A monumental sporting event is taking place in New York City this month. No, dear reader, I refer not to the start of the season for my beloved New York Knicks (though who couldn’t fall in love with the lovable Latvian string bean known as Kristaps Porzingis?). I’m actually talking about the World Chess Championships, hosted in the Big Apple, and it features two of the brightest stars of this generation, Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin.
Carlsen has been hailed as “The Mozart of Chess.” The handsome, well-spoken 25-year-old has dazzled his opponents at the board since he was 13 years old. The reigning world champion takes on 26-year-old Karjakin, another former child prodigy who has risen to his current status in chess by means of his sharp tactics and aggressive attacking skills at the board. Together, the two are the first participants in a world championship match to have been born and raised in the 90s, in the digital era.
Chess, a game of slow, drawn-out moves, is beginning to move into the digital age. Games have long since been broadcasted (even ESPN has hosted a few), but interested parties now have the chance to watch the game from mediums such as Google Cardboard (virtual reality chess!).
I’ve written about the status of chess as a sport/non-sport before, and along with that, it’s interesting to see the evolution of sports from non-marketable to heavily marketable products. Even the NBA, for example, had its ups and downs before becoming a household staple – NBA Finals games in the late 1970s/early 1980s were shown tape delayed at times, after the live games had already concluded. Now, of course, NBA games (and the finals especially) capture the attention of fans worldwide night in and night out.
It’s a strange thing, watching a sport evolve in my lifetime from something watched by a gathering of old men in an auditorium to a global affair that can be watched from a phone, computer screen, or household VR device. While organizations such as the NBA and NFL have long been attuned to the power of live streaming from anywhere in order to captivate an audience, FIDE (Federacion Internatiole de Echecs, the world governing chess body) seems to finally be catching on.
The “purists” of chess may argue that making it so marketable cheapens the sport. But just as many grumbled at the introduction of baggy shorts to basketball where short shorts had been the norm, only to see them explode in popularity, it’s clear that these kind of jumps take time. Indeed, for chess to be viable as a 21st century sport, this appeal to the masses is necessary and arguably long overdue.
Despite dipping its toes in the vast ocean of modern technology, chess has a way to go. The barriers to enjoying the sport I’ve grown to love are obviously quite high. Basketball (another one of my true loves) is an easy sport to appreciate, even from someone with little understanding of the game – it is hard not to marvel at the athletic feats that players such as LeBron James and Steph Curry put on night in and night out with dazzling dunks and awe-inspiring accuracy in three-point shots. Watching Carlsen make a decisive sacrifice, which required calculations of dozens of variations and sub-variations, is appreciable to relatively few.
Whether or not chess can earn widespread recognition as a “sport” remains to be seen. But the question remains: who exactly determines what is and what is not a sport? If something is not readily consumable by the masses, does it not meet the standard of a sport? Or is there something intrinsic in what it means to be a “sport,” something indefinable by you or me, something that chess may have?