by Larry Parr

Note:  The text of this piece has been edited with the permission of Larry Parr.  Mr. Parr notes, "My idea is to batter bad hats by name.  But in the dulcet spirit of thin-lipped Enlightenment detachment, I have agreed to drop a few names from the final paragraph.  I hereby promise that this lapse into politique comportment is only temporary."


Dear Bill,

I read your comments on FIDE and have only one bone to pick. You write, "It is true that the faster time limit tends to be more popular with the media and thus may attract more sponsorship." I recognize that this is a throw-away line to a degree, and you couch your statement carefully, using the words "tends" and "may." Having said that, I must tell you that the notion of faster time limits being more popular with the media is an enormously unexamined assumption.

To the degree that there is any evidence, that evidence at the world title level points to slower time limits and longer matches being more popular with the media. If you understand dramatic theory -- rising action, climax, perhaps denouement -- you will begin to get an idea.

You know the saying about not fixing what ain't broken. The traditional long title match is not broken and remains the most pointed weapon in Caissa's quiver. With the exception of the all-Russia title matches from 1951 to 1969, the traditional match has generally captured the imagination of the chess world, beginning with Morphy's exploits in Europe, continuing with Steinitz-Zukertort and several of Lasker's matches and including such great successes as Capablanca-Lasker, Alekhine-Euwe (both matches), Fischer-Spassky (the greatest media event of them all), Karpov-Korchnoi 1978, ALL of the K-K matches, Kasparov-Short, Kasparov-Anand, Kasparov-Kramnik.

What failed miserably were the three virtually ignored six-game FIDE title matches and Karpov-Timman.

Now, you can point to all kinds of reasons for why the traditional match has been successful, and certainly the Cold War actually helped chess after 1969. But Kasparov-Short, a onesided affair, also received enormous media coverage as did KK-V, which was no longer a Cold War match, really.

My view is that what sells great chess matches is what has sold theatre since the time of the ancient Greeks. Aristotle noted about 2400 years ago that people go to the theatre not to see the Chorus (say, the 100-man FIDE candidates tournament) but to see the tragic heroes.  In our terms it means people want to see a shootout on Main Street at High Noon. If the gunfighters are enemies or best friends accosted by cruel circumstance, then so much the better. That's drama. That sells.

You know my view. The point behind the world title rules changes is to strip the world title of its immense traditional meaning of selecting not merely a champion for a year but a champion who often defines the chess world during his title reign. Kasparov proved that such a person has immense power and can challenge FIDE. Kirsan, who is a real politician, adopted Stalin's famous solution at the 19th Party Congress of 1952. Stalin enlarged the Politburo from about 10 to about 30, which meant that he was radically undermining the importance of the long-time men about him -- men such as Beria, Molotov, Voroshilov and certain others whom he certainly planned to kill if he had lived long enough. In the case of the world title, Kirsan made it a one-year affair and introduced a large measure of chance so as to radically devalue the inherent worth of being world champion and to eliminate the world champion as a center of competing power.

Am I being too Machiavellian? My answer is that if I can think of this basic political tenet and apply it to FIDE, I am sure that the idea did not escape Kirsan and the other FIDE powerbrokers.

My view is that the new FIDE title format destroys the single greatest promotional weapon that chess has yet to have: the traditional title match with its associations of human drama and of chess as a special pursuit of the human mind that is worthy of notice because everyone is taking himself so bloody seriously and because the final product -- the games -- is judged worthy to stand as a form of art or at least as a serious example of human intellectual architecture.

You may be right that assorted quicker formats could be used to attract media coverage, and one need not oppose them while supporting traditional time controls for organizers who wish to use them.

You ask what is wrong with a little diversity in the world.  Thinkabout it, Bill.

From FIDE's view, what is wrong with said diversity is that the legitimacy of a six-game title match and a chance-ridden tournament played at quick speed limits will be at risk so long as there are tournaments and, perhaps, match competitions that are truly gruelling, that produce far superior games and that require obviously higher levels of skill. I have no doubt that within a short period, the player who is winning a traditional Linares, a traditional Wijk-aan-Zee and other top traditional tournaments would be regarded as the real champion.

The real crime here is that FIDE's leaders -- probably with the support or at least the lack of opposition of USCF officials-- are willing to destroy the greatest promotional weapon in the history of chess, the traditional title match, so as to tighten their grip on world chess.

You have my views.

Yours, Larry Parr

Following was the editor's reply.


Dear Larry,

Thank you for your views, which I will consider posting.

I am in basic agreement with you, which is not surprising since what I wrote was opposed to FIDE's fast new time control, and you are probably right that I conceded the media and sponsorship advantages to fast time controls too hastily.

When I said that the faster time limit tends to be more popular with the media, I was thinking of a live broadcast. In this area, popular opinion is that it is easier to sell a TV network on a half hour or hour game than a six hour one. This may not be proven but makes sense, since networks have other programming they may be reluctant to supplant.

The common notion too is that the public prefers "action," relatively frequent moves, to having players think for a half hour or more on one move at times, but I would agree there is probably insufficient evidence to confirm this view.

With programming moving increasingly to the internet, the issue of competing with network shows becomes less important. And even if faster time limits draw a larger audience, and I'm not saying this case is proven, it is possible they do less to promote the game. The spectator who likes most to watch the human drama of the players squirming under severe time pressure is, quite possibly, a poorer prospect for enrollment into the world of serious chess than the one who prefers the challenge of trying to figure out what the next move will be and enjoys lengthy commentary on chess strategy.

There is also the matter of who is playing. If a chess show is basically instructional and features relatively minor Masters, the audience will have little interest in who wins, and far more impatience would be caused by a six or seven hour game than if the world's best were involved.

Also, the media means more than just a live broadcast. Very important is news coverage, which can augment its audience. Here the longer time control, producing something more substantial and meaningful to cover, is superior. It also results in reports saying "the game is on" while it is in fact still going and can be viewed.

Even more important is the length of the final match, and here is where the new FIDE format hurts chess the most. When world title matches lasted 20-24 games and went on for two months, a continuing drama was provided, somewhat similar to a whole season of a game like football. Matches were often close, causing the excitement to build. Many people would not hear about the contest, or decide to follow it, until game five or ten, but there was still much of interest remaining. Today, most people who are not serious chess addicts hear about the match for the first time when it is already over.

Among the general public, there are probably a fair number who still remember names like Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal and Petrosian because they played so many games in world title matches, but who outside the chess world knows the name Khalifman? Probably even some USCF members are not aware he was FIDE champion, and most could not name the opponent he defeated in his final match.

Of course, part of the problem is that FIDE's championship is no longer the only one. And the shortness of the FIDE matches makes it less likely that the best player will emerge on top. And some of the best don't play for various reasons. But the worst thing about the FIDE event from a promotional standpoint is that it is over too quickly.

Even Kasparov-Kramnik was too short. I was busy with other things and even though I knew the match was coming, by the time I became aware it had begun and took the time to find its website, things already looked almost hopeless for Kasparov. I have a friend who is a strong player and likes to follow major events in the chess world, even though he has not played in a tournament for about 20 years and no longer receives Chess Life. When I told him that Kasparov was two points down, he was amazed, having not even heard there was going to be a match.

Had Kramnik emerged from a semifinal match of reasonable length held well in advance, as in the good old days, there would have been more awareness that a final match was coming. FIDE has the semifinal, but it is too close to the final for public awareness and interest to build, and both are too short.

Also, having a champion defend his crown tends to be more interesting to the public than a match tournament in which the titleholder can be eliminated before the final match. Team sports don't do this, but the composition of teams changes, so it wouldn't be appropriate. One sport that does use the concept of titleholder vs. challenger is boxing, and even though that sport has been plagued with even more competing world organizations than chess, one thing they all agree on is that having the champ defend his title means more viewer interest than a match tournament in which he can be eliminated early.

Bill Goichberg homepage