17 May 2011

The Master Game According to Burgess

After putting together the post titled BBC: The Master Game 1980, I searched for more information about the original series itself. There is a good description of how the series was produced in The Mammoth Book of Chess by Graham Burgess (Robinson, 1997).

How to present chess well on television is no mystery. The best approach was refined and perfected in Britain by BBC2 with their Master Game series. The programmes were cheap to make and got excellent viewing figures. The series was produced as follows.

First, a knockout chess tournament was played. One of the merits of this format is that it discourages draws. Although each game was to form the basis of a half-hour programme, the time limit was similar to that used in normal tournament games. (Why not play good chess, and then show it accelerated, rather than show bad chess in real-time?)

Then the players went to the studio, were given plenty of wine and recounted their thoughts during the game. They were not allowed to cite lengthy variations, but had to describe their idea in words. A re-enactment of critical moments of the game was then filmed. What the viewer saw on screen was a large clear diagram of the board position, with any squares or pieces that were mentioned in the commentary highlighted. The two players were then shown by the side of the board, with their thoughts and commentaries dubbed in.

For club players this provided wonderful insights into how grandmasters and international masters think. The viewing figures were unusually large for the slot when the programme was broadcast -- so large that a good proportion of the viewers must have had only a rudimentary knowledge of the game. Yet they stayed tuned.

To me, this is the way forward for chess on television. The Master Game did not "try to make chess exciting", but rather portrayed the excitement of chess.

The Master Game was axed in the 1980s, and has not since been reinstated. This is apparently due to no one in a position of sufficient power at BBC2 believing in the potential for chess on television -- in spite of the evidence provided by the viewing figures.

The excerpt is from the Burgess chapter 'Chess in the Media' (p.447). I'll have more about the BBC series in a future post.

1 comment:

BelfastChild said...

Thank you for you for reigniting my loving memories of the Master Game. It was, indeed, the huge attraction that you describe for those of us of a certain vintage. It is a crying shame that the BBC, or a slightly less rigorous satellite company, cannot find themselves to air a similar programme these days.

Alas, I suspect that this is somewhat innocent thinking. Chess was rather poorly paid in the 70s and 80s compared to the larger amounts on offer today for playing in 4-game knockouts for the (short-match) world title candidates. I do not think Kramnik, Kamsky, Topolov and the others would want to participate in this sort of show for a paltry appearance fee. There would need to be some serious sponsorship I suspect.

Anyone making an offer?