‘Chess is an unforgiving mistress’
While debate currently rages about whether competitive video gaming should be seen as a sport, it’s easy to forget that chess has been at the centre of a similar argument for centuries.
Can two players sitting on opposite sides of a board and contemplating their next move really be considered a sporting spectacle?
Whatever, your thoughts on that, the fact is the recent World Chess Championship in New York attracted fans ready to pay as much as $1,200 for VIP lounge access.
The contest between title holder Magnus Carlsen, 25, of Norway and Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin, 26, was worth $1.1m and attracted plenty of media attention.
But what is it about this ancient game, with its myriad stratagems and colourful-sounding attacks and defences, that makes it more than just…well, a game.
James Coleman, a professional player and coach, has competed at tournaments all over the world.
He told Elephant Sport: “One of the things about chess that I think is so great, is that it doesn’t have to be the same thing to everybody.
“”Even after over 30 years of playing, studying or thinking about the game every single day, I can still find something new, surprising or beautiful to appreciate”
“In that sense, I think that it can be just a board game. If someone enjoys to play it occasionally, casually, as a way of passing the time, or something to pass onto their children – as my dad did to me – then I think that’s great and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like the highs and lows of tournament play. Every serious player will know the pain of defeat in an important game, and a great win can provide a huge sense of euphoria.
“As someone once famously said about sports, that they don’t build character, they reveal it, and this is certainly true for chess as well.”
Coleman, 39, “I was first taught to play by my father when I was around seven years old. He wasn’t a particularly strong player but showed me the basics, and I’ve always been very competitive by nature so it was natural that I wanted to improve in order to get the better of him.
“So I sought out other opponents, borrowed books from the library, and practised against some of the primitive chess computers. Once I immersed myself in it, I just fell in love with the endless possibilities and the challenges that it brought.
“Even after over 30 years of playing, studying or thinking about the game every single day, I can still find something new, surprising or beautiful to appreciate.”
Coleman is not the first and won’t be the last to be bewitched by the challenges that chess provides, but how would he convince a general sports fans to take more of an interest in it?
Coleman believes chess requires a lot more specialist knowledge to play and that it takes a lot more to appreciate a deep chess move by a world champion, than it would to, say, appreciate a hole in one by Tiger Woods.
But he added: “The invention of the internet has been a real gift to chess fans, making it possible to follow the big games in real time – something that was inconceivable when I first became interested in the game.”
This year’s World Championship ended initially in a draw between Carlsen and Karjakin, with the Norwegian going on to win a tiebreaker to retain his title.
Ticket prices started at $75, and Hollywood star (and avid player) Woody Harrelson was among the crowd attracted to the prestigious event.
Coleman said: “Well, I doubt that Woody Harrelson had to pay, but I think that for fans that pay to experience such things, it’s about being part of something, the world championship doesn’t happen very often, you know.
“The atmosphere can be electric and you can really feel the tension because of the stakes involved – the title and prestige as opposed to the money.
“You’re seeing guys at the top of their game, in some cases close to achieving their lifelong dream, and you know from your own experience how easily things can go wrong. Chess is an unforgiving mistress.”
The rewards are certainly there for the very best players, and Carlsen has also done modelling work and commercials for the likes of Porsche. His contests are broadcast live on primetime Norwegian TV.
And yet this year’s prize fund of $1.1m at at the World Championship is worth substantially less than when the event was last held in Manhattan 21 years ago.
“The players have teams of analysts, physios, chefs and whatever else for the duration of the event”
Then, with the final played on the 107th-floor observatory deck in the south tower of the World Trade Center, $1.5m was at stake as Garry Kasparov retained his title against Viswanathan Anand.
There’s no doubting that chess had had a higher profile in the past, such as when America’s Bobby Fischer took on Russia’s Boris Spassky in Rekyavik in 1972 – a contest seen as an extension of the Cold War.
Still, $1.1m is not an insubstantial amount, although Coleman adds there is plenty for the players to pay for at world championship level.
“I don’t actually know the specific breakdown of where the funds come from, but it’s usually corporate sponsorship under the umbrella of FIDE (the World Chess Federation).
“Of course, while the players no doubt do very nicely financially, they have teams of analysts, physios, chefs and whatever else for the duration of the event, all of whom need to be paid so without a healthy prize fund, the matches simply couldn’t take place.”