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Monday, June 11, 2012

Tfhe Chess Shy Indian Media.

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To a person interested in chess, it’s incredible that for a game that was reportedly invented in the 6th century during the Gupta Dynasty in India, and whose first official World Championship was held in 1886 - the Indian media still doesn’t have a specialist chess correspondents or at least someone who specializes in chess reporting - especially since India’s first major newspaper, The Bengal Gazette, began publishing in 1780.

The lack of tradition in chess reporting and consequent reader and viewer illiteracy - considering that a lot of chess has been played in the last 15 years in India - is perhaps why many of us don’t realize what Viswanathan Anand had to master to beat Soviet-trained Grandmasters; how in 1995 he narrowly missed an opportunity to beat the wily Garry Kasparov, arguably the most destructive chess player in history for the world title - and the topsy-turvy road that Anand had to travel to beat Belarusian-born Israeli chess player Boris Gelfand to become the World Chess Champion.

I am not saying there was no reporting in India - just that hardly any specialist chess correspondents have been bred in India to carry out insightful chess reporting - at least in major newspapers, magazines, and television channels. There has been very little domestic investigative journalism on chess, chess players, and chess administration - though today the volume and quality of chess reporting is better as chess players have gotten involved.

But one would imagine that with India’s historic connections to the game, more than four decades of Cold War-dictated publicly documented chess craze, the macho machine versus man contests between the dazzling Kasparov and an equally smart Deep Blue of IBM, the amazing lone-warrior journey of the diffident-looking but brilliant Viswanathan Anand, and the global popularity of the game should have prompted the media to train and depute chess correspondents whenever the need arose - at least from the time of the rise of Anand as a world-beater.

What chess reporting in India lacks is nuance and is in many ways India-centric. Why, during the Anand-Gelfand match, the Indian chess reporting was almost entirely based on Viswanathan Anand? There was hardly any reporting on his chess ‘seconds’. Why was so little written about his challenger Boris Gelfand? Why were there no color pieces on the state of Russian chess? Did Indian reporting question the drying up of the long lineage of chess players in Russia? Even the reporting and writing done by specialist chess players sent from Indian lacked passion and opinion.

The problem of dour chess reporting begins from the editorial management’s table. The standard operating procedure while covering international chess for domestic and lesser-known international tournaments is that, usually, the editorial urge is to depute a sports reporter who generally files boring and uninformed stories giving no reason for a reader not to fall asleep or break mid-way through the story and turn to cricket or European league football. The British, Russian, and media in European Union countries make use of experienced chess correspondents to cover chess. Presently in India, when a major chess tournament is to be held, and if it involves Anand, publications scramble to rope in former or current chess players to report on the tournament - as The Times of India and The Hindu did while covering the May 2012 World Championship in Moscow. Apparently, no print publication could muster an in-house chess correspondent to cover the World Championship, and television channels thought it too tedious and costly to send a reporter to cover a championship from the start to finish, which an Indian had more than a 50 per cent chance to win. As has been the general trend before, equally lacking was the quality of reporting. Often, reporting on a chess game by an Indian correspondent is shallow, uninspiring, and fails to energize interest in the game.

Chess and media coverage has been more than just about selective opportunism, return of investment, and overlooking a particular sport for other sports. Knowing that the classical version of chess can be slower than the slowest tortoise or snail - holding the media by the scruff of their neck without understanding the nature of chess and how it affects media coverage is a self-serving exercise. How chess is perceived, played, and not understood are reasons enough for the media to do just enough so as to not miss out to competition. But if there is basic ignorance and illiteracy about chess within the media - how can a reader follow or understand reporting on a game?

In sympathy with a sports reporter, it is no fault of his that more often than not dozens of minutes can go by without a molecule moving on the chess board. The grand reward for a viewer after a move has been made is to again wait till the opponent moves - after yet another marathon session of stillness on a chair or worse an empty chair! For sports journalists who cover high-adrenaline sports such as football, racing, athletics, basketball, T20 cricket, and tennis, which provide instant win or loss gratification - chess can be torture, and for a sports photographer - the prospect of gazing at the same picture for long duration - it is provocation enough to reach for the nearest tie or shoelace and hang oneself.

But nothing stops the All India Chess Federation, and the media, to popularize Rapid chess in India. Rapid chess, compared to classical chess, which is akin to Test matches in cricket, is an eminently marketable format of the game - like T20 in cricket. There are some very rapid formats of Rapid chess that can make T20 match as if a granny was knitting a turtle neck. In the five-minute per player with a few seconds increment format, the moves are lightening quick - so much so that it’s only after going through the recording that one realizes why each move was made; very much like when the Spanish of German mid-fielders and forwards, through pin-point passing, conjure a footballing goal after breaking through the opponent defense in a matter of seconds.

India has no shortage of software writers and engineers, so it’s certainly not difficult to pit the best Indian super computer (Chanakya?) against the best chess talent in the country to popularize the game and challenge India’s best minds  - many of whom are waiting to be intellectually challenged.

It’s not easy to break or mold certain prevalent opinions about chess, which is often termed as a sport of the elite or too involved and lost in mental permutations and combinations that are always invisible to a viewer or follower of a game. “It’s too intellectual,” is another cast-ridden aspersion cast on chess - as if football and car racing is an indulgence of idiots and the unlettered.

It’s for this reason, that sometimes, the case of inconsistent and uninteresting coverage of chess can be attributed to editorial weighing, or tilting, of the ‘readership balance’ against chess. ‘Boring chess’ is a beat or sport that not many sports journalists take to with glee and jump in the air. An indication of lethargy in chess reporting is that one rarely comes across infographics or behind-the-scene stories related to chess strategy - except, of course, when a chess expert is writing or reporting. It is assumed that most people will not understand or want to read about chess. Surely, if Sudoku could become a rage and occupy the games section in supplements, nobody should have any issues with chess - and the Sunday chess puzzle is not enough.

Chess’s association with a ‘Board game’ falling in the category of scrabble, snakes and ladders, and Chinese Checkers, is another issue of perspective holding back people to take chess seriously - contrary to evidence that chess does not pay well being a ‘desk’ game. If only the Indian media were to report what kind of money people in the West make playing poker and bridge - both card-playing and highly cerebral and computational games, they will realize that if one has the talent its monetary realization can be from anywhere in the world.

Sometimes, reporters and editorial management want to have it both ways. There is a certain cynicism that journalists hold for uneducated sports persons, which only reveals media’s per-emptive bias against chess and more IQ-intensive sports. The same bias gets reversed on a case to case basis. This journalist remembers talking to a member of the British Press Association in Chennai in 2007 while attending an IFRA media conference. The British journalist, after gathering a few journalists around him, grandly declared that the English footballer Wayne Rooney could not read or write to save his life. While the revelation did come as a bit of a shock, the pompous Englishman’s ‘scoop’ was no reason to think that immaterial of Rooney’s reading and writing abilities, he possessed a footballing intelligence that really did not require, per se, reading or writing - provided Rooney knows how to read the score, follow his coach’s instructions, and sign on the dotted line for pound and euro cheques worth many more millions than the Englishman’s annual salary.

So if each game is unique in talent and tempo, and if entertainment is an expected by-product of a sport then chess will lose the popularity stakes every time one pitches a classical chess World Championship against a Real Madrid playing Manchester United match. But the media and sponsors can’t conclude that chess does not have viable and popular following that don’t want to devour every bit of intelligent writing and reporting on chess. If classical chess is a puzzle being solved in slow motion then it is up to the media to bring alive the drama by pictorial and graphic representation and writing how the dramatic moments were conjured.

It’s towards the future that the Indian media, Indian chess officials, and even players should look. Those who manage chess in India can take the best from the institutional infrastructure that exists in Russia, Germany, Israel, the US, the UK, and combine it with Indian entrepreneurship and raw chess talent to deepen the roots and popularity of chess in India.

Power in chess, in the future, will lie with that nation that has more powerful players produced year after year. This is the best and quickest way to take over and hold the reigns of global chess administration. And the Indian media can play its part by creating more reader involvement to create wider chess readership, and viewership, and this will develop the much-needed chess reporting tradition to document, inform and entertain chess enthusiasts and the uninitiated.

Chess is a game the decides the fate of individual power and projects that power outside the chess board leading to a ripple effect on a nation’s geo-politics like the way it did during the Cold War, and the way it will define the widening power balance between India and China - as more Chinese players start making inroads in world chess. The Indian media must be ready to chart and analyse the faltering Russian and ex-Soviet chess machine, and the upcoming talent from India, China, East Europe and South East Asia - and to do so we will not make our mark unless the front line is not populated by specialist chess reporters and correspondents to write the first drafts of chess’s soft power.
Courtesy : Sportskeeda.com