Journal of the Emerald Specter 87: Fixing Chess

The title is really a misnomer, sort of… I really mean “how to fix chess to be closer to a spectator sport than it currently is” and you can already see that title is too long. So, I shortened it.

I’ve got a story to tell, it’ll be less about just that sixth grade chess club (though that will definitely be included) and be more rounded to my entire chess experience. Come take a walk down memory lane as I lead up to the meaty part of the column.

I learned to play chess in the sixth grade and was part of, for lack of a better term, a chess club that ran itself like the WWE of the 80s. I call this the 6CC (Sixth Grade Chess Club). We had a World Championship for the top tier, an Intercontinental Championship for the second tier, and we had ourselves a really good time. Some of us got better as time went on and some of us didn’t.

I was a someone who got better.

Without getting into the minutia of how everything went down, I personally ended up as the club’s final World Champion before the end of the year. I took that championship into the “next wave” of the club, which was smaller and operated slightly different, but held on to the excitement we had all experienced. The new club went forward with everyone on the same level, and those who weren’t quite up to snuff for a championship run were helped to get better so they could have their own runs as champions.

We were an all inclusive and collaborative bunch.

The next wave club lasted twice as long as the first one but still suffered a pseudo-death. I wasn’t the one to end up with the championship for this transition but the guy who did wouldn’t last long into the newest club before I was once again the champion.

This newest club, which I’ll call the last club, was really composed of a hard core group from the first and second groups (because a few from each group joined) and we ran closer to what an actual chess club with a champion would run like… we had a couple of tournaments, we had some championships among the best few players good enough to hold it (I was one of them), and we ended when all but one player (yup, me) left the group.

Instead of thinking that no one was interested, you should be aware that the others left school (all of these clubs were based in my small home town) and some moved to different towns to go to different schools.

My final year of high school, I helped form the World Chess Organization (WCO), and the WCO decided that there would be a two player match for the WCO World Championship. I won’t embarrass the runner up with publicizing his name, but I won a “best of 13” by winning all 7 games.

I won the WCO World Championship on April 24, 1994 and defended it almost 10 ten times in three countries (Puerto Rico, Japan, and the United States) with contenders from over five nationalities (Greece, England, Philippines, Mexico, and Canada). The reign was not unbroken, I did lose the championship to the Filipino (and regained it). Except for three months, I was the WCO World Champion from April 24, 1994 until July 24, 2004… when I retired the championship and ended the WCO.

Now, I’d love to continue the WCO but I’m not a 2800 rated player. I’m not even a 2000 rated player. I have, though, been trying to figure out how to recapture that exciting feeling when I was back in that first chess club.

There have been many attempts to exactly recreate the chess club but each and every attempt has failed. Some times the failure was due to a misunderstanding about what the “club” was about, sometimes there was a lack of participation, and there have also been disruptors that basically sought to undermine the entire effort because they didn’t believe in it. (To that last point, why did they bother joining? I cannot answer that.

There have been a few different variations of the club attempt: straight up WWE style (again), something more akin to how boxing operates, a tournament series (akin to NASCAR), and some other options too numerous to list.

Then I made a connection with something I love that seems to have taken hold.

Merging sumo and chess, putting a time control on this that puts a little pressure on the participants, seems to have made an impact. The Emerald Specter Chess Club on Chess.com hasn’t gotten a full roster of players yet, but we’re only three events in and things are working.

The time control is a 1 day per move and if I had the time, I believe running an even shorter time control for a single day 12 times a year would probably get more steady attention.

The concept is to give an interesting competition for players who may never have a chance at a Master, International Master, or Grandmaster title in their lives. I’d like to see this go through as a bigger “organization,” modeled to have our own versions of Yokozunas (Diamond Adepts) headlining and hopefully eventually going on to do something more than they thought possible.

I’ve been evaluating what I’ve done so far and seeing what else might be able to be done with this format. Would it be popular enough to get a sponsor and maybe some modest prize money for the winners? Ideally, that would be great and then transitioning into more of a known entity… like the PRO Chess League.

The PRO Chess League took rapid chess and put a team play spin on it. Basically, this is the NFL of chess.

This doesn’t necessarily make chess a spectator sport. So, isn’t that what I told you I was going to talk about? Yes, and I needed all that to start talking about it now.

Every one of the clubs I was a part of in school had an audience for the chess matches. Every time I defended the WCO World Championship there was an audience for the chess matches. Every game played in the Chess Basho system in the ESCC has an audience for the matches.

Do you know who the audience was for each and every one of those? Chess players.

You’re probably thinking to yourself “of course, who else would be interested?”

THAT’S THE POINT.

I have been evaluating what I have been trying to do and how to make that fit into the vision of what I ultimately have been working towards.

The biggest obstacle is figuring out how to get the average joe interested in watching chess. I do not have the answer to this question and I know that is an unsatisfying ending to this column but I have learned something from all of this: if you want to build something for the masses, you need to start building for the players first.

Chess PLAYERS want some expert analysis while events are going on. Spectators that aren’t well versed in chess may not understand the analysis and are more just looking for a “what’s happening” type recap.

What else would the common person want from chess? This is what stumps me.

Part of the problem is over saturation. Magnus Carlsen, current World Champion, playing Fabiano Caruana, current next contender for the championship, isn’t big news in and of itself. Why? They’ve both played each other, I’m guessing, over a hundred times. Where’s the excitement in that?

Every active player in the top 100 of FIDE is similar. You have played everyone you’re ranked with at several tournaments already, you’ll probably play them a couple of hundred more times before your stint in the top 100 is done, and the only thing that matters is “how did that particular day go?”

The other killer for chess as a spectator sport is the time control. There is no reason to play a single game for 8 hours. Not a single reason. The PRO Chess League went with a much shorter time control and it makes the games more exciting because you know you aren’t going to be sitting around for 6 more hours waiting for a result.

Fixing these things is exactly as easy and changing the situation to elicit the results that you want. Sounds simple, right?

Do you want shorter chess games with vastly more activity? Make the time controls 15 minutes or shorter.

Do you want less drawn games? Score wins much larger than draws, maybe even going so far as to reward losses more than draws to cut them down.

Do you want to see games less frequently between the same people to make their meeting far more anticipated? That is something that would need to be figured out…

I made lots of references to the WWE style organization we used for the 6CC. When people hear or read “WWE” all they can think about is predetermined results and chair shots. There are two better references that can be made this two decades later that would be better analogies: UFC and poker.

I’ll start with poker.

Professional poker is a series of tournaments leading to a final tournament to determine the winner of the year. It’s kind of like NASCAR in the respect you have to win your way to the end, then win again at the end. The problem with poker is that you have multiple organizations claiming dominance and running their own tournaments irregardless of what the others are doing. ESPN shows the World Series of Poker, which some regard as THE championship, while Travel Channel as the World Poker Tour, which I believe is presented far more interestingly than what ESPN does. Personal preference, really.

If you’re interested in keeping the format a series of tournaments and running through to crown an ultimate winner at the end, this is definitely the scenario for you. In fact, don’t even limit the field of competitors… start the cycle out a hundred “qualification” tournaments all over the world, open to anyone. If you qualify from those, you get to then enter the next level and try to keep going from there. The field gets smaller and smaller as the year progresses until you reach a final tournament at the end to crown your champion. The later stages of the cycle are also where you’ll see the top players hang out as they’re really good at chess.

You could also use a point system to allow for advancement. Wins could be 5 points, losses could be 2 points, and draws could be 1 point. This encourages the players to actually play to win because right now “draw” is the word that you hear most often in results. The top 1024 point earners from the qualification rounds to advance into the heat of the competitions? Use the points.

Now, let’s talk about the UFC.

The UFC signs players to contracts, the best of the best in the world, to offer them a series of fights that heightens the excitement of the company as well as enriches the status of the fighters. Due to the fact that this is a combat sport, scarcity is a necessity… but the UFC doesn’t limit those who want to be really active and are healthy (see Donald Cerrone). They have multiple divisions for fighters to compete in based on their weight and they promoted the bejesus out of events to make sure they draw in the crowds.

Personally, I love the UFC and the way they do things. They get fighters scheduled to fight and let them smack talk each other the whole process, leading to the eventual fight to resolve the matter. WWE used to do this type of thing but their model is vastly different now.

This model, like the 6CC, would rely on some scarcity. In this scenario, ratings don’t matter… in fact, don’t even publicize the ratings of any of the players that sign on to this scenario. Group players in different categories so that super strong players aren’t taking on less competitive players. Behind the scenes, use the ratings to group them up… maybe in 200-300 rating point increments. Ideally, you’d allow for a little overlap per “division” so that someone who is getting better can opt up rather than be stuck in a division because they can’t find the competition to help them excel.

Yes, I’m saying keep ratings behind the scenes but don’t let the public know them. If John Doe is rated 1753 and Bill Fold is rated 1562, the potential spectators would know that Bill Fold’s chances are very low. If Art Work is the Gold Division Champion and his opponent, Jim Shoe, has played his way through some exciting games for a shot at the title, this is a scenario that would garner more interest because you aren’t focusing on the number. Sure, Art Work could be 1612 and Jim Shoe could be 1599… that could even be a selling point under normal circumstances, but keeping those numbers unpublicized makes the potential much greater (and if the players don’t know the exact strengths of their opponents, that eliminates them mentally beating themselves if their rating is lower).

Arrange matches (two game matches, one with white and one with black) to determine winners and losers. Use the point system from the poker example to keep draws almost non-existent (or use points per winning with white and black pieces specifically, same thing with draws… that would also be a winning combination to keep the draw counts down and allow for players to play for the win). Get players to “sign” for the organization to compete in so many matches, like the UFC, so that if the player wants to go on and do something else (or more traditional), they aren’t locked in for an indeterminate amount of time (but do have to participate a minimum number of games).

Hype the matches. Have the players do some smack talking about their opponents right up until the match. Even UFC fighters hug after the fight, showing their opponent respect. Chess players can do that, too. Really drive up the potential value of a, let’s say, blitz match between two championship contenders. Yes, they’d be ranked, which is another way to get them interested in smack talking and competing for ranking. The ranking and opponent’s rank could determine the prize fund (a #1 vs an unranked player might draw $100, whereas a #4 vs #7 would draw $300 because ranked players playing would be more interesting).

There is something I haven’t said in this column that would affect almost all of these ideas. Ratings are that subject.

Nothing I’ve talked about up to this point involves anyone rated higher than 2200. I’d even go so far as to say that you’re probably looking at a rating cap of 1800. The reasons for that may not be entirely obvious but they’re completely valid.

A player with a 2200 rating has a more “traditional” view of chess and would be less interested in the showmanship of what I’ve talked about. Players with 1800 ratings and up are more interested in studying games, figuring out how to improve their games, and are interested in competing for traditional prizes in traditional tournaments against other traditionally minded players.

On the lower end, players rated 1000 to 1300 seem to be more open to some shenanigans during their play. I have a regular game against a 1300-ish player that results in some fun back and forth while we play. We haven’t gone overboard with straight up smack talk but the potential is there. I’m also under the belief that players in the 1400 and 1500 range might also be willing to participate, as they’re in that “I’m not good enough for top ranked play but I’m better than casual games.”

The reason for the rating limit is to encourage those who aren’t really in any danger of winning any prizes to participate in something that will draw some attention to the game for someone who doesn’t necessarily play. I’m willing to lay money down on the bet that if you have an event (a single player v single player match, or maybe a couple of those) played at a faster time control with a whole bunch of smack talk leading up the actual games, on top of the event being promoted like a UFC fight, that you’d get non-chess players at least moderately interested. This draws attention to the game, allows players who are interested in doing something a little more on the “fun” side of the game to participate, and gives those interested in learning chess a platform to jump onto that isn’t a traditional “stuffy chess scene.”

I believe these ideas have merit. I believe that with the right group of people that a successful organization could rise up to bring chess to a wider audience. I believe that if some effort was put into these ideas that, if nothing else, could be a way for lower rated players to feel like their accomplishing something great, even though they may never reach a 2000 rating.

Isn’t that worth giving a shot?