Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On Olympic chess?

Most of the time, when I tell people I've written a book about chess, they make presumptions. This is understandable. To the majority of Americans, chess is an inscrutable game practiced by inscrutable geniuses who wear tin-foil belts and hear Russian radio broadcasts emanating from their teeth. There's a lot of confusion, and understandably so, because chess is an intricate game, but not so intricate that a novice like me--someone who never really played much chess at all before he started writing about it--can't comprehend the general idea of what's happening, of who's winning and who's losing and who's nervous and who's not and what the general tenor of the game is.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, as we Americans observe a group of men and women position forty-pound stones on a sheet of ice. The other day, I was watching the United States men's curling team blow off a match against somebody (seriously, has there been a more milquetoast Olympian than poor John Shuster? If I may get all Reilly-esque for a moment, he makes Charlie Brown seem like Norman Vincent Peale), and the loony female color commentator made an allusion to curling as "chess on ice." At some level, this felt patently ridiculous to me; so many people compare chess to so many things (football, politics, military manuevers, WB sitcom plots) that its meaning is essentially lost. Anything that is complicated and zero-sum now becomes a "chess match." I would like to rebel against that, except this is also the game's greatest selling point. This is the reason why chess continues to exist--because it is the purest manifestation of a complex, zero-sum, human endeavor.

Anyway, the other thing people tend to ask me when I tell them I've written a book about chess is whether I imagine chess to be a sport. I find this question irrelevant. To me, chess is a competitive pursuit, and I find that I'm generally interested in any competitive pursuit, though some obviously interest me more than others. I also know that I've spent eight hours in a hotel ballroom during a chess tournament, and while it's true that chess is not, and could not, be classified as a "physical pursuit," it is also true that any mental pursuit, engaged in for hours at a time, naturally leads to physical fatigue. Therefore, I would argue that chess is as much a sport as golf. I would even argue that chess is as much a sport as curling, and, given the proper broadcast team and presentation, could also be just as fascinating for a broad television audience.

So: Why not open up the Olympics to competitive chess?

All right. I can hear you laughing. But come on; how many Olympic sports have become Olympic sports simply because they are physical pursuits disguised as sport? The reason people enjoy watching curling rather than snowcrossdancing or skiboarding is because it incorporates actual thought; when I watch a curling match, it feels like doing Sudoku or a crossword puzzle. At least I'm using my brain, and that should count for something, especially at a sporting event that rests its reputation on such lofty ideals. Why shouldn't the Olympics be as much of a mental pursuit as a physical pursuit? Why shouldn't one of the oldest and purest games in the world command our attention once every four years? It might not be as physically draining as cross-country skiing, but it might actually be more exciting.


WCS said...

This is an excellent idea. I want pre-match TV features, narrated by Chris Connelly, in order to emotionally attach me to certain players (like your book did). Without a real investment into the players, watching entire chess matches might become boring to non-chess enthusiasts.

WarningTrack said...

I like it, though liking it precludes me from hating on all the "sports" that have already found their way into the Olympics, and I'm always loathe to give up a good opportunity to bitch and moan.

It would, however, fundamentally alter the nature of the Olympics, and open them up to lots of other things. As silly as some of the sports are, they've still stayed very physically strenuous, and chess definitely crosses a major historical line that has been, technically speaking, not yet been crossed. Even if Ice Dancing is horrendously stupid.

All that said, yes, it would be very interesting and fun to watch.

Then again, if it's done with enough major backing and given a lot of pomp and/or circumstance, I'd be all about an Olympics of the Mind to showcase things like chess and other intricate games. THAT could be a lot of fun, if taken seriously enough right out of the gate.