Unravelling the chess Tower of Babel: Why is the Global Chess League unique and how it can change chess

Unravelling the chess Tower of Babel: Why is the Global Chess League unique and how it can change chess

The structure and format of the inaugural edition of the Global Chess League bring about a promise of revolutionising chess competitions and chess coverage, making it accessible to significantly more people in the world than now

From the 22nd of June to the 2nd of July the Gulf capital Dubai will host the first edition of the Global Chess League.

The event is unique in its form as, effectively, this is the first time ever an attempt has been made to create a chess equivalent to the Champions League in football. Over 10 days, six teams, made up of the biggest names in chess, will make history in a fight for the right to be crowned the first Champions of the Global Chess League.

The idea for this event – as well as the sponsorship and organisation – have been provided by the major global Indian tech company, Tech Mahindra.

Following its motto ‘Connected World, connected experiences’, Tech Mahindra – which has for years been investing in chess in India – has decided to go fully global on chess.

Leveraging its commercial strength and tech knowledge, guided by its values echoing the motto of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), Gens Una Sumus (meaning, ‘We are all one Family’), Tech Mahindra has set up to create a truly global team chess event and to make it more appealing to the wider public.

This second aspect in particular – making chess more appealing to everyone – is key.

Making chess more appealing to everyone

The chess audience, like any other community with shared interests, is a world of its own. The terminology used by chess professionals and avid fans, and the way they communicate and interact often seem difficult to follow for someone who does not have a certain level of knowledge of the openings or chess tactics. Social media – the town halls of almost every community in the 21st century – is flooded with channels and accounts, featuring videos/posts where players, coaches and pundits explain games, usually going into gruelling details, often understandable only to those at the highest level.

In that way, millions of people around the world who play chess (and some earlier research has suggested that the number goes into hundreds of millions across the globe) but are not active/engaged players are, effectively, left out.

Tech Mahindra aims to change that with its Global Chess League endeavour. As Sameer Pathak, GCL CEO and one of Tech Mahindra’s top executives explains, ‘We want to make chess easy to follow and understand for everyone, to the point where the whole family can sit and watch the games and commentary, as they would with football or cricket’.

Sameer Pathak is a huge sports enthusiast, who first came up with the idea that chess should be supported by Tech Mahindra and that the company should go ‘truly global’ on it.

‘When you think about it – you have chess in every sport. Every sport needs a plan, a strategy, and a system of play. In team sports, every team member has their place, like pieces on the chess board. The same applies to our lives – chess logic and principles are everywhere, so, we want chess to be available everywhere and to everyone’, Pathak says.

‘We want to bring the chess world more to the homes of ordinary people who may have a chess set or would like to play a game now and then, but have never had a chance to experience it on a more professional level but in an accessible format’, Pathak explained.

Where the chess world is now and how it got here

While the earliest forms of chess have roots in India in the 7th century, the game enters its global prominence in the 19th century when it became more established in social circles, and when more matches started to get organised, attracting greater public attention.

The 20th century saw the formation of the International Chess Federation – FIDE – which has been the governing body of chess since 1924. While chess was initially more popular in the West, from the 1940s until the 1990s communist countries, most formidably the Soviet Union, dominated the game almost unopposed.

A powerful cultural and intellectual symbol, chess was also a political weapon, which gave it the status of being more than just a game/sport (famously immortalised in the 1972 match in Reykjavik, when American Bobby Fischer briefly took over the chess crown from the Soviets, defeating Boris Spassky, in a match which had a huge Cold War political backdrop).

Following the fall of communism in Europe, other countries came to prominence. For the first time ever, there was a world champion from India (Viswanathan Anand), Norway (Magnus Carlsen) and now China, where the current World Champion Ding Liren comes from.

Due to its status in the communist world – representing what is seen as good values for a person and the community, but also given its importance in political PR (helping show the intellectual superiority over the ‘decadent West’) – chess enjoyed vast state support and, in reality, has never been able to shift its dependence from this.

The appearance of talented players from other (economically more powerful) countries made chess more popular (and, therefore, more attractive to sponsors) in other parts of the world. The stellar success of Vishy Anand who became the first Indian Grandmaster (in 1988) and the first Indian World Champion (2000-2002 and 2007-2013) launched a wave of chess enthusiasm across the Indian subcontinent, leading to the country becoming one of the biggest world powerhouses in chess today, boasting an unprecedented number of events and players.

The transformative period for chess is intertwined with the rise of the use of technology in everyday life, particularly computers and social media. While the development of mighty chess programmes such as Deep Blue (the first computer to defeat a world champion – none other than Garry Kasparov, in 1997) led to some prophesying the end of chess, the greater influx of technology has, on the contrary, made the game more popular and accessible.

A watershed moment occurred in 2019/2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic. As the world shut down and people had to isolate and stay indoors, many turned to computers and social media to stay in touch. To keep their sanity or just have fun in isolation, many took up chess – either playing at home with their family members or, playing online. The chess world responded organising numerous online events.

In that period chess got another adrenalin shot – the Netflix series ‘Queen’s Gambit’ which tells a story about a young woman who takes up chess to become a world champion attracting millions across the globe, predominantly those who have never played chess or even knew the rules.

The rise in popularity of chess brought about more investment from the private sector, making chess less dependent on state sponsorship.

And this is where we are today – chess is being played by millions of people online daily, there are numerous tournaments and the ending of COVID-19 restrictions meant that over-the-board (OTB) events have also returned.

Triumph and challenge

From being written off because of the dominance of computers, especially with the rise of artificial intelligence and programmes like AlphaZero or Leela which have phenomenal strength surpassing any human chess player alive or dead, chess has not only survived but flourished in the era of super-computers and smart tech.

However, the new ‘online’ life of chess and the way it reaches its audiences suffer from a huge limitation – a struggle to make chess more understandable to the broader public. Who exactly? Well, everyone who just knows the moves and likes chess, but not more.

Chess enjoys the aura of being the ultimate symbol of intellectual supremacy. Those who play chess are considered smart, strategic thinkers, capable of seeing the broader picture and thinking deeply. This brings about two obstacles – that it’s seen as boring or too serious for fun and, therefore, that it’s not for everyone.

This challenge is further amplified when you show the typical chess coverage to someone who doesn’t know anything about chess, save the rules of the game. Live commentary and broadcasts from chess events have become a standard in recent years, with every event featuring a specially dedicated commentator team made up of two grandmasters with boards on the screen showing a particular game from the event. As the boards on the screen show the moves made in live games, the commentating team provides analysis and commentary, usually with the help of computers. The broadcasts also usually feature post-game interviews with players who discuss the game.

The problem? The coverage is usually too deep, at the level where someone who just knows the rules but doesn’t play/follow chess actively can’t really be an engaged follower.

Here’s an example of a typical comment in the live broadcast, taken from an actual event: ‘Instead of the Nimzo as expected, we see the Carlsbad variation of the exchange line of the Queen’s Gambit declined with the bishop delaying development’. How can anyone, unless they are a chess professional, understand this? More importantly, how can anyone be enticed to follow chess with comments like these?

This is where Tech Mahindra’s Global Chess League steps in to change things.

A new approach to chess events and coverage

The GCL organisers have put before themselves a goal of revolutionizing the way chess is presented and covered.

Unlike in traditional chess coverage, the commentary team in Dubai will consist of chess experts but also those who are not from the professional chess world and who will aim to convey the developments on the board more naturally and understandably to the wider public. A team of two commentators, where one is a chess expert and another a fan of the game but an outsider to the world of chess professionals will, hopefully, yield a more frank and engaging conversation, appealing to the non-chess-savvy audience.

The scheduling of the matches will also help in achieving this: with every team match taking place separately from others (unlike in other chess events where all matches in a round take place at the same time), the focus will be on each individual match, helping spectators gradually build their understanding of the competition, but also help create excitement from anticipation.

With each team having a unique name and visual identity (logo, colours), with team owners who are sports fans and investors in other sports but not from the chess world, chess has for the first time got a typical high-end corporate profile, akin to the likes of the Champions League in Europe, Indian Premier League in cricket or the NBA in the US.

With the games played under rapid time control (meaning, each player will have 15 minutes on the clock, and a 30-second bonification for each move), the dynamics (excitement, fear, body language) will be much more expressed and visible, making the event visually more appealing to watch.

The concept of the event – where members of each team will all play a round with the pieces of the same colour (unlike in standard team chess events where each of the opposing teams has an even number of boards with white/black pieces) has never been implemented in chess so far. The advantage of the first move in chess is equivalent to having the first kick and choosing your goalpost in football. This means that the tactical elements (teams having to focus more on forcing a victory when they lead white pieces and make more effort in defence when they play with black pieces) will be much more important and their impacts much more obvious to the audience.

The players, as well as their team managers, will also take part – in interviews and press conferences before/after the match. While in regular chess events players rarely give interviews, the Global Chess League has focused on them playing a more active role in interpreting the events of each match and helping to convey the message to the broader audience.

Finally, despite being a tech company forced into the online world, Tech Mahindra decided to make this an in-person event. Such a decision, although costly and logistically more complicated, is commendable as it reflects a belief in direct, personal contact as a valuable experience. In an era where physical interaction is moved to the metaverse, Tech Mahindra has shown that personal, face-to-face or, rather, heart-to-heart interaction, is important and meaningful, especially when launching a big idea.

A new era for chess

The Global Chess League is a novelty in the chess world. Its idea and goals form a foundation of a new approach to chess and its global appeal which, with endeavour, may revolutionise the way this game is being seen in the world.

In this ground-breaking effort, Tech Mahindra is unravelling the Tower of Babel around chess, showing a clear path to the chess Acropolis to everyone interested, regardless of their knowledge and skill in the game.