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Chessic Concentration - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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April 19th, 2003


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11:00 pm - Chessic Concentration
Slightly unusual way to spend a Saturday afternoon: listening to chess. Specifically, there is a part-time radio station called chess.fm which has a few hours of chess programming every week, most shows repeated three times on weekdays. They also do occasional live commentary on important tournaments and it is the latter which has been keeping me entertained today.

Specifically, today is the eighth round of nine of the amusingly-titled "Hunguest Hotels Super Chess Tournament". This is set to be perhaps the tenth or twentieth most important chess tournament this year - hardly the World Championship, but not completely trivial. There are ten players in an all-play-all round-robin, four of them being interesting, two being half-interesting and four rather dull. The tournament is taking place in Budapest, explaining the national bias of the line-up - five Hungarians, three from neighbouring or near-neighbouring countries and the last two still haven't had far to travel. Your four interesting players are:
  • Viktor Korchnoi, 71 years old, originally Russian, twice challenger for the then-undisputed World Championship, but emigrated to Switzerland. 20-25 years past his peak, but still world #60.
  • Nigel Short, 37 years old, British. Challenged Kasparov for the World Championship in 1993, which was the first time the World Championship split. Peaked at world #4, so a slightly unusual title challenger; got smacked down hard by Kasparov and never really recovered. Has been wandering the lower reaches of the world top 30 recently, more interested in olive farming and his beautiful wife and daughter.
  • Peter Leko, 23 years old, Hungarian. Had a reputation for excessive draws, even compared to the chess stereotype, but has recently improved in that regard to the point where his recent wins have propelled him to world #4. He won the Dortmund Candidates tournament which theoretically places him in the semi-finals of a structure to find the unified world chess champion; the winner of a Leko-Kramnik match is set to take on the winner of a Kasparov-Ponomariov match to create a single unified world chess champion. At least, a single unified world chess champion until the next time.
  • Judit Polgar, 26 years old, Hungarian, by far the strongest female chess player ever to the point where she left the Women's World Championship long behind. She broke into the absolute top ten or so in late 1995 while not even twenty years old, which was sensational even outside the chess world; unfortunately, she couldn't sustain her form. She has never fallen far behind the top ten, though, and has recently been playing as well as ever to get back into it.
The two borderline interesting players are Sergei Movsesian (24, Slovakian, currently world #35 and a possible future top ten) and Boris Gelfand (34, Israeli, world #16 having reached the top five); the four others are German Christopher Lutz (world #52) and Hungarians Peter Acs (world #100), Ferenc Berkes (nearly top 100) and the wonderfully-named Zoltan Almasi (world #25).

In the seven rounds to date, Nigel Short and Judit Polgar have each won three more games than they've lost - Short three wins without reply, Polgar four wins and a loss - to lead the tournament by a full point from Peter Leko and Sergei Movesisian. Today's line-up included the tournament's one game between its two current leaders. I tuned in to follow the action 45 minutes after the start of the game; by then, Nigel Short had built up a theoretical slight lead (a better defensive position and two bishops as opposed to a bishop and a knight) and the question was whether he would be able to capitalise on this early advantage. The next five and a half hours so far have gone along almost exactly the same lines; Judit has made no further mistakes and Nigel has been playing extremely cautiously to try to press the advantage home.

The time limits in place will ensure the game goes no longer than seven hours and we're now into the final 20 minutes or so of the seventh hour. Currently Short has the material advantage of a (rather useless) second pawn on the b file, plus a well-placed and active bishop compared to an extremely defensive knight. More to the point, Short looks like being able to queen his white h-pawn in safety while Polgar's black pawn on f2 will surely be snapped up by the bishop if it ever gets to f1 to promote.

I've mostly been listening because of the coverage that's in place. You can follow the game as a guest for free on the Internet Chess Club; I suggest you use the Java EasyChess Interface and log in as a guest. Be sure to change the "Chat" option in the bottom right to "Command" before you issue the "observe" command to join the room, otherwise you'll look silly.

(Oh, and the game has just finished. Short didn't make any mistakes and Polgar finally resigned. Good. Both players probably now need a long bath and a stiff drink; one might expect to see very short, gentle draws from them both tomorrow. As a result of this big win, Nigel Short will finish at least joint first in the tournament even a draw tomorrow will mean he wins alone.)

I don't regard myself as a chess player; I know the rules, but I've certainly played fewer than 20 games throughout my life, quite possibly fewer than 10. I'm neither particularly interested in two-player games nor in all-skill games; I'd much rather play Scrabble or Entropy. Nevertheless, I am as much a chess fanboy as I am of any other sport - after all, I'm the only LiveJournalist to list the domestic chess league (the 4NCL) as an interest - with my own barracking hierarchy. Specifically, in any tournament, I will shout for, in descending order of preference:
  • Anyone I've met and liked.
  • Anyone who's British.
  • Anyone who's got a reputation for being a bit unusual, a bit eccentric or female. (All seven segments of that particular Venn diagram have entries.)
  • Anyone who's got a reputation for playing aggressively.
  • Whoever poses less threat to overtaking favoured British players in the ratings list.
  • Anyone I've met and disliked.
The major reason I've been tuning in all day is the audio coverage on chess.fm, though. We tried this sort of thing for live chess matches about three years ago when MSO Worldwide employed me; we used to have live board updates with GM text commentary throughout the major tournaments and we tried giving a live audio broadcast with commentary from the Oxford-Cambridge chess match one year. Unfortunately the pages with our audio commentary seem no longer to be available, which is a shame. (The page with our coverage survives, though. I am informed that there is a picture of at least half of me from that day in either the British magazine Chess or the British Chess Magazine. You can see me next to GM Julian Hodgson in the commentary room.) Accordingly chess.fm's live audio broadcast brought back sweet nostalgia.

So what was chess.fm's coverage like, then? Well, really pretty terrible. :-) Their main commentator live was one Tony Rook (pseudonym?) and they had International Master Mark Deisen joining in from over the phone, which made the audio quality of his comments really quite poor. The main reason I am so negative about them is that neither of them are natural presenters; they had very little vocal animation, very little sense of wit or style, weren't even very good at recapping the situation for latecomers and had few halfway entertaining jokes or stories. On top of that, about once an hour, they played a 7¼ minute long commercial break, full of really bush-league home-made commercials, almost all read out by main host Rook. The pièce de resistance was a parody song called "Take Me Out To The Chess Game", sung badly and played at about 150% normal speed for jollity - or maybe to minimise the distress. It was painfully, *facepalm*ingly bad. My favourite chat room put-down was "all the stoners are falling over laughing".

Now this is the point whereat I suspect I can have been very little better at audio commentary myself; I have serious respect for anyone who has ever made money as a radio personality, particularly if they were paid to talk and entertain on-air for hours at a time. It's really not a trivial job. However, I find it hard to believe I could have been as weak at explaining things and going over the basics as Rook and Deisen were. Unfortunately, unless we can find an unexpected archive of our commentary, I guess I'll never know. However, I do remember that GM Julian Hodgson was excellent - impassioned, thorough and communicative. Admittedly he has had experience of this before; having been one of the three commentators on the Channel Four coverage of Kasparov-Short, he is known to be one of the very best at what he does and accordingly he charges a handsome daily rate for this kind of work. I also recall he opined that Robbie Williams was very underrated. I disagree only to the extent that anyone who has had as many #1 hits as Robbie can hardly be regarded as underrated.

We only provided audio coverage on one day, though we did live move updates and text commentary on two or three other important matches, which were successful in their own way. No Julian Hodgson, alas, but we did have a couple of Norwegian chess GMs in the company who would liven things up, mostly by (a) being sarcastic about the players, about other chess sites and about pretty much everyone and everything and (b) the expedient method of talking about things which weren't to do with chess. (Oh, and we also had sound effects in the chat room.) I think we managed to get audiences of perhaps fifty for a few games - not bad, but hardly the sort of number to set the world alight. The story of our site's life, really. Happy memories all the same, though.

So what's the state of the art in live chess coverage? Not really all that advanced - not actually much more advanced than the way it was three years ago. The world's most successful English-language chess site, The Week In Chess, were always too sane to try their own live coverage. Everyone in the sector likes The Week In Chess. Admittedly the quality of Mark Crowther's writing often leaves a little to be desired, but he wisely concentrates his efforts on the administrative side that he does extremely well. Furthermore, his sponsor (London Chess Centre proprietor Malcolm Pein) is very generous, very sensible, avoids conflict and keeps his nose clean. This was somewhat annoying at the time. Now admittedly Malcolm Pein did go to France to present a weekly Internet TV chess show experiment which was ambitious and short-lived, but wasn't actually too bad other than having a microscopic resolution. Does anyone other than me still hum its theme tune?

Among the other well-known chess sites, Kasparov Chess burned and died spectacularly. It was a horribly designed site, though one with two very good writers. Happily Jeff Sonas went solo with Chessmetrics and Michael Greengard's own project, ChessNinja, has a "Daily Dirt" section which is effectively a very good and very gossipy chess weblog. The Brain Games Network? Dead, dead, dead. FIDE itself has a site which has died and been reborn more times than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but is currently running quite modestly. Now admittedly the MSO don't do anything ambitious like live chess coverage - or, indeed, any sort of coverage - any more, but I still permit myself an occasional round or two of "I'm Still Standing" like Elton John when we look at some of the former thorns in our side. It would also be incomplete not to mention that the Internet Chess Club always was the only place where the real pros ever hung out and remains so to this day; likewise, The Chess Cafe is still going from strength to strength and Spanish site Ajedrez 21 looks like they have done well. They always had extremely good live coverage - probably the world's best - and seem to be funding themselves along the lines of the ICC, except with greater internationalised global appeal.

The favourite compliment that the MSO ever received was from Scandi site Schacknyheter (Swedish for "chess news") who rated us #1 in their "Topp 10" above most of those famous names in October 2000. We were really getting somewhere then. But even Schacknyheter have really slimmed down these days...

The little niches like Chess Variants tick by, the British Chess Magazine site remains an adjunct to the mag and Chess Today's model probably works. However, I think it's not unreasonable to conclude that on balance chess on the Internet hasn't gone forward in the last two years or so; more dramatic failures than steady successes.

Admittedly, chess.fm would be really quite good for a hobby service, even though it's yet far from a professional standard. I'm going to tune into chess.fm on a weekday to try to sample their regular programming and listen into live coverage they have in the future to see if they ever get any better. (Be warned, they aren't doing live coverage of the last round of the Hunguest Hotels Super Chess Tournament tomorrow because it starts at 5:30am EDT.) After all, chess.fm do have plenty of bandwidth and some nice burly servers which managed to stay up throughout the game, which was better than we ever achieved.

Furthermore, the voice of their main host comes across clearly because they evidently use quite a nice studio. We know this fact because they admitted that they had only booked it until 6½ hours after the start of the game, choosing to discount the possibility that the game might actually reach the fourteenth and final half-hour. Now admittedly this does appear to be a very safe bet, but today's abortive broadcast proved it to be a false economy. I bet they hadn't predicted that they really would have to close down the coverage for the day before the game they were covering had finished. Ha!

Happy birthday to buffymaraschina!
Current Mood: nostalgicnostalgic
Current Music: chess.fm

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From:mrstrellis
Date:April 20th, 2003 05:05 am (UTC)
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