World Chess London Candidates Tournament. Round 3. IET Savoy Place. 17 March 2013. 8 players. Audience gathered around them in a semi circle. The clock is counting down to the start at 2pm. Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, ranked number 1 and rated best chess player of all time, is the first player out. He sits in front of his board, looking about 15 years old, all press lenses are on him. Did his media adviser teach him that trick? His opponent, Boris Gelfand from Israel, arrives with all the coolness of an accountant who is disshevelled from his Monday morning commute. He brought his lunch packet, a drink and black grapes. Gelfand is clearly signalling that he intends to give Carlsen a run for his money. It’s all about mind games.

Chess is war.

2pm, and they’re off. Ivanchuk from Ukraine makes his opening move, hits the clock and leaves. The room. Leaving his Armenian opponent, Aronian, alone with the board and his 16 black pieces. Other players will follow his example. They get up, stretch their legs, wander over to the other tables, have a coffee from the player “green room”, sit in the stalls. Clearly, it’s not just the moves on the board that count. In fact, those chess moves are the long awaited climax of an eternity of intense staring at the board. A chess player’s favourite playing position appears to be head in both hands, elbows on either side of the board. The picture is one of complete concentration, but with all this walking around, I wonder. Ivanchuk makes a (surprise) return to the chamber after about 10 minutes. Aronian looks up and unafraid of the peril of distraction smiles in my direction. It is the only audience interaction I witness this afternoon.

2 hours later.

The players are still walking around, keeping more active than the members of the audience, which are either listening to the online commentary or asleep. Or in my case, whispering to the chess expert beside me what that move to c4 means. “Who is winning?” turns out to be a pointless question. Some players are running out of time. No wonder if you spend over 10 minutes per move. I’m thirsty, there is no food or drink allowed in the room, and we decide to leave. As we make our way around the semi circle, no decision seems imminent on any of the 4 tables.

The endgame.

As I’m typing this post, Magnus Carlsen wins his game. They played over 5 hours.

Some observations wearing my marketing hat (and the excuse for posting on this marketing blog).

Let’s face it – chess is not a spectator sport. However, it has great potential for social media. The sheer length of thinking time between moves makes for excellent audience participation as it gives followers time to speculate about the underlying strategy for the last move, options for the next move. It’s a niche market of course. You can already follow games in a livestream with commentary. Ahead of the London tournament the players were apparently asked for approval to monitor and live stream their heart rate, to indicate the particularly exciting moments of the game. They declined this time. Would it have made the action less opaque, and chess more attractive to outsiders?

(photo credit: Roger Moffatt)

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