May 19, 2012 22:02

Why chess will never be popular

Why chess will never be popular

One of the good things about the Anand-Gelfand World Championship match is that it generates a lot of debate on some essential points: what’s the proper format to determine the best player in the world; should chess always be spectacular; does computer-dominated professional chess have a future; and what’s the market value of chess anyway?

Spectators watching Anand-Gelfand in Moscow | Photo by Anastasia Karlovich

It’s interesting to follow the reactions to the match so far: nobody seems to be talking about the non-chess playing audience anymore – surely they have switched off long ago and can no longer be convinced to follow our beautiful game. Now, the main question seems to be whether the players should try to please the existing chess fans, or if they should just play ‘their own game’ and not give a hoot about who’s watching.

Garry Kasparov raised the point that World Championship matches have always been the place where fundamental changes to the game originally started: having less time on the clock to make 40 moves; abandoning game adjournments, etc. He predicts more changes to come, such as the introduction of FischerRandom chess, and he implicitly suggests that this match, with six draws so far, might speed up these changes. Perhaps he’d forgotten about his own match with Anand back in 1995 which started with eight draws, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be right.

Garry Kasparov giving a press conference during game 6 in Moscow

A more interesting question, of course, is whether these changes were somehow justified at the time, or even now. Kasparov’s own position is ambivalent, as he admits himself: on the one hand, many of these changes made sense (such as the abandonment of game adjournments due to the rise of computers), but some of these changes undoubtedly decreased the overall level of play.

The measures currently proposed, such as the introduction of the 'Sofia rule' into match play, will generate similar debates. This rule in particular is aimed at pleasing the audience, as have many rules under Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s reign. But a question seldom asked is this: why does the ‘audience’ need to be pleased in the first place? Why has the ‘audience’ become so sacred?

If you think about it, playing ‘for’ an audience doesn’t make sense at all from a chess player’s perspective. I, for one, don’t know a single amateur chess player who himself plays for or cares about an ‘audience’ – so why do we expect the world elite players do behave differently?

Boris Gelfand looks at photographers and spectators | Photo by Anastasia Karlovich

The obvious answer is because we’re paying them to do so – but are we really? In general, sponsors are paying the players – but it would be foolish to assume they actually care about the quality of play. They care about exposure of their brand or, in some cases, their own egos. Of course, FIDE also has a stake in making sure the players get properly paid, but demanding that they abandon their personal style in favor of risky play would border on totalitarianism (which, unfortunately, isn’t too far off the mark in some cases.) 

Another answer is that professional chess players have a moral duty to entertain us, the spectators – it comes with the job, so to say. Again, this seems a rather artificial argument to me: like normal employees, most chess professionals choose to play chess because they like it and are good at it. In short, they need to make a living – they don’t do it primarily because they see themselves as artists or are fantastic crowd pleasers.  At best, they want to prove to themselves that they’re better than their opponents – and as audiences usually love a good fight, they should be eager to watch this at any rate.

In the end, the problem seems impossible to solve: it’s a Catch-22 situation. The aim to please the audience has already destroyed many beautiful aspects of chess, inevitable though it might have been. Chess is not destroyed by computers, but by people who say it will be. The fact is that chess will never appeal to people who don’t appreciate the intense effort and satisfaction of trying to come up with the right move, even if it’s a dull one. This is precisely why chess is such a great game, but it’s also precisely the reason why it will never be popular. So let’s stop pretending otherwise.

Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Mike Hunt's picture

the usual bs from Moll wasnt yourlast article saying everyone appreciate draws, the contest etc...blah blah blah. Do come on next time and embarrass yourself please.

arkan's picture

Did you realise your previous article ''in praise of draws' was elitist and wrong and is this an attempt to soften it down somehow?

Manu's picture


Al Hughes's picture

Good piece. Twelve game World Championship matches and an undisputed crook for president of our game's governing body. It's all going swimmingly, isn't it? How many of us chess fans have managed to convert even a single one of our non-playing friends to a love for the game? There may be a lesson there.

Zzzzzz's picture

Poker is not so boring.

Remco Gerlich's picture

I don't think I agree (at least I watch a lot more live chess than live poker), but obviously poker is more exciting for non-experts.

It's exciting because the viewer can see the cards but that players can't, the player knows someone is bluffing but the players don't, the percentages involved can be shown on screen, and basically it's a very simple game once you have full information.

It's much harder to actually follow a chess game. A commentator can say that white can't exchange queens here even though he wants to because of , but the viewer must be able to understand that line to appreciate the game.

Al Hughes's picture

Nicely put. BTW, you're much more likely to get a blitz game out of a GM in a card-room than at a chess club. I got half a point out of Simon Williams once in a French. I think he felt sorry for me. :)

victorhdiaz's picture

People who compares chess / pòker deserves prison. Its almost like compare books / PC games.

Pablo's picture


Niima's picture


rdecredico's picture

The whole point of comparing things is that if they are alike there is nothing to actually compare.

The concept of 'compare and contrast' makes it perfectly reasonable to compare poker and chess.

Apples v oranges, a comparison:

Both are:

~ spherical
~ fruits
~ have seeds
~ make juice
~ have sugars
~ have skins
~ grow on trees

and on and on

step outside the mental box you been living in.

Lee's picture

Lets be very clear.

Live (incl. unedited) poker is incredibly boring. Hours of seeing no hole cards is mind numbingly dull.

Televised poker were an 8+ hour session is distilled into 40 minutes of highlights for viewing is however very entertaining.

chris's picture

i agree, its a matter of the masses ability to focus. if you haven't noticed its get pretty bad out there.

darkergreen1327's picture

I see the point and discussions after this games. And I can not blame the two players! But it also depends on to the players! I enjoyed Anand-Kramnik and Anand-Topalov matches so much! And that does not mean Gelfand is the issue! The way Anand plays for couple of months is also not so tempting too. So, no one complained about the games or the system earlier in Topalov-Anand and Kramnik-Anand games. So it is not only about the system or computer-based preps. etc.

adriano's picture

Do not forget that Gelfand is not Kramnik or Topalov

mishanp's picture

"In general, sponsors are paying the players – but it would be foolish to assume they actually care about the quality of play."

Yep, that's what I always think when people bring out the sponsor argument (oddly often used by chess officials who've made absolutely no attempt to find commercial sponsorship in any case). "Exciting" chess essentially looks exactly the same as "dull" chess to non-chess fans - e.g. (although I think that article gets much better into the spirit of the event than much of the chess press!)

In this case the sponsor is an almost lifelong friend of Gelfand's, so I'm sure he understands what it means to Boris and wouldn't have preferred Anand to have scored a few wins by this stage...

Bronkenstein's picture

Mishanp , TY for that ´glance from the outside´ link , interesting stuff.

EJ's picture

Great post, Arne!

hansie's picture

+ 1

Isildur1's picture

+ 2

Jan's picture

It's not the players and not the sponsors fault. Moll has a point that there is no real sollution.

But a good step: just abandon the matchformat for a world title. A tournament format would put the players under more pressure to go for a win. In a match, a draw is seldomly a problem. In a tournament it can be.

fe. Four players, 12 rounds. Every player plays the opponents 4 times.

Anonymous's picture


Remco Gerlich's picture

For those of you on the side of "they have a moral duty to entertain us", at what level of play does that duty start? Is a 2600 allowed to think only of his own interests and let the audience be damned? 2750? 2300? Where's the threshold?

Bronkenstein's picture

´...The fact is that chess will never appeal to people who don’t appreciate the intense effort and satisfaction of trying to come up with the right move, even if it’s a dull one. This is precisely why chess is such a great game, but it’s also precisely the reason why it will never be popular. So let’s stop pretending otherwise.´

An excellent point , simply reducing to nonsense all those silly football/boxing parallels and similar ´arguments´ . PS You will make lots of kids angry ;)

Ians's picture

I'm glad this article is posted because i think it raises interesting points since there had been a lot of disappointment at the WCh so far

The 2 arguments of the article are that chess needs not be appealing to a wide audience , and that chess should not evolve according to the desires of the majority , but instead according to the desires of the professional players

But IMO this view is not taking into account the promotion of the game and the fact that the less people will watch , the less money chess promoters will be risking to invest for the future

Secondly , this view also does not account the fact that the majority of the people who desire some changes are actually chess players , not necessarily active professional players in majority , but not strangers to the game and its history

If the sport wants to survive and if you want players to make a living out of chess (i'm not talking only about the top 10 players ) , it's crucial to appeal to the majority of the chess players

Thirdly , since a few years , computer preparation has taken a new dimension , with programs that can never be beaten anymore by humans (revolution) , computer prep now goes so deep that it's not uncommon that many games look like a battle of memory rather than creative thinking over the board (players are paid for a performance ) , If even Grandmasters considered introducing Fischer random chess , it means there is some kind of issue surely ?

If we look at the main criticisms and proposals of the audience so far , they all aim to make chess more competitive and alive than it is

- most want a more thorough candidate tournament
- a longer match
- rules to try to limit short draws (or simply scrape the draw offer )

So hardly cataclysmic changes , nor changes that would affect the quality of the games (on the contrary ) , although i would personally support a Bilbao system where making a draw is not a good result because it is worth 3 times less than a victory , so this has direct consequences on how professional players would prepare for a tournament or a match , the choice of openings and strategy and secondly it can have a positive influence on future generations (who will have even stronger and deeper prep ) , since IMHO the challenge in our time is How to keep the "human element" in chess , the doubts , the risks , the creativity , the psychology , how to safeguard this at the highest level whilst keeping the game attractive and exciting , and prevent the game from sinking into anonymity ?

And if we keep the status quo , how would it feel like if in 50 years from now , you would count on the fingers of you hand the GM who would make a living out of chess ?

If we look at all sports , they all evolved and had their rules evolve in modern times after dramatic changes . Chess is still an entertainment from the sponsors point of view , i don't think it's wise to neglect this aspect , the players have short term (results ) and long term interests (make a living of chess ) , but without the sponsors and the audience , even the top professional players are doomed .

Anonymous's picture

A very thoughtful comment. What about Yaz's S-Chess?

Gert's picture

In contrast with most of you i think chess can be popular but it needs some time modificantions. Why not go to a game of 40 moves a hour followed by a qpf of 14'. I remember that in 1972 they even talked about chess games in ordinary pubs!

Zarathoustra's picture

To beat Anand, Gelfand should inspire himself with this link:

Ians's picture

" For those of you on the side of "they have a moral duty to entertain us" "

I don't know anybody who ever claimed that , this is a rethorical trick to caricature those want some changes

What has been raised by many is the need for the format and rules of chess to reflect the modern needs in our 21st century which are threefold :

-need to encourage creative and fighting chess (in the computer age )
- the need to make of this high profile chess events a success ( good prize fund , good organisation , good media coverage , all linked ) , -- the need to keep the chess community united and dynamic to ensure long term viability of the game ( as opposed to what happened in the past where chess world was split , but of course keeping the community united , you need consensual rules )

John's picture

12 or 16 Game Match. Only wins count. Winner must have at least 1 win. Ties, both players declared co-champions. Winner(s) has to go thru candidates process and at least qualify in order to defend. If no qualification, top two candidate qualifiers play for championship.

Lee's picture

" In general, sponsors are paying the players... They care about exposure of their brand or, in some cases, their own egos."

If no-one is watching a tournament sponsored by such companies/individuals, brand exposure and ego inflation will be zero and so even that sponsorship will decline or disappear. That would be very dangerous for professional chess.

"In the end, the problem seems impossible to solve."

So you've given up on the popularisation of chess then. It's not clear to me after reading the article why such a defeatist piece was posted. I myself am a little more bullish of chess and its ability to become more popular. A change in attitudes would help and it seems you're unwilling to adapt or compromise at all to see changes in chess to try and address this issue.

You're right on one thing though - it's not the players responsibility to make chess exciting. The accountability for that belongs to the administrators of the game.

KWRegan's picture

People need to remember that the previous three WC matches were all compelling fights over-the-board, even Elista. Give Anand and Topalov special credit for Sofia 2010. Toward that end I agree with Kasparov, except for preferring the "Non-Random" version where players initially alternate putting pieces behind their pawns one at a time, which gives Black a little help by committing last. This basically marries Bronstein's "baseline chess" with Fischer's castling rule, and is described under those terms on Hans Bodlaender's "Chess Variants" website.

cip's picture

It's not the problem of chess. It's the new generation of 'fans'. Their definition of spectacular play is different.

A game is spectacular if it has inaccuracies. People follow a game online and watch the evaluation. They want to know the winning move and check if the GM finds it at the board. Plus, they like to see blood and sweat. Decisive results and long thinking times - to make sure the players are Human. They also want to know who is the 'best'.
This WCh is not giving them this kind of satisfaction.

A different kind of chess fan used to form the majority in the past. One who would follow the game over the board, at home, when he got the newspaper or magazine where the game was published. He would maybe analyze the game himself, try to guess the moves. The joy was in trying to understand the thinking of GMs. Maybe go to your club and employ some idea you've just learned.

Chess is a beautiful game. Please, let's not forget that!

Ians's picture

Good post , indeed Chess is a wonderful game as it is , the current rules works well when both players show exceptional fighting spirit like we've seen in the previous Wch since Elista (and perhaps we'll see it in the last games of the Gelfand-Anand match as well )

But i also believe chess can get bigger in term of exposition and popularity , and even if we don't change the rules , we have to encourage this fighting spirit at the board somehow IMHO

Anonymous's picture

The issue is not so much its popularity, but when will chess be "played out". This, of course, will only impact professional level chess, not amateur chess.

cip's picture

Not really. If the game becomes mathematically solved, the multitude of branches such a solution must have, would make it impractical to actually learn every move. People will know some lines very well, but can still be surprised and then would have to react on their own.
In fact, it is not much different from the point where we are today.
For example, the King's Gambit has been 'played out'. But, I can still play it and so can Vishy, even against Gelfand, as long as Gelfand is surprised and hasn't memorized the complicated lines. At some point, Gelfand would start making moves on his own. The reason why Anand doesn't play the KG is that Gelfand is probably strong enough to find the best moves on his own.

But anyway, chess between humans will always be a relevant and worthwhile activity.

Paul Janse's picture

The King's Gambit has not been 'played out'. That was a brilliant April Fool's day hoax by ChessBase.

cip's picture

Ha! Wow... I obviously never really cared to check. Why did it seem so plausible? Shame on me. But the point stands.

GeneM's picture

cip wrote:
"If the game becomes mathematically solved, the multitude of branches such a solution must have, would make it impractical to actually learn every move."

Chess will never be 'solved' in the same sense that checkers is solved, and chess endgames are solved with tablebases.
But before the year 2100 I suspect that more complex approaches will be developed to "solve" chess.

For example, it might become possible to prove, almost Monte Carlo style, that entire classes of dull queenless positions have no variations that can force either color into a losing endgame position.
Practical certainty might be achieveable algorithmically, without having every best move stored in a ginormous database.

Septimus's picture

There seems to be some gaps in the logic here.

Sponsors will flock to any event that is followed by a large number of people. Does this not imply that it is in the interests of everybody involved in chess to generate some excitement about the game? How can you generate any excitement if you keep making short draws?

Remco Gerlich's picture

You don't sponsor chess to get your brand more known in the world, you sponsor it so you can invite business relations for expensive meals in an atmosphere of intellectual excellence. The actual moves aren't important to the sponsor.

Manu's picture

If not even the greatests enthusiasts of the game consider this match a duel between the best players of this game, why would someone else give a flying pawn about it?

cip's picture

because these two worked hard and fought through what I would consider epic opposition to get there...

Quentin's picture

I agree 100% on this comment . A lot of players were trying to get their hands on the million dollar prize fund to both winner and loser :)

chandler's picture

Great article!! Thank you!
Dilution of arts and sports is a trend seen everywhere; the audience gets dumber causing the art/sport to go dumber.
Greater the need for intellect, the more the dilution.
Thus we see T20 in cricket becoming popular, and test cricket disappearing; F1 has been diluted to remove most strategies; we can see similar trends in music and arts as well...
The Anand-Topalov match which was very "popular" was clearly of inferior quality (as is also said by elite players like Aronian).
If you want excitement visit your nearest club; the WCC is not the place for you.

Gelfand's comment on ratings is also very relevant here (but seems to have gotten less attention).

filiusdextris's picture

Elite match play in the computer database era, especially with certain personalities, is more likely to produce boring chess than 20 years ago? Why? The fight, except for a few feints, mostly begins 15-20 moves into the game, usually in a calibrated position, where with conservative styles, not much is gambled. I would much rather see the fight at move 1 with a Fischer-Random match, although I also prefer a tournament world championship format with regular chess which would reward energetic play.

I would be more willing to accept the validity of a result from a 12-game FR match between these two, than to see who can outprep whom in one game.

Anonymous's picture

Have you looked into S-Chess, introduced by Yaz?

RandomMan's picture

If I were an organizer, I would organize a Wijk aan Zee-like event with RandomChess at Classical time control. Invite the top 10 in the world and see how it fairs.

GeneM's picture

RandomMan wrote:
"If I were an organizer, I would organize a Wijk aan Zee-like event with RandomChess at Classical time control. Invite the top 10 in the world and see how it fairs."

I say - Discard the "Random" from Fischer Random Chess!

Pick exactly one new start setup from chess960, then stick with it for a couple decades.

Let us watch as a new MCO of opening theory grows from infancy to maturity.
Heck, let us all contribute, with each of us having a chance to invent a new opening or early opening phase variation.

The "LetsCheck" feature of the latest Fritz would assist this situation astonishingly well.


Quentin's picture


I agree with getting rid of the "Random" in Fischer Random Chess.

I like the concept of having a tournament where a position is picked and then used throughout the whole tournament. Hopefully Fischer Chess will pick up.


Latest articles