17 May 2012

The Man Who Put Chess on Television

After posting the reminiscences about World Championship Chess on TV, I went back to learn more about Shelby Lyman, the original promoter of chess on TV. The first interesting article that popped out was from People magazine, October 1986. I was unaware that Lyman had continued with his broadcasts after the 1972 match:-

Thanks to Lyman, the finale of the Karpov - Kasparov contest will be played out this week and next over 120 public TV stations. His show, which may comprise the two funkiest and intellectually demanding hours on TV, is taped at tiny WNYE-TV in Brooklyn, with a colorful cast ranging from 8-year-old, World Under-10 champ Jeff Sarwer to International Grandmaster Edmar Mednis, 49. Lyman has been doing chess shows ever since he covered the Bobby Fischer - Boris Spassky battle move-by-move for PBS in 1972. • Knightly Newsman Shelby Lyman Makes Chess a TV Spectator Sport

Because the broadcast seemed so natural in 1972, when chess fever swept across the 50 states, the audacity of Lyman's performance could only be understood in retrospect. From the Houston Chronicle, September 2002:-

How's this for must-see television? A chess match between two geniuses. The match itself wouldn't be shown. Instead, a 35-year-old sociology professor and chess master who had never appeared on television, never watched television, never cared about television, would replay the moves on an oversize demonstration board in an Albany, N.Y., studio - 2,500 miles from the match site. That's the leap public broadcasting took 30 years ago this summer, when WNET in New York aired the world championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. • All the right moves / Fischer-Spassky chess match 30 years ago put Shelby Lyman on the board

Lyman, of course, was not the only person involved in the series of broadcasts. From Chessbase.com, January 2003, by Rudy Chelminski:-

If someone had called [Fred] Waitzkin's attention to the article I wrote for the American magazine Wired in October, 2001, he would have been able to trace the epochal show not to Lyman but to a gangly, affable young television executive named Mike Chase. Son of a playwright and a theater specialist himself, Chase at the time was Director of Operations for the New York City TV network of SUNY, State University of New York. He was also an ardent chess amateur and a member of the Marshall Chess Club. • The man behind the Fischer-Spassky show [see also the links at the end of the article]

Chelminski's account doesn't square completely with Lyman's recollections. From NYTimes.com, January 2008:-

Q: How did you get involved in the coverage? A: As I remember it, I was giving chess lessons to Mike Chase, who had a very important job with PBS then, who ran the facilities for half a dozen stations. He was very enamored by chess and he was very excited by the teaching I did. One day I suggested, with the Fischer-Spassky match coming up, would it be possible to put something on PBS. Between the two of us, we got this thing going. • Fischer’s Epochal Match, Shelby Lyman’s Star Turn

There's much more detail about the ground-breaking broadcasts in each of the articles I've cited. As for Lyman today, he carries on popularizing chess in a regular column: Shelby Lyman site:dispatch.com.

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