Play it by ear: Chess on the radio

It's an interesting move but not unprecedented. Jon Speelman celebrates the revival of the fine tradition of broadcasting chess games on the radio

It might sound like the radio equivalent of watching snooker on a black and white television, but Across the Board, a new show coming to BBC Radio 4 that follows a series of chess games, is no joke.

In fact, the series, which will be hosted by Dominic Lawson, revives a fine tradition which sadly lapsed half a century ago, after what was the then BBC's "Third Network" had broadcast a weekly magazine programme from autumn 1958 until the summer of 1964.

Hard though it is to play, chess is very easy to transmit. Just a couple of pieces of information are needed for listeners to comprehend a move and play it on their own boards at home (this is one factor in the great success of chess on the internet nowadays – it takes minimal bandwidth).

In those far-off days, they used English Descriptive notation, of course. If you move your knight on the first move, this can be "Knight to King's Bishop Three" – written Kt-KB3 (I had to check for the hyphen myself, it's so long ago). But nowadays the Algebraic system is universal and this is trivial for anybody who has ever used an A-Z map. Start at the bottom left-hand corner on a1 and the top right is h8. Kt-KB3 then becomes Ng1-f3 or, as it's normally abbreviated, just Nf3. (And yes, Kt became N when letters became money).

Terence Tiller, who edited the chess programmes for most of the six years, described their success in Chess Treasury of the Air (still available online though not cheap for a paperback). All the top English players of the time appeared on the programme, playing in consultation games and often describing their "Favourite Game". But the highlight was the foreign guests, who included the former world champion Max Euwe; the mercurial Mikhail Tal, champion from 1960-1; and the incomparable future champion Bobby Fischer.

During the series, which will be broadcast over a week, Lawson's guests and opponents will include the shadow Cabinet minister, Rachel Reeves, who is a former British girls under-14 champion; former Soviet dissident and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky; writer and former homeless alcoholic John Healy; Women's World Champion Hou Yifan from China – and Lennox Lewis, who I am told is a good club player.

At the moment there is quite a fashion for ChessBoxing, in which rounds of chess alternate with rounds of boxing. I don't greatly approve of this because they wear head gear during the chess, to block out the commentary, but then – and most are only amateur boxers – take the protection off when they box. Lennox Lewis would obviously be a monster but I presume that the hostilities against Lawson were restricted to the chess board.

Listening to chess on the radio may seem quirky in such a digital age. But it is an activity which is internalised and in which the external manifestation – the pieces on the board – is only the tip of the iceberg; and listeners with a modicum of chess knowledge should be able to follow the moves without difficulty.

The 15-minute broadcasts will be edited versions of one-hour games – half an hour each on the clock – between Lawson and his guests, whom he interviews during play. He himself is somewhere between a very strong club player and the lower end of the international spectrum; and the moves and the chat should be fascinating.

In the age of Magnus Carlsen (aka the Justin Bieber of the game), chess is big news and days after capturing the world crown the new champion celebrated his 23rd birthday in Madrid by ceremonially kicking off the match between Real Madrid and Valladolid. Carlsen would be a perfect guest for a future radio show.

Long may they continue.

The first episode of 'Across the Board' will air on Monday, 30 December on BBC Radio 4 at 1.45pm

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk