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

Jon Speelman
Thursday 19 December 2013 01:00
Pieces of information: the complexities of chess work surprisingly well on radio
Pieces of information: the complexities of chess work surprisingly well on 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.

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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

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