your blog. Lots of really well-written entries with a broader scope than most other chess blogs. Thanks for this work!