Don’t Mourn the Passing of the New York Times Chess Column

This is a great chance for the Gray Lady to bring its chess coverage into modern times.

Photo by sapfirr/Thinkstock
For years the New York Times’ chess column has been but a pawn in a larger world of coverage of the game.

Photo by sapfirr/Thinkstock

“This is the final chess column to run in The New York Times.” That succinct sentence was appended below Dylan Loeb McClain’s column this past Sunday, which dutifully summarized the results of a major tournament in Baku, Azerbaijan. McClain’s final two sentences: “His position collapsed quickly as his counterplay dried up and he lost two pawns. He soon resigned.”

Apparently, the Times’ decision to kill the chess column isn’t quite final. “We are considering eliminating the chess column in order to keep freelance costs in line,” Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon. “A final decision for the column (on all platforms) has not been made yet.”

Should anyone, chess fanatics or otherwise, care if the New York Times cuts its weekly chess column, as the Washington Post did in 2010? Not really. As a format, the weekly newspaper chess column is archaic, yet another in the infinitely long list of things rendered obsolete by the Internet. I’m with former world champion Garry Kasparov, who tweeted: “Few will mourn, even as a symbolic loss,” upon learning of the Times column’s apparent death.

Weekly newspaper columns were cherished sources of hard news for America’s chess fans in pre-Web days, since even major tournaments were ignored by the U.S. press. One of the best was grandmaster Robert Byrne’s Times column, which ran from 1972 to 2006. Byrne, who died last year at the age of 84, was a fantastic player, reaching No. 11 in the world at his peak. His writing style was straightforward, lacking much spark but full of authority, opinions, and firsthand anecdotes stretching back to the 1950s. That Byrne was simultaneously making and chronicling chess history meant the column never lacked a strong voice or a reason to exist.

Fast-forward to the present day, where every major tournament is livestreamed—yes, with webcams on the boards and players—and anyone with a laptop can access more information, photos, videos, data, and opinions on the chess world than could possibly be digested. That 1970s or ’80s tournament that thousands of American chess fans would learn about 10 days later from a Times column is now available live, for free, to anyone who cares to watch, with analysis and comments by endless grandmasters in multiple languages. For instance, most of McClain’s last Times column focuses on Fabiano Caruana’s game with Peter Svidler at the Baku tournament. But you can find annotations by a grandmaster, who is a much higher-rated player than McClain, along with seven professional-quality photographs, at the site ChessBase. And that article was published several days before the Times column.

If those who know enough about the game to understand the diagrams in a newspaper chess column can access thousands of times more information, free and instantly, than a weekly column could possibly provide, then why run one at all? The answer is that most weekly newspaper chess columns don’t need to exist and won’t in the near future. The one exception: when there’s an excellent writer and chess professional at the helm, someone like Robert Byrne.

McClain, who succeeded Byrne in 2006, is not that writer, nor are the chess columnists for the Boston Globe and Washington Times. A master-level player, McClain competently and correctly recounts the most noteworthy events of the past week in chess. His summary, though, is essentially interchangeable with any number of others you can find online. McClain and his Globe and Washington Times counterparts may conduct a few telephone or email interviews here and there. Still, you’d learn more about what’s going on in chess this week by following the world’s top players on Twitter.

What would a relevant, interesting weekly chess column look like in 2014? Here are the three essential characteristics.

  1. It must be written by someone who is deeply involved in the chess world. Summaries of information that is already available online won’t cut it anymore. And since newspapers can’t afford to send columnists around the world to cover these big events firsthand, you need someone who’s already there.
  2. They have to be world-class players, either past or present. Most likely past, since you won’t find too many active top players willing to spend playing and preparation time writing a weekly column for a general audience. But a great player’s personal experiences and ability to draw comparisons with players and games of yore is as essential to interpreting current chess events as it is in any other game or sport.
  3. The person needs to be an engaging writer, highly opinionated, and preferably a bit of a character. Chess readers want informed, strong, and amusing opinions on events in the chess world, not just the who, what, when, and where. Experience writing a weekly column is a huge plus as well.

The Times, then, has two options for its chess column: Go big, or go home. Either shutter it altogether, or hire one of the two best English-speaking chess columnists and have the best chess commentary in the world. Those two candidates, who fit the above criteria precisely, are:

Lubomir Kavalek: A 71-year-old Czechoslovakia-born U.S. grandmaster and a world-class player in the 1960s and 1970s, Kavalek wrote a dazzling column for the Washington Post from 1986 to 2010. After he was dropped by the Washington Post, Kavalek’s column went to the Huffington Post, where it has resided since. Kavalek’s columns sparkle with unexpected and fascinating dives into chess history—history that he both witnessed and made. In one recent essay, he compares current world champion Magnus Carlsen to 1960s-era champ Mikhail Tal, then recounts a personal story about Tal:

No matter how the matches were going, we would often meet with Misha after the games in the hotel pub filled with smoke from cheap cigars and talk about chess. One evening I was showing him a King’s gambit game I played in Czechoslovakia shortly after he became the world champion. I thought he would be pleased to see how his wonderful rook move 18.Re1 from his game against Tolush was interpreted elsewhere. Not so.

I didn’t even reach the key position when Tal suddenly covered the pieces with his hand and said: “Don’t tell me what you’ve played. I know what you did!” And without hesitation, the magician from Riga placed my bishop on a square where it could have been taken by the queen and bishop. It was perhaps not the best move, but it was shocking and surprising.

Nigel Short: The puckish and often controversial 49-year-old English grandmaster was the No. 3 player in the world in the late 1980s. He’s part of chess history for several reasons, the main one being that he was Garry Kasparov’s challenger for the world championship in 1993. He’s also an enormously entertaining writer who crafted a much-loved weekly column for the Sunday Telegraph for a decade, but has been without such a perch since 2006. Check out this no-holds-barred passage from a 2003 column, in which he reviews the posthumously published biography of English grandmaster Tony Miles:

As a hagiography, one cannot fault it. Indeed, there is ample testimony that Tony could be charming to—and was admired by—those who posed him not the slightest threat.

As a biography however, the book is glaringly deficient—unless you think that Tony’s well-documented mental illness was not worth mentioning. Tony was insanely jealous of my success, and his inability to accept that he was no longer Britain’s number one was an indication of, if not a trigger for, his descent into madness. His first psychiatric internment came in 1987, and he was in and (usually) out of institutions for the remainder of his days. Thankfully, there was much more to him than that.

The Kavalek and Short columns are everything that the Times’ chess writing hasn’t been in recent years: fun, dishy, and full of information that you can’t find elsewhere. So, those are your choices, New York Times: Hire Kavalek or Short, or nix the weekly chess column altogether. Your move.

Also in Slate: Last month, Seth Stevenson wrote about the state of modern chess and the amazing events at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis. And in an exclusive feature for Slate Plus members, Stevenson interviewed grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.