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Is Chess Losing Public Appeal?

Earlier today, GM Susan Polgar posted an interesting excerpt from a BBC News article that asks a very pointed question: Does anyone still care about chess? The article starts out with a recap of the global situation during the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky and it uses the subsequent Fischer Boom to paint a picture of a world obsessed with Bobby and chess. It is no secret that there was much more at stake in the 1972 championship match than the title of World Chess Champion. The United States and the Soviet Union were bitter enemies at that time and the world hinged constantly on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Bobby Fischer was a sudden enigma that emerged seemingly out of nowhere in the United States and was not shy about challenging the Soviet chess machine. Bobby’s eclectic personality combined with his almost superhuman ability to single-handedly bring down the Soviet Union’s chess dominance was captivating in a world desperately looking for a glimmer of hope for the future. The defeat of Boris Spassky in Iceland was not just a victory for Bobby, but for champions of a democratic way of life around the world.

Fast forward over forty years later and Magnus Carlsen, a young Norwegian chess prodigy has just retained the title of World Chess Champion after beating Vishy Anand in Sochi, Russia. This is where the article’s point comes into focus:

Carlsen first captured the crown from Anand only last year. But while Carlsen’s fortunes were followed in Norway by chess players and non-chess players alike, he is a less familiar figure outside the country. Coverage of his retention of the world title was scant in the British media, and it hardly helped that the denouement came on the same day that Lewis Hamilton’s secured the Formula One world drivers’ championship. In a recent episode of a British game show, Pointless, fewer people recognized Carlsen’s name than that of the 1972 champion – Bobby Fischer. This raises a puzzle. Why has the public profile of chess declined?

Although he does have some interesting personality quirks, Magnus Carlsen is not the charismatic and divisive chess personality that was Bobby Fischer. This is an unfortunate contemporary side-effect of Fischer’s victory because once he secured that victory and stopped the Soviets dead in their tracks, every chess champion after him would suffer the fate of comparison to him both in chessic competencies and personality characteristics. Magnus Carlsen is no different and the comparison of the young Norwegian to Bobby is unfair and, as far as the popularity of chess goes, is also unreasonable.

Chess has never been a mainstream sport, and it perhaps never will be. This is a realization that seems to be understood and accepted by chess players and enthusiasts all over the world. The World Championship was viewed by millions of people around the world on sites like Chessbase and Chess24. Scholastic chess events sponsored by the US Chess Federation and national federations are booming around the world. Chess has solidified itself into the psyche of world culture and has been the subject of many films such as Searching for Bobby Fischer, Brooklyn Castle, Queen to Play, Life of a King, Pawn Sacrifice and many others. In each of these instances, chess represents itself as a universal force that allows people to break down all social boundaries. Even today, I am blessed with the opportunity to play chess with a person from Iran or Germany on my computer here in the United States. When the game is on, it does not matter what religion I follow or what country I come from: the rules are the same. This is the appeal of chess. It is a challenge for the mind and can become an obsession of the soul.

It is true that chess may be losing some of its mainstream press appeal, such as the recent closer of the New York Times chess column, but chess has never relied on mainstream appeal to survive. Chess is a game that is played by lovers and rivals, kings and queens, the young, the elderly, the sick, and the dying. It is the universal appeal of chess and its effect on our lives that keeps it alive, not a syndicated television show or weekly sports update on ESPN. Chess is life in its simplest and most beautiful form.