Why Chess is Cool
For many of us, chess is perhaps stigmatized by the notion that you have to be an eccentric, bearded professor to stand any chance of enjoying the experience, never mind winning a serious game. We might also imagine that only badly dressed chess 'geeks' with limited social skills would prefer mindbending mental challenges to more regular pleasures and pastimes? Right?
Wrong. Chess is now much more inviting to the masses and the misconceptions over its exclusivity and elitism have all but evaporated. It is not essential to play as well as David Beckham to enjoy a game of football and similarly, you don't have to be a mathematical genius or attend a privately funded school to play or enjoy a game of chess.
Less yawn, more pawn
People spend an increasing amount of time on the internet these days and by happy coincidence, chess could not be more internet-friendly had it been invented by Bill Gates. With a few mouse clicks you can, for example, analyse your most recent game with the aid of a powerful analysis program, rediscover the delights of a world championship game from the nineteenth century, follow the 'live' moves of a super-tournament, seek the latest chess news, join a forum debate, or play an instant game with someone on the other side of the world - and all for free!
The game itself has become a more attractive and exciting prospect than ever before. Changes to tournament formats have seen a greater emphasis placed on shorter time limits, rapidplay finishes, the abolition of early draws and the introduction of scoring systems that encourage playing for the win. The tactic has succeeded in stimulating more exciting and attacking play, making the game more appealing to enthusiasts and newcomers alike.
Perhaps surprisingly, chess is now regarded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as a sport, which means it could one day appear at the Olympic Games. More commonly, it is termed a 'mind sport' and enjoys great popularity in mainland Europe, as well as South America, China, Phillippines, Israel and of course the many former Soviet States, The game boomed in the USA and UK during the 1970s and 1980s, due to the exploits of Bobby Fischer, a flawed genius who ascended the chess throne in 1972.
Many successful players are regarded as celebrities and cultural ambassadors in their own country. Some have had their sporting achievements recognised by the state or honoured by the world of academia.
Beyond black and white
Nowadays, the top grandmasters jet around the world, playing in superleagues and international tournaments, attending exhibitions, giving lectures and signing books. Mostly, they play to packed auditoriums in glitzy venues, where fans can follow the moves live, listen to headphone commentary and then watch or contribute to the post-mortem analysis. Thanks to modern technology and the goodwill of the players, these after-match sessions are both entertaining and illuminating, the combatants replaying the moves and explaining their thought processes at the time.
The current bright star with an incandescent future ahead of him is Magnus Carlsen (pictured). A young Norwegian just departing his teen years, he has already made it to world number one on the official rating list. Carlsen has lucrative sponsorship deals, promotes the trendy G-Star Raw clothing range with Hollywood star Liv Tyler, and has even recruited former world champion Garry Kasparov to be his coach.
The high flying chess girls who share the limelight with Carlsen are no less attractive to the passing photo-journalist. Many of the young women at the top of the sport prove beyond all doubt that beauty and intellect are not mutually exclusive. The Russian women's squad are world team champions and include in their ranks the highly photogenic Kosintseva sisters (pictured), ex-women's world champion, model and calendar pin-up Alexandra Kosteniuk (pictured), and the flirtatious Natalia Pogonina (pictured), co-author of the forthcoming, provocatively titled Chess Kama Sutra. Kosteniuk has been a great advocate of the "chess is cool" message and has created a series of podcasts for download from her blogsite (www.chessblog.com)
Rook 'n' roll
Mainstream celebrities too, it would seem, are catching the chess bug. Current pop sensation Justin Bieber recently revealed in an interview that he had been on the school chess team. Madonna (and Guy Ritchie) sought private tuition in the 1990s and the video that accompanied The Power of Goodbye featured a game between Madonna and her on-screen lover. Sting and Bono are avid chess players; Sting contested an exhibition game with Garry Kasparov in 2000.
Lennox Lewis and Steve Davis were world champions from opposite ends of the sporting spectrum, yet once squared up to each other over the chequered board.
From the world of comedy, Woody Allen and Steve Martin are known to share a passion for the game and there are many other A-listers who would put chess near the top of their favorite hobby list; Al Pacino, Will Smith, Jude Law, Eliza Dushku and Arnold Schwarzenegger to name but a few.
Estonian supermodel Carmen Kass (pictured) has been romantically linked to (US born) German grandmaster Eric Lobron. Her devotion to and unstinting support for the game has earned praise in high circles and a fitting reward - the Presidency of the Estonian Chess Federation.
From opening to endgame
For children, there has never been a better time to take up the game. Chess has enjoyed a wave of publicity in the wake of the Harry Potter stories, particularly Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone (2001). It is well known that children can benefit enormously from developing their logical thinking processes, improving their concentration levels and taking responsibility for their own actions. Chess helps teach a child all these things and a whole lot more.
For senior citizens, the rewards may be even greater. Chess knows no age barriers; with advancing years come wisdom and experience. These qualities can be more than a match for youthful exuberance and raw talent. Better still, medical research has shown that keeping the brain active can significantly reduce the risk of suffering Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. According to the more detailed findings of the research, this is especially true of chess.
So how should we explain this recent surge of interest? Is 'coolness' all down to chess' new, improved image, or are there other forces at work? Well, we probably shouldn't dismiss social trends and the influence they can exert; healthy bodies have been a fixation of the developed world for some considerable time now. Gym membership, exercise bikes and the latest dietary fads have all seen a sustained increase in popularity. It shouldn't be too surprising then, if 'fitness of mind' has become the latest addition to the body workout agenda.