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On Chess: Chess makes move as next spectator sport

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2013: If Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan ever decides to completely hang up chess, he should be comforted to know he has a future in golf. Maybe not as a player – I haven’t even seen his backswing – but certainly as a commentator.

I realized this on a Sunday afternoon a couple weeks ago, sprawled out in the same sunken spot on my couch where I had lain for hours, still unshowered and in my underpants. I don’t even play golf, but that’s definitely how I watch it.

I took in the U.S. Championships of chess as I do the Masters. The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis recently converted its basement into a production studio and broadcast the national tournament out to tens of thousands of the game’s fanatics around the world. While America’s best battled upstairs in the tournament hall, high-tech boards with micro-chipped pieces sent positions to viewers instantly, as they happened.

And I relished Yasser on a lazy Sunday the same way I do Jim Nantz. Seirawan, a four-time U.S. champion himself, took in each move and offered opinion on what those upstairs grandmasters might be thinking, showing us his thoughts as he clicked around his own digital analysis board. Alongside Women’s Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade and Grandmaster Maurice Ashley, the three highlighted key squares and hot pieces, tossed in the occasional arrow of attack, and broke each game down to a level that any woodpusher could understand.

As if commentating on anything isn’t difficult enough, both Seirawan and Nantz have it even rougher. In both chess and golf, talking is not just frowned upon, it’s considered downright rude - almost jarring. Yet these men have to talk over their subjects for hours at a time. I admit that I write only because I can fit both feet in my mouth, and I acknowledge that what those two possess is an extraordinary skill.

But at least Nantz majored in broadcasting. Yasser is just naturally good at talking; the man is a storyteller. The following is truth: I took a private lesson from him once, and he wound up telling me one of Aesop’s Fables – the Fox and the Grapes. How he tied that in with the secret of the position we were looking at, I won’t release. But I will admit loving every word of it.

Toss in the knowledge of a career nearly 40 years long – complete with a voice like butter – and you’ve got yourself a great afternoon on the couch.

Hearing Seirawan as the voice of U.S. chess is exciting. Even more so this year because FOX Sports Midwest was along for the ride. In this new age of niche entertainment, where we can sit around in our underpants and watch poker or perhaps the spelling bee, the regional sports network has offered chess its rightful at-bat.

Months before the best chess players in the country hit the Central West End, camera crews were following those superstars around in their preparation of the nation’s biggest tournament. Captured was a showcase beyond the square board, a glimpse inside the life of those who play games at the highest levels.

Combined with footage of the tournament, ultimately complete with play-by-play analysis of Seirawan, Shahade and Ashley, the ageless competition’s first hour-long special is now airing to the masses.

The recap first appeared on May 25, but will repeat through the next three weeks.

  • Thursday, May 30 at 5 p.m.
  • Saturday, June 1 at 8 p.m.
  • Wednesday, June 5 at 5 p.m.
  • Saturday, June 8 at 7 p.m.
  • Thursday, June 13 at 11 p.m.

You should set your DVR and let me know what you think about chess as the next spectator sport. 
Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.

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