NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Sportswriter Michael Weinreb thinks the time is ripe for chess to find a mass audience in the United States, where cable TV has drawn viewers to other events such as poker games and Scrabble tournaments.
He wants to help rekindle an appreciation for chess with his latest book, “Kings of New York,” which is about a high school chess team’s quest for a national championship.
“I think it would be interesting to televise the high school or the youth national championships,” he said in an interview.
“It could be a spelling bee type of thing. People would look at these kids and really empathize...The emotion on their faces could really draw people in.”
Weinreb spent a year following the chess team at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, New York, which has won several national championships.
He chronicles after-school practices, tournaments in school cafeterias and hotel ballrooms, and days of speed chess in the park during school vacations where students win money from tourists and Wall Street bankers.
He became fascinated about how a school chess program helped smart youngsters from lower-income families find a competitive niche at a school with no other sports teams.
Weinreb also enjoyed watching African-American and Hispanic students interact with team-mates whose families immigrated from Eastern Europe.
“It’s that classic New York melting pot story,” he said.
“They’re all thrown together into this world and they had their little conflicts and frictions...In the end they all had to get beyond that stuff and work together as team-mates.”
Some youngsters have a hard time channeling their talent into their studies. One boy’s parents were exasperated that he lacked the discipline to pass a course, but was resourceful enough to hack into the school’s computer to change his grade.
Weinreb found it challenging to write in a compelling way about an intellectual game.
“I don’t know if chess really is a sport, but I wanted to treat it like it was a sport...to really get into what’s going on inside these kids’ heads as they play, and just try to make it as exciting as possible,” he said.
The book explores the subculture of U.S. chess and recalls how the game hit its peak popularity in the 1970s when American prodigy Bobby Fischer beat Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky for the World Championship. Their match, played during the Cold War, was front-page news and the games were televised.
But Fischer squandered his triumph, becoming a recluse, and the game faded from public consciousness.
“There’s basically no way to make money playing chess in this country,” Weinreb lamented. “Even the best player in America in a generation couldn’t get sponsors. He’d have to move to Europe where chess is more respected.”
But Weinreb is confident that can change.
“I think the fact that poker and Scrabble and things like that have found their way into the mainstream means there should be an opening for chess to do the same thing.”