Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

In conversation with Kaja Snare: coverage, commentary, changes and challenges in chess

Posted on 9 September 2021 by Madhavan Ramanujam

There are two principal misconceptions about top level chess players. The first concerns their IQ. As chess is a strategy based game combining memory, calculation, concentration and pattern recognition among others, many assume that its masters must possess a level of intelligence that mere mortals can barely comprehend.

In a podcast with cricketer Ravi Ashwin earlier this year, former world champion Viswanathan Anand dispelled this myth: “Chess players are fairly intelligent. But at the same time it is a specialized intelligence. Chess players are really good at chess. In a week, if a kid plays two hours of chess, he will learn stuff at school faster. But if he plays 20 hours of chess, he will become a better chess player. That’s all.” 

The second misconception draws from the first. Considering the complexities the sport has to offer, to scale its heights, one must understandably dedicate every waking hour from an early age to it. 

However, linking this to a mass compromise in social skills as a group would be a mistake. While it may be partially true for a few, obligatory descriptions of elite chess players as ‘troubled geniuses’ belong to a bygone era. 

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Covering Chess

Chess journalist, commentator and sports director at PlayMagnus Group, Kaja Snare explains:  “I think many would be surprised when it comes to how social most of them are. We often stay at hotels, the media and the players, and sometimes when the tournament is finished we will all be sitting down at the bar and someone has a chessboard. Then the players will come over and play some hand and brain (a variant of the game played in pairs where one selects a piece and the other moves it) with us for fun.” 

The rise of streaming has helped in this regard as well, with modern players being comfortable at elucidating complex moves, lines and variations for the benefit of the general public.  

All this has made covering chess a far more enjoyable proposition than it was even a decade ago. But on the subject of interviewing the top guns, Snare, who covered a variety of sports like handball, football, cycling and tennis before switching to chess in 2014, makes another interesting observation. 

She added: “In all the big sports, when you interview the big athletes, they are all going to be driven by PR teams. So they all answer in a very similar way. You can almost write it down before you do the interview! But chess players don’t really have these PR people behind them. And so they are very honest.

“And that’s for good and bad actually because if they are angry, you have to make sure you don’t ask any Yes/No questions because they will answer in Yes and No. You have to prepare the questions a little better but they will always be honest.” 

Unfiltered emotion

However sometimes after a difficult loss, and understandably so but regardless of the question’s merit, players are unable to switch into media mode right after. That was the case in the FTX Crypto Cup this May, as after losing to Teimour Radjabov, World Champion Magnus Carlsen gave a post game interview for the ages. Speaking to Snare, Carlsen said ‘I blundered and he played well. Thank you. See you tomorrow’ before unilaterally logging off. 

Speaking on the moment, she says with a chuckle: “I’m always looking for the emotion, as that is what I want to give the viewers. So when Magnus does suddenly log off, we try to say ‘Wow, that’s how upset he is.’ He did it with some sort of humor as well which is very typical Magnus. I think it’s all about capturing the honesty of his emotion right there. He’s upset and that is a cool moment for TV.” 

Certainly, the lack of formal media training for all chess players up until the current generation has made for some hilarious moments over the years. 

“I was working on the Tata Steel(Chess Tournament) once and (Vassily) Ivanchuk was playing there. He finished and we walked to where the cameras were to do a live interview. On the way I made some small talk and asked him ‘Are you happy with the game?’ and he said ‘Yes yes I played like this and this etc.’ We reached the live cameras, I introduced him and said, ‘Okay, how do you feel about your game today’ and he said ‘I just told you.’ So I had to save it on live camera saying something like ‘Yeah we just talked about it but can you tell the viewers!'” recollects Snare. 

Representative commentary

Grandmasters partaking in two hour long ‘banter blitz’ sessions and live streaming games on Twitch has followed in the steps of a decade long rebranding of the game. Audiences unfamiliar with chess jargon have been accounted for, in an attempt to change its implicit esoteric nature. An example of this has been the coverage of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour. Hosted by Kaja Snare in a spanking new studio at Oslo alongside GM David Howell and WGM Jovanka Houska, board notations (c5, Qe2 etc. ) are conspicuous by their absence. 

“It was absolutely a very conscious decision. We are trying to make chess TV for normal people. We want it to be normal sports coverage like you would watch in football or basketball on a Sunday. That’s why it’s so important to stay away from notation because it’s so easy to fall out when you don’t understand the chess board. I’ve been very strict with David (Howell) and Jovanka (Houska) about that.” 

“In the post game interviews, the players start using notations and we bring up the analysis board to show what they are talking about.  Sometimes I interrupt them asking them to slow down but it is hard to get the players down to my level! But normally, I try to ask more questions about the emotions than the thought behind moves, as they could go on for five minutes without anyone understanding anything.” 

With post game press interviews in many sports resembling an exercise in secrecy, chess has managed to provide a refreshing amount of originality and emotion, albeit sometimes at the cost of audience alienation. But with media savvy players and commentary crews designed to better integrate audiences of all ELO ratings, following a complicated game starring complicated protagonists may have never been simpler.