Another Chess Boom?

With the release of Pawn Sacrifice, the movie about Bobby Fischer and his journey to the 1972 World Championship match against Boris Spassky, people have asked me if the film will reignite the general public’s interest in chess. It’s the same question many people asked when Searching for Bobby Fischer was released decades ago. While Searching for Bobby Fischer, the story of Josh Waitzkin, did do some good sparking a general interest in chess, we’ll never capture the interest in chess that Fischer brought about in 1972. At the time, I was living in New York and as a twelve year old, saw the impact he had on the United States.

At that time, Americans had an unhealthy interest in the cold war. I say unhealthy because it was a war fought using print and television as its primary weapons and most people became obsessed with those “Communist Russians.” Obsession can be very unhealthy, especially when it’s driven by fear and fear was the watch word of the day. It was us against the Russians and the idea that a single man would go up against the Soviet chess machine proved irresistible to Americans. Who doesn’t like a fight in which the underdog wins?

As the match between Fischer and Spassky drew near, the nightly news reported on Fischer’s demands and speculated as to whether he’d even show up to play Spassky. Chess equipment sales went up overnight. Everyone, especially in New York, seemed to be discovering chess. When Fischer touched down in Iceland and the match began, bars who normally had sports showing on their television sets instead had the match on. Fischermania was sweeping the country. A chess boom was born. Chess clubs sprung up around the country and the future of chess burned like a bright star. However, with boom comes bust and the brightest stars burn out quickly. After Fischer won the championship in 1972, the boom started to fade away. Fischer disappeared into the realm of madness and chess paid the price.

Searching for Bobby Fischer, the story of a young chess prodigy, brought chess back into the limelight and got people interested in the game again. Parents, saw chess as a good thing for their children. However, it didn’t have anywhere near the impact Fischer’s 1972 battle with Spassky had. Rather than a boom there was a quiet pop! Which brings me to the potential impact of Pawn Sacrifice on chess.

The movie doesn’t paint a rosy picture of Bobby Fischer and nor should it. Sadly, he had serious mental health problems that people either didn’t recognize or swept under the rug because, after all, he was a ”chess genius.” When one is titled a genius they’re allowed to be eccentric because, after all, they’re genius! Fischer was an extremely complex individual, one who the mental health community could have a field day with. Back then, mental health was still in the dark ages from a clinical viewpoint. Case in point, Fischer complained during the early stages of the 1972 match that he could hear the motion picture cameras used to cover the event and this was disturbing him. Another outlandish demand by the boy genius? No, actually it’s a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. Imagine playing for the world championship and have your mind start to fall apart?

Pawn Sacrifice will garner some interest in chess but with script lines comparing chess to falling down a rabbit hole (“this game, it’s a rabbit hole”), we may find a few people fleeing from the game. Let me be clear, chess does not cause mental illness but obsession can and it’s easy for an obsessive personality to fall victim to the obsessiveness that chess can sometimes demand. If you want to truly master something you have to put an abnormal amount of time into your studies.

So what would it take to create another chess boom like we saw in 1972? A set of circumstances whose odds wouldn’t be worth the bet! Now, I’ve gotten more emails than usual about chess lessons over the last week but that still doesn’t amount to a chess boom or even a chess bang. The tragic thing about the Fischer boom and its impact on chess is that those great gains in interest have been lost simply by the passing of time. There was no great follow up moment to sustain the momentum. Yet the idea of another chess boom looms in the minds of many players.

As a chess instructor, I spend time on forums chatting with other instructors in search of effective teaching ideas. I often see postings regarding the lack of or waning interest in chess. These posters will talk about an upcoming championship match and whether or not it will help spread the game. A percentage of those posing comments about increasing the interest in chess are involved in the game professionally, be they players who live off of tournament winnings, tournament organizers, chess clubs/federations and instructors. I understand their thinking. I earn my living teaching chess. While I earn a semi-comfortable living, I worry about the future of chess because if chess was suddenly taken out of the schools here I’d have to find another career (playing guitar in a punk rock band doesn’t pay the bills).

Since the idea of another major chess boom seems highly unlikely, chess professionals should try to raise interest in the game by literally taking it to the people rather than waiting for the people to discover it on their own. The world of chess could take a few lessons from the world of music.

Let’s say you start a really great band. No one is going to appreciate how good you are unless you get out in the world and play. So, you get your band booked at a club for your first show. You use social media to advertise that show. Your band plays the show to one hundred people. They love you and tell their friends. You book another show, advertise on social media sites and three hundred people show up to your next gig. This happens because the original one hundred people that saw your first show tell their friends, spreading the word. You keep doing it and hopefully get more and more people with each show. You sell your band to one person at a time!

When I say we need to bring chess to the people, I mean exactly that. I now do chess clinics and demonstrations at non chess events that range from punk rock clubs to library events. While the majority of the people I engage don’t go on to play chess regularly, a small percentage do and small percentages, when added together, create bigger numbers (of people interested in chess). I do many of these events free of charge, investing my time in hopes of helping the game’s future. The only thing I ask of the people I encounter is that they pass what they learn along to their friends. It’s the system bands use for building a fan base.

It’s slow and steady but it’s progress in the right direction, forward. It’s not sitting around waiting for a miracle. I could concentrate on garnering more paying students but I’d rather help build a future for the game that has given me so much. What’s the point in having a career in chess if its days are numbered? Like a garden, you first have to plant seeds if you eventually wish to smell the flowers!

Chess can be a tough way to make a living. It’s just like music and being in a band, you have to take the slow and steady course, nurturing your future . If you want to see a bright future for the game you love, plant the seeds, tend to them and you’ll have something to harvest later on. Bring the game to the people rather than waiting for a set of circumstances that probably won’t happen. I sometimes take my guitar and go busking, not for money but for my love of playing. Go take a chess set to a coffee place, set it up and ask if anyone wants to learn the game. You might make a few new friends and keep our beloved game going well into the future. Get out there and do something. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).