Part of Bob Morrell's "What's the Worst Move" series, a column reprint from "The Gambit", of the North Carolina Chess Association. Author: Robert Morrell. Reprinted with permission.
While many have been willing to simply attribute the recent financial losses of the LPO and Land of the Skye to the recession, there are many who wonder, given the LPO's history of profitability during past recessions, if something more fundamental is at fault. I believe this to be the case.
This is the first recession since chess computers became popular.
The chess community has no shortage of gnashing of teeth over the dangers of computers, real and imagined. In a previous column I threw in my own Cassandra about the potential for cheating in the booster section with computers. However, it now appears that the danger of computers lay not in any transcendental solution to the game's mystery, nor in any furtive consultations with pocket machines in the men's room. The real danger in the machines is economic, as computers offer a substitute for tournament level play.
Now there is no shortage of people who are surprised and or disbelieving of this idea. Given the unusual bottom up growth of chess computers (as opposed to most new technologies, which usually start at the top as the toys of the elite) it is not surprising that economic competition from computers would blindside chess organizers, who are in general from the middle to upper reaches of the ratings ladder.
When I was in high school there were only two things that got me the car: chess tournaments and dating. (No doubt Freud would have a field day with this.) Dating my father did not question, but on chess tournaments I had some explaining to do. Was it really necessary to drive two hours to play chess? Wasn't there somebody nearby that I could play? As a reply I held up my 100% win percentage in my high school chess club versus the much less impressive 60% in USCF tournaments. My dad was not a chess player, but he understood the need for competition, and he always handed over the keys.
Consider how much harder the argument would be today, since to get a good, indeed crushing game, I need go no further than the den, where two different computers can demolish me at my leisure. No two hour drive, no entry fee, no shame if I lose. I can chose the time, the strength of my opposition, and even the opening. I can adjourn, get a bite to eat, even take back blunders that "I'd never make in a tournament game." Indeed, one can ask, as my wife does often and loud every July and January, why one would even want to play in a tournament?
Not only do computers lure established players away (or give them fewer excuses to escape) but they have helped create a whole underground of C to B level players who are totally unaware of tournament chess, something that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. It used to be that if I sat down to a game with a non USCF player, I could count on an easy game. In recent years I have been repeatedly surprised (occasionally terminally so) by players who wouldn't know a swiss pairing if it bit them on the nose.
I have two different friends who play and study chess daily, but do not attend tournaments. One played long ago, but gave it up when he got a computer. He plays occasionally with another non tournament chess nut and is at least a 1700 player, if not more, considering the computers he's beating. The other was already a solid C player when I talked him into going to a tournament two years ago. His car broke down on the way up, running him three hundred dollars before he got to plop down his 70 dollar entry fee. He now has three chess computers.
That this phenomenon should remain invisible until a recession fits in with the normal patterns of technological substitutes. Compact cars, microwave ovens, and VCRs were all introduced as supplements or enhancements to existing technologies. It was only during the first economic downturn after their introduction that customers came to view them as outright substitutes. VCR's in particular mirror chess computers both in their nature and timing. While movie buffs and expert players talk reverentially about the movie/tournament experience, the average viewer/player thinks about sticky floors, overpriced popcorn, and outrageous entry fees. Both VCR's and chess computers have rewind buttons, so it's not surprising that Hollywood and tournaments were early on the list of recession minded budget cuts.
What then, are those of us who love tournament play, to do? The answer is obvious, we must recognize the competition and respond to it. There are, I believe, two aspects to an effective strategy for tournament organizers in the computer age. First, one must accentuate those aspects of tournament play that computers cannot match. Second, they must wherever possible, restructure tournament play to minimize the advantages of computerized chess partners.
The most often mentioned strength of tournament play is the social aspect. Yet even here there is much an innovative tournament organizer could do to increase the incidence of uncomputer-like commraderie and friendships. At every big tournament I have ever attended, I see players coming in alone, eating alone, sitting alone. While part of this is due to the intellectual self sufficiency that chess breeds, part of it is just due to lack of introductions. Does anyone doubt that a lot of players are dying to share their latest triumph or misery with someone else, particular when this is the one time when they are surrounded by people who could actually appreciate it? Icebreaking ideas could be as simple as signup sheets for carpooling to restaurants, enhanced perhaps by pre-arranged group discounts. Name tags are a trite but fundamental element of every group that gathers in a single place a few times a year. How many chess players do you know by face but not by name?
As for aspects of computer play that tournaments could emulate, several come to mind. Floating tournaments offer the flexibility (and the rest of the weekend) that those of us with families and lawns often need. The computer's ability to "dial a rating" is also a great advantage over your standard weekend swiss. In five rounds you are likely to play at least two, sometimes three games where your opponent's strength is so far above or below you as to make the game seem meaningless. One answer would be to break at least the lower sections into more narrowly focused ratings groups. Filling 30 to 40 man sections would give more even games, clearer finishes, and as an aside, guaranteed prize money, since entry fees in each completed section would cover its own prize funds. The size of the overall purse would vary with the number of sections filled.
Obviously there are many more ways to improve tournament life than those sketched above. It should also be noted that a helter skelter approach to the problem could be even more damaging. Consider Detroit' knee-jerk response to compact cars: the Pinto. Too much change too fast can well... bomb. The key is for tournament organizers to realize that they no longer have a monopoly. Players can now turn elsewhere for a good game, and barring organizer's attention to the problem, will do so. Organizers should look at all aspects of their tournament with the question, what do I provide that the player cannot get anywhere else, and how much of what he does not want is he willing to put up with to get it? With a clearer image of who their competition is, and a clearer image of what they have to offer, organizers can craft events that will lure even the most hardened chess hermits out of heir lairs.
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