It worked for poker: Can chess make it on TV?
By Haley Edwards
Seattle Times staff reporter
If the chess world had Hollywood's equivalent of "US Weekly," these players would be on the cover. They're the big dogs. The A-listers. And they're coming to Bellevue this weekend.
The only other time you'll see this many chess Grand Masters, not to mention International Masters and National Masters, in the same room is during the annual U.S. Chess Federation National Championships, and even then, you wouldn't be able to get close enough to watch them play.
Eddie Chang, a Renton real-estate agent, and Clint Ballard, a Bainbridge Island software-company president, are chess aficionados with a dream of bringing the game to the average television-watching Joe. They will host a brand-new chess competition, Grand Master Slugfest, this weekend.
The relatively small group of high-profile players — seven Grand Masters and at least 15 competitors — will compete six times each during the three-day event, while vying for a $5,000 purse. Victor Mikhalevski, ranked 29th in the world, will fly in from Israel for the occasion, along with three-time U.S. Championship winner, Alexander Shabalov.
Here's the twist: Traditional scoring will be turned on its head. In an effort to reduce the number of draws, "which are boring for spectators to watch," Chang explains, the GM Slugfest will use a form of scoring invented by Ballard himself. The Ballard Anti-draw Point system (BAP) was first successfully introduced in a qualifying tournament this summer, but will be tested for the first time with high-level players this weekend.
In traditional scoring, white — the player with the initial advantage — often cuts his losses and calls for a "quick draw," allowing both white and black to receive one-half point. The BAP system discourages such conservative play, by awarding white no points and black one point, for draws. Accordingly, if white wins, he receives two points, and if black wins, he receives three. It is thus in a player's interest to play for a decisive victory, even if that entails risking a loss.
"It will change a lot of the strategy," explains Chang. "It forces players to take a risk, but still doesn't make white play recklessly."
In inventing, testing and (if it goes well) further popularizing the BAP scoring system, Ballard hopes chess will be both easier to televise and more appealing to the modern audience, a demographic primed for the instant gratification of watching someone win and someone lose. "We're trying to make chess more exciting for viewers, hoping to eventually turn it into a televised sport like poker," explains Chang.
Ballard will be filming the top boards at GM Slugfest, editing the material himself, and compiling evidence illustrating the effectiveness, and spectator-friendliness, of BAP scoring. He hopes to publicize the success of the BAP system and interest TV networks like ESPN in the quiet intrigue of chess.
The GM Slugfest, which may become an annual event, will be held in one room, allowing spectators to wander freely between tables and watch the Grand Masters "up close and personal," says Chang. "We've made it as spectator-friendly as possible, while still keeping good playing conditions for the Grand Masters." The event also will be broadcast on the internet and televised in a separate viewing room, for those inclined to chat (for laymen of chess, this is a cardinal sin, akin to sneezing during a putt).
Chang insists that these A-listers, unlike their Hollywood counterparts, openly welcome fans, laymen and paparazzi to the competition.
Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or hedwards@seattletimes
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company