Friday, August 17, 2007

Once a journalist, always a journalist

Howard Goldowsky stopped by the New England Masters tournament on Wednesday and filed this thought-provoking, "informal" report:
I stopped by the Peabody Holiday Inn yesterday. I don't have a formal report, but what struck me was the complete isolation in which master-level chess tournaments are played these days. The Monroi was in full swing, everybody was following the games online, and there were no live fans on-site. It's a sign, I think, of just how niche chess has become (or always was). There was Alex Shabalov, by one criterion the best player in the United States, skillfully performing his craft, without a single fan -- not a single one -- there to appreciate it. There is a form of tension that develops between OTB players that doesn't get transmitted over the Monroi, and can only be felt in-person. If a position on a computer screen exudes tension, then the tension at the physical board is multiple times higher. This is why I mourn for the lack of fan presence; but like you, and hypocritically enough, I also had to get back to work, and I could not stay long. My entire stay lasted about 20 minutes. Alas, we all live, in some form or another, a slave-life.

Here are some mini observations about the tournament:

There were a number of photographers present. One said she was taking pictures for Chess Life. Another, whom I chatted with over the Monroi chat feature after I got back to my office, said he was taking pictures for Chess Horizons. Thus, the photographers outnumbered the fans two to one (the lone fan being me).

Brad Bournival looked his image of the 20-something entrepreneurial-gambler. Yesterday he was wearing an untucked, oversized Philly Flyers jersey. He looked laid back and confident at the board, very low-key and likable. I was surprised that I actually felt a connection to his style. If I was still doing interviews, he would be a prime candidate.

Nigel Davies was one of the oldest players, and he dressed the most conservatively with a button-down dress shirt. There were some other conservative dressers too, notable some of the foreign players, but most of the kids (and I say kids because most of the players seemed to be under 30) were dressed in shorts, T-shirts, and comfortable summer attire. The laid-back dress code was a striking contrast to the serious tension filling the room.

For your more salacious readers who like to read about strong female chess players, Liz Vicary appeared even skinnier in person than she does in her pictures. A significant length of her forearm could fit within the diameter of a half-dollar coin.

Shabalov was wearing a T-shirt, and appeared calm at the board, like the champion he is. Board 1, where Shabalov sat, used a nice wooden set and board. All the other boards used standard plastic pieces and vinyl roll-up boards.

Dave Vigorito is a tall, solid man with a physical presence. I imagine that he becomes intimidating when he leans over to examine his pieces. Liz Vicary has stated online that Vigorito is her coach. Before Round 4 started, Vigorito said a few words to Vicary (who was sitting at 0.5/3 points at the time), and then he went to his board. Little moments like these I find fascinating (as a former chess journalist). What does Joe Torre say, after he takes a trip to the mound, to the promising rookie pitcher who just gave up 3 runs without an out in the first inning? What words does the boxing trainer give the aspiring prize-fighter between rounds? This type of inside reporting is sparse in chess magazines and in sports magazines in general.

In a sad turn consistent with the proliferation of chess over the Internet, chess seems to be suffering from "science textbook syndrome." In science textbooks we see pictures of the "great scientists" along with short biographies and technical explanations of their contributions. In chess, we see pictures of the "great players" in magazines and get some technical annotations (sometimes from the player, but often not). The learning and the appreciation is all done second-hand, in an idolized way. Or, it's being done voyeuristically on ICC. In reality, the masters playing in Peabody (and elsewhere) are just normal, laid-back guys and gals who happen to play chess well. Yes, some are eccentric (and so were some scientists), but most are not. They all have their promotable qualities; yet, the public and chess fans never get to interact with them much except online. Without getting to know these players as people, chess fans are missing out.

I wanted to talk more with the TD, Chris (something) [ed: Bird], ask him about what it's like to use the Monroi system, what it's like to begin organizing master-level competition in New England, etc. It's great to see a tournament like this in our neighborhood. I admire the TD's dedication to chess, and people like him should be celebrated. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to chat. I asked him if he had an extra Monroi device to play with, but he said no. I am very curious to see how those things operate. What I'm wondering is if players bring their device with them when they get up from the board (or go to the bathroom), so they can study the position away from the board. Some players -- Max Enkin included -- were not using the Monroi. I also noticed that the "old-timer" Nigel Davies was not using it, either.

I wish I could write more, but, like yesterday, I need to get back to work.


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