Reporting on Chess for the First Time? Don’t Panic

A useful guide on how to report on chess by Dylan Loeb McClain, journalist with more than 25 years of experience. He was a staff editor for The New York Times for 18 years and wrote the paper’s chess column from 2006 to 2014. He is a FIDE master as well.

Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion, smiles after passing security during the round 8 of the 2016 World Chess Championship Match

Welcome to the World Chess Championship! If you are a journalist who has never written about chess and you do not know a Scholar’s Mate from a Sicilian Defense* and you have trouble figuring out how the horsey moves, don’t worry. We can help. In fact, chess is a great topic, not just as a game, but because there are so many ways to write about it.

(Explanations of the terms mentioned in the first paragraph can be found at the end of this article.*)

A little background might help. Chess is a 1500-year-old game that was invented in what is modern-day India. (The original game had some differences, like elephants instead of bishops and not all of the pieces moved the same way, but those are just details). The game spread through Persia (modern-day Iran), before entering Europe through the Iberian Peninsula sometime in the 9th century. From there, the game spread far and wide, soon becoming the most popular in Europe and even becoming part of the chivalric code in some countries (in other words, a real knight had to demonstrate prowess in chess). The current rules of the game were codified at the end of the 15th century in books written in Spain and Italy.

Today, Yougov, the polling and research company, estimates that about 600 million people know how to play the game and chess apps have been downloaded more than one billion times. Chess has made the transition from ancient “game of kings” to modern fixture of the Internet-age seamlessly. Indeed, as chess lends itself to being played on the Internet, there are now many Internet sites where people play regularly, day and night. In short, the game is more popular than ever.

Further proof of how the Internet has affected chess is that the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, 27, is from Norway, a country with little chess tradition. But, growing up, Carlsen always had access to competition, which allowed him to rapidly perfect his skills. He became a grandmaster, the highest title awarded by the World Chess Federation, at 13 — one of the youngest ever.

Carlsen’s challenger, Fabiano Caruana of the United States, is also a product of the Internet age. He is 26 and learned to play while growing up in Brooklyn — the same borough in New York City that produced Bobby Fischer, the last American to play for the World Championship. (Fischer beat Boris Spassky of Russia in 1972 in a contest dubbed “The Match of the Century” that literally transfixed the world as it took place against the backdrop of the Cold War.) Caruana became a grandmaster just before his 15th birthday and, since then, has been seen as a likely challenger to Carlsen.

Carlsen and Caruana are currently ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the world. So, the upcoming match will be the chess world’s version of Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier.

Magnus Carlsen, the world champion, actor Adrian Grenier, and Sergey Karjakin at the Opening Gala of the World Chess Championship match

Some people assume that chess is for nerds and geeks, but it has star and sex appeal, as there are many celebrities who play and love the game. Among them are the actors Will Smith (who took private lessons for many years) and Woody Harrelson (who came to the first day of the 2016 World Championship in New York and spent the entire day playing in the VIP lounge); the actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger (who includes the game in the Arnold Classic, an annual sports festival); Ken Rogoff, the world famous economist and best-selling author (who is actually a grandmaster!); Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist (who like Harrelson, also spent a day at the 2016 World Championship hanging out and playing in the VIP lounge); Howard Stern, the shock jock and radio personality; and Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal, who is a master and also spent a day in the VIP lounge at the 2016 World Championship.

Woody makes the honorary first move during the Carlsen-Karjakin Match in New York City in 2016

Okay, chess has its celebrity side, but what else can be said about it? Well, it touches on areas of the greatest human endeavors because it has elements of being a sport, a science and an art form. (Chess players and fans have long debated if one of those fields is more dominant, but it is safe to say that all of them are part of the game.) The competitive aspect of chess is clear and that is the reason that the results of tournaments and matches have long been covered in the sports pages of many European newspapers.

Chess’s relation to science is also well-established and important. For decades, the goal of building a computer that could play chess well enough to beat the world champion was seen as a good measure of the Turing Test (after Alan Turing) for artificial intelligence. Even after Deep Blue, a computer developed by I.B.M. beat Garry Kasparov in a six-game match in 1997, chess has continued to be used in scientific research into how the brain works.

As for the artistic element, chess players will often talk about “beautiful” moves or combinations and there is little doubt that there is creativity involved in developing plans of attack during the game. As Marcel Duchamp, the great 20th century artist once said, “Not all artists are chess players, but all chess players are artists.” (For a time, Duchamp gave up being an artist to devote himself to chess and even became a master.)

Pages from the Masterworks, designed by FUEL and published by World Chess

In addition, there is a long history of craftsman and artists (including modernist masters like Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray and Damien Hurst) designing beautiful chess sets that stretches back hundreds of years. There are several books about such sets, including one called “Masterworks: Rare and Beautiful Chess Sets of the World,” which was published in 2016 by World Chess, the official organizer of the World Championship.

Sport, science, art form — what else can be said about chess? How about that it is an educational tool! Learning chess has been found to have educational benefits and schools, school districts and even an entire country (Armenia) have added chess to their curriculums. Hundreds of thousands of children play chess in schools across the United States and in chess academies in India. With so many children playing chess, many of them in tournaments, there are likely to be some human-interest stories, like triplets who are chess champions.

Chess also has a connection to business, more specifically to Wall Street. George Soros, the legendary investor, is a passionate fan and has often had Carlsen over to his house to play. He is by no means the only one, as The New York Times explained in a 2011 article.

Those who are still searching for ideas about what to write about can perhaps find inspiration among some of the serious journalists who have taken a serious interest in the royal game. Charles Krauthammer, the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who died earlier this year, wrote at least one column about chess for many years.

Dominic Lawson, who is himself an expert, conducted a series of interviews for BBC Radio, called “Across the Board,” while playing chess with his interview subjects.

And Stephen Moss, a top feature writer for the Guardian, has written extensively about chess, including in a 2016 book called “The Rookie,” about his efforts to improve his play.

By now, you probably get the point. But if you are still unsure, come see us. As for what those terms were in the first paragraph: *The Scholar’s Mate is a four-move checkmate often used against beginners, the Sicilian Defense is one of the most popular defenses used by Black when White opens with the pawn in front of his king, and the horse is actually called a knight and it moves in an L-shape.


This article was commissioned by World Chess, the organizer of the World Chess Championship. If you are a journalist, you can get accreditation to the World Chess Championship Match which starts in London on November 9, 2018. Visit mediakit2018.worldchess.com

The official site for the World Chess Championship is worldchess.com/london. You can follow the tournament live starting November 9.


Correction: Fabiano Caruana’s age was corrected. He is now 26, not 25.