Journal of the Emerald Specter 57: What Does That Look Like?

I have talked many times about how a chess club that I played in around the fifth grade was the greatest chess memory I had. I have also talked many times about how I would love to recreate that in a more adult manner (by which I mean toned down and changed to actually work for adults). I have also talked many times about how I have tried to start up “online clubs” to get this ball rolling, but now is the time to look at what I’m saying and evaluate.

This column will be mostly, if not entirely, about this recreated chess club.

Part of the reason I’m going to write this is to actually write down what I’m talking about and part of the reason is to show me whether or not this idea will actually work as I envision it. Expect a definitive result when this column is over, because the second part of this is to see if talking the hell out of it will actually show me that I’m completely out in left field with this idea.

Instead of rehashing the story as a whole and then talking about how to adapt that, I’m going to include the snippets of the story in and amongst the rest of the talk. Enough talking about talking about it, let’s just start this shindig.

Chess is a game that is accessible to anyone. As long as you have the basic pieces and a board, you can play the game. Hell, there is even a way to play the game by just using pencils and paper to move your pieces… I’ve even done this myself when a board wasn’t available! What I’m saying is that anyone can learn the basics and play the game.

Those who study the game in detail are the ones who rise above the others.

You can look at me and claim that American football is accessible to everyone. You can say that hockey is available to anyone. Basketball, tennis, and even baseball are all accessible by everyone… supposedly.

Unlike all those sports, chess is available for anyone who puts forward an effort. Those sports? They all require some athletic gifts to rise to any “decent” level. Sports have barriers that genetics can actually block.

Chess does not. If you really apply yourself to the game, you can go from a beginner to a “club strength player,” which has different meanings as far as a rating goes… but the point is, chess is open to anyone who puts forth the effort, regardless of genetics.

When I was taught the game, I fell for every single trick that my teacher wanted to use on those who didn’t know any better. The Scholar’s Mate? Yes. Losing both rooks because I tried to bring them out early? Yes. The queen trap where the opponent gets the queen out early, takes out a ton of important pieces, and really decimates me in the process? Yes, I’ve fallen for it all. I would say we all do, in the beginning.

I would go so far as saying that my rating in the early stages was an average of 600-700, which for anyone who knows would realize that is low. I was ten, so it was acceptable. I kept pushing to figure out how to get better, and that meant playing more games.

What I’m hoping for in this “new age chess club,” which I’l hereafter refer to as the Internet Chess Experience (or ICE for short), is that we bring in people who are interested in learning the game and helping them to build up their playing strength. ICE should be a gateway for anyone wanting to get into chess with a presentation that is more “excitement” than “professional chess.”

Some of the games that were played early on were just between about four or five of us, with two of the players being heads above the others. As someone who was a big fan of the WWE back then, I saw the opportunity to try to convince everyone else that we could structure this like professional wrestling and work some fun into this new game that I learned.

To my surprise, when I brought up the idea of championships, everyone went all in. I wasn’t the only wrestling fan and they all saw that they could have fun doing this, too… so we created a “World Championship” that was won by one of the two strongest players in their initial playoff. I’m going to call this the Gold Championship, because there would be more championships to come.

At the age of ten, as most of us were, we didn’t know about the world of professional chess. We weren’t aware that Garry Kasparov was trouncing the competition in the “real world” as the World Champion, competing in (and dominating) tournaments all over the world. We weren’t even having tournaments, we were just having “single games” against one another.

Our enthusiasm, to read “smack talk matched with a fast paced chess game,” emboldened a few others to join our little group to bring us up to a much deeper level of competition. That influx of new players allowed me to teach someone, take advantage of them in the same ways I was initially prey to, and then help them become a better player in the process.

We had enough new players come in that we created a “secondary championship,” which I’ll call the Silver Championship. The best players would compete for the Gold Championship and the rest of us played for the Silver Championship. Joining the top two players were only a couple more, and even those new “strong players” were a far cry from the playing strength of the two top guys.

Back when this was going on, someone in the WWE who was vying for the World Championship wouldn’t bother with the Intercontinental Championship because they were “above that level.” Those guys who were too strong to play in the “pool” for the Silver Championship didn’t necessarily get much better.

This is where I need to take a sidebar to explain that we didn’t play in tournaments. Yes, I said that already, but that meant we weren’t having multiples of games against the exact same people over and over again. Magnus Carlsen, the reigning World Chess Champion, plays his top rated opponents (the ones who would be top contenders for his championship) more than ten times a year. Every year.

Without us in the fifth grade chess club doing tournaments over and over again, we didn’t have that issue. If the top guy, our Gold Champion, wanted to defend his championship, he made a deal with the competitor that would be a challenge and a good match via handshake to compete for a “title defense.”

(Another sidebar, somewhat related to the topic. I’ve avoided using the word “titles” to describe championships because titles in chess refer to something different. Titles are Grandmaster, International Master, FIDE Master, etc. Championships are different. Knowing this, if I slip into using the word “title,” I’m referring to the championship. Americans use the word to describe championships, despite that not being correct. Carry on.)

What I’ve described so far is a two tier system, where the top tier “headline” our little events and the second tier filled out the rest of the event. Our events, by the way, were named in epic fashion and would be promoted by all involved to those who didn’t have a match to be a part of them. Chessmania, Battle on the Board, and Knightmare were just a few of the events that pitted several of us against several of the rest of us.

ICE would have to remove the constant, annual tournaments that pit the same players against each other over and over again. So now, I’ve discussed having single matchups that focus on two players rather than larger tournaments that happen often. I’ve even suggested that ICE use the “two tier” system. Let me elaborate on these points, starting with the tiers.

This ICE idea would need tiers of competition. Because I understand that there is a vast difference between a 1000 rated player and a 1600 rated player, I’m suggesting we have at least four tiers, if not five. The top tier would be the “best of ICE” level, where you’re noticeably stronger than the other tiers and shouldn’t be competing “down to the tiers below.” ICE is about improving as much as spreading the game to others. Using chess terminology (i.e. pieces), the tiers could be King, Queen, Rook, Bishop, and Knight. I only suggest using five tiers because the Pawn level would be the “developmental pool” that doesn’t get to be appearing on events.

Ratings are another thing that would have to disappear. If players see John Doe is 1623 and Joe Smith is 1419, then the expectation is that John Doe will win (definitively). That vast gap means less when players are rated 2400-2700, but one still looks at the ratings expecting the higher rating to win. Spectators who aren’t deeply involved in chess analysis aren’t going to watch a 1600 face off against a 1400 because the 1600 is going to win. The tier system groups up people of a similar strength without broadcasting that their playing strength is “1600.”

Players who “sign on” for an event as competitors are also expected to build the hype for that event. If John Doe and Joe Smith sign up to play each other at Chess Fest ’17, then they should be doing what combat sports do to build that excitement: promotion.

Were you interested in watching Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor box? How about after they started “jawing” at each other in public, boasting, making great claims of superiority, and trying to make their fight the event to end all events in 2017? They promoted the crap out of that thing and as a result got a lot of people to put down $100 to watch the fight.

Back when the fifth grade club was running, and trying to explain the hype machine part of that in the more modern day, I would say it was a combination of professional wrestling and chess. What people read, or heard, was that the games weren’t real and therefore not worth playing. What I actually have as an example now, that works hundreds of times better, is UFC and chess… or poker broadcasting and chess.

Before I get into the angle I’m working here, let me say that taking a current event (like the FIDE World Cup) and presenting it like ESPN or the Travel Channel presents poker events would be a great way to start showing chess off. I’m going to stick with the combat sports analogy, though, as I think that the poker angle relies a lot on the network and commentators to do the hyping where the players, in my ICE example, are the ones responsible.

When the UFC signs two fighters onto one of their events, those fighters do a promotional tour and hype their fight. The UFC puts effort into the hyping as well, but the fighters are really the ones doing the heavy lifting. Each fighter claims superiority, explains how they’ll conquer their opponent, and they do this right up until the fight is over, where the actual winner stands in the Octagon and explains their opponent was a great fighter and they were happy to have fought them.

Why can’t this be a thing in chess?

In ICE, we would hold events like the UFC or professional wrestling. These wouldn’t be tournaments, or at least not all of them would be tournaments. With each tier having a championship, each tier could headline an event in a one versus one style matchup. The rest of the event would be filled with competitors battling other competitors in their tier to try to work their way into a championship match in the future. Everyone on that event card would then do as much hyping as they could to build up the event and bring in potential spectators.

I can already hear the groaning that chess isn’t a spectator sport. I even pointed out how the “poker on TV” system would work great for professional chess currently but isn’t ideal for ICE. This is the part where I tell you that professional, or traditional, chess time controls aren’t a thing in ICE. In ICE, we don’t go any slower than Rapid Chess.

Rapid chess time controls are 15 minutes for the first 40 moves, with 10 seconds per move increments added for each move. This makes a chess game far quicker than a traditional time control and far more interesting to watch. Rapid isn’t even the fastest mode of play I’m suggesting ICE concentrate on, either. I think that Blitz should be the “normal” time control, being a fixed 10 minutes per player (meaning a total of 20 minutes per game). Games would end quicker, require more action in a shorter time, and this is where the spectator part of the sport comes into play.

Draws also happen a lot less often at this level.

So now we have the ICE Chess Fest ’17 event headlined by a “two game match” King Championship by John Doe vs Joe Smith, with several others on the card in various tiers to give as much exposure up and down the ICE organization as possible. Doe and Smith haven’t met yet in ICE, have almost no history against each other, and their ratings aren’t a thing in ICE so we aren’t distracted by a number… the event happens, knowing that the next event is three weeks away and is filled with a whole card of other players in a similar situation.

Having gone this far in the column, does this sound like something that isn’t at least a little appealing?

The last thing I want to address in this column, relating to this ICE idea, is the types of players (both level and personality) that would benefit from this format.

I do not believe that a 2000 rated player or higher would benefit from ICE, as they actually have potentially lucrative careers in the rest of the chess world. That being said, there would be a personality that would also need to be present for this to work, and that would be the extroverted personality. I’m talking about someone, not unlike myself, willing to promote themselves and their playing strength against all comers in an interesting way.

Everyone is a potential member of ICE. If there is a 2000 or above rated player that is interested in joining, I wouldn’t turn them away, but they would have to get used to the style of play ICE would promote. If Doe vs Smith is scheduled in two weeks, those two shouldn’t be playing each other in any public forum before hand (as that would diminish their great collision at the event). Scarcity needs to be manufactured, a little, in order to help build the vision of what I’ve been talking about for more than 2,500 words now.

The idea is to build a place for the rest of us to play, in a larger forum, with our own setting, hyping our own games, and competing with people of a similar strength encouraging us to get better in the process.

If I’m the Bishop Champion, but I’m dominating the division to the point where all of the “best contenders” have already been beaten, then moving into the Rook Championship contention is where my goal should be and would allow those who haven’t had a chance to shine to do so in my absence.

Maybe, just maybe, if you give this proposal a consideration, the idea is worth building upon. Ideally, an event formatted in just this manner would be a good example of what I’m trying to explain and I’m hoping that this lengthy explanation lets you ponder the idea further.

I would love to hear some feedback on this issue, too.

Since I’ve spoken my peace, I’ll leave you with this as the first single topic column since I went to the Journal of the Emerald Specter format… hopefully you enjoyed reading it.