Monday 21 March 2016

Nothing ventured

INTERVIEWER: Lev, what happened out there? Did Nakamura really say "J'adoube"?
Yes, yes he did. He tried to get away with it. I just couldn't believe it.

INTERVIEWER: Lev, what happened out there? Did Nakamura really say "J'adoube"?
To be honest I really don't know. I thought he did at the time but we were both tired and I really can't be sure.

INTERVIEWER: Lev, what happened out there? Did Nakamura really say "J'adoube"?
You know - I just don't want to talk about. It's gone, I won the game. Let's just talk about chess.
One of these things should have happened on Thursday night. As far as I'm aware, none of them did.

Everybody knows what did happen on Thursday night, but let's just look at it again, just to remind ourselves how outrageous it actually was.

Perhaps you'll take issue with "outrageous" - perhaps not. You can find occasional examples of similar conduct from top-notch players and you can judge them, and Nakamura against them, as you please.

However you judge it, though, it was an extraordinary incident, and hence it is also extraordinary that as far as we know, nobody asked Aronian about it in the subsequent interview. By "extraordinary" I don't necessarily mean "surprising" - that's far from the case - and obviously the best person to ask about it didn't turn up to be asked, for which he has quite rightly been fined.

OK. But what was stopping the interviewers, at what (not very accurately) is described as a press conference, asking his opponent about it?

To draw a parallel, it's as if after this happened

nobody had asked Peter Shilton or Bobby Robson for their opinion.

Come to that, it's as if Maradona had turned up for a press conference two days later and even then nobody asked him about it, given that when Nakamura actually turned up following his defeat of Topalov in the very next round, nobody said a word on the subject. You'd have thought it would be an ideal opportunity to press him about it. But they didn't.

Of course you don't know how much freedom of action AGON employees have to ask the questions they'd like (and as far as I can tell there isn't a press corps present, which is why it's not really a "press conference") which is one reason why I look a little askance at Ilya Merenzon declaring
it is following these moments of high drama and controversy that chess fans particularly want to hear from the players involved
- another being that Mr Merenzon has done his best during the tournament to prevent chess fans discussing the games in the way we would like. But before we find ourselves moving off at that particular tangent, let's have a little look at Sagar Shah's interview with Nakamura in which he took the trouble to actually ask the wrongdoer to account for his actions.

Nakamura up against the wall, kinda

Again, you can judge for yourself what you think of Nakamura's explanation (even less than I thought of his original conduct, would be my answer). But without taking too much credit away from the interviewer - he's done an invaluable job that nobody else seems to have done - let's take a brief look at his approach instead.

Shah introduces the topic thus:
it's a little sensitive issue about yesterday but something from you would be really nice to hear about [the] touch-move incident, if you could just, ...
which is kind of a deferential approach, but never mind, the point of an interview is what answers you get out of them rather than the way you get them, so it's not the most important thing. However, when Nakamura comes out with the intelligence-insulting garbage that he does
I probably touched the king for a second or the moment I certainly didn't feel like it
Mr Shah then doesn't come out with any of the responses that immediately spring to mind. Like for instance
  • really? you're telling us you didn't feel like it?
  • isn't "A second or two" a long time to touch a piece and not notice that you're doing it?
or most appositely
  • if you're claiming you didn't know you touched it, what was the j'adoube business all about?
all of which would have been questions which would have made Nakamura feel a great deal less comfortable than he does when he's calling this extraordinary incident "no big deal".

As I say, I don't particularly want to criticise Mr Shah, who has after all performed us a service. Moreover, as far as I'm aware he isn't a professional chess writer but a titled chessplayer, as indeed are the people in the studio when the players come for a post-game "press conference".

So it's more than plausible that "titled player" combined with "not a professional journalist" isn't the description we're looking for, if the job we want done is "asking tough but necessary questions of top players". It's exactly the right description if the job you want done is "asking the players to guide you through the moves they made". But when you need something tougher and more bolshy than that, it shouldn't really be left up to people who have no expectation that that is going to be their job, and who are likely to be in awe of individuals who are world-class performers in the same field as them.

It's a culture of deference, or reluctance to make waves, and perhaps to say so helps solve the mystery that baffles Colin McGourty:
It remains a mystery why Levon Aronian wasn’t asked about the incident in the press conference he did attend.

Let's be clear about this: Mr Shah's interview with Nakamura shouldn't be an unexpected bonus and the failure to question either Aronian or Nakamura in their "press conferences" shouldn't be standard practice. The first should be standard practice and the second should be the exception.

Why? You shouldn't have to ask.
And if you haven't got that, you haven't got proper journalism.

Which, you might argue, might be because of a dearth of proper professional chess journalists, in this instance at any rate. Still, that explanation only goes so far to solve that mystery, and we surely know this, because it's not really a surprise to anybody that so few quesrions got asked. It's normal. It's our culture. Our deferential chess culture.

Because what would have happened if we'd left it to an actual, professional journalist?

A journalist like, for instance, Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam?

Cast your minds back - well, don't go to so much trouble, the video's right here - to last June in Norway, when a major international tournament coincided with very serious allegations of financial misconduct being levelled against Silvio Danailov, one-time President of the European Chess Union and aspirant to the leadership of FIDE.

So what happened when Dirk met Danailov?

What happened was that Dirk decided no difficult questions were to be asked. At about 11.23, you can find the doyen of European chess journalism declaring to the camera
In case you're wondering, we decided that we're not going to touch on any chess politics
because of course, touching on chess politics is not the job of a chess journalist nor of any interest to a chess audience.

And what is the reason for this omission? That it's all too difficult for our pretty little heads. At about 12.20, Dirk informs us:
There are a lot of things going on that are way too complicated for us
Complicated. That's one way of putting it.

So, you know, while we can point at AGON, at the individual interviewers, at the problems inherent in having chess interviews carried out by strong players rather than professional journalists - what happened with Nakamura and Aronian was absolutely standard and normal in the world of chess. This is very much to our discredit.

By the way, I am not so naïve as to not understand that Dirk and Danailov presumably agreed before the interview that difficult questions, about money and where it had gone to, were not to be asked. (Maybe somebody made a similar agreement with Aronian.) I assume that that is what Dirk is saying. But that being so, Danailov shouldn't have been sitting next to Dirk in the first place, and Dirk should be saying something along the lines of "we wanted to interview Silvio Danailov but he wasn't willing to answer our questions". Because that's what proper journalism is. It's not celebrity-interviewing, where the subject approves the questions in advance. It's asking the questions the audience wants and needs to have answered.

As Dirk did not. But if you haven't got that, you haven't got proper journalism. And very much proper journalism, in chess, is what we haven't got.


Anonymous said...

The truth is out there!

Nakamura said: “In real-time I did touch the king. I simply didn't realize, I had already lost my mind at that point. I probably touched it 1-2 seconds and I simply didn't realize. I did say “adjust” but I think at that point my mind was so far gone that I didn't realize that I had touched it for as long as I had. But it's not a big deal.”

ejh said...

As Tarjei Svensen points out, Peter Doggers did at least go and ask Aronian about the incident when he arrived in Moscow, even if the answer was "no comment":

Unfortunately Aronian declined to comment to on the touch-move incident. “After the tournament I can talk about it,” was all he said.

Anonymous said...

I am really not sure what the fuss is about. I believe that most chess players want to see and hear about the chess, so while the touch-move incident was relevant, I was more interested in seeing the analysis of what might have happened had Nakamura made a correct move rather than the king move. In a similar vein, when I watch Match Of The Day, I am more interested in the football action rather than endless replays and analysis of a controversial penalty or offside incident, however game-changing such an incident might be. I guess I am just not that interested in 'investigative journalism' for the sake of it. For me the art comes before the sport. If you guys want to discuss this stuff endlessly on the ECForum, or the S&B Blog or its predecessors, that is your perogative, but I really don't want to see it taking up limited time on the official press conferences, or the pages of BCM for that matter.

I don't think anything I say is at all controversial, so I will not sign, since I know that those with contrary views to the herd can and often are vilified.

Anonymous said...

"and as far as I can tell there isn't a press corps present"

Other than the chess-media, I think this is about right. Even in Moscow, chess (Agon) can't get the broadsheets to show up? Maybe they were there for the VIPs and the first few days, but the long slog is too much, and they'll re-appear at the terminus. (In Khanty-Mansiysk GP the local news is there for the press conf, and even can ask questions (well, to Nakamura about hockey I remember specifically), but such chess events probably dominates the local news agenda, not so in Moscow.)

No complicated question with the World Cup Armageddon either, in fact Nakamura wanted to talk about it next day, but Miroshnichenko interrupted and changed the subject. Is FIDE that desperate to avoid "bad" controversy? Or at least the players (and Dirks) who double as commentators think that way?

Laar said...

Another brilliant AGON design decision (Doggers, round 9): "the press room is located behind the playing hall, and to reach it the journalists use a small corridor that shares the route of the grandmasters to their toilets. So, every time a player needs to go, security temporarily closes that corridor."

j.b. cooper said...

Thank you for this well written and informative artcle. I am now a "stammkunde" of your blog.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

At Caruana-Anand "press conference" (Round 10), no one asked why Black resigned? His position is lousy but not 100% a child's play loss in my opinion, and this is the Candidates after all. Even if the "pawns fall off" (like people say), Black is the exchange down but White has nothing obvious to wrench out a win. Again maybe I suck at chess, but can't the commentators at least ask this??!

AdamP said...

"I don't think anything I say is at all controversial, so I will not sign, since I know that those with contrary views to the herd can and often are vilified."

Anon, your last sentence is perhaps unintentionally very provocative. What you did there is vilify people with contrary views to yourself. You play the noble martyr, and your post oozes political resentment; maybe you are more taken with the non-chess dimension of chess than you will admit to yourself.

p.s. Great post. All the "It's no big deal"s being uttered would make one suspicious, if nothing else. So sad to see S&B go; I can't believe it. Thanks for S&B blog, and your past and (hopefully) future role as one of the few people working to keep chess real...or to try to make it so.

Anonymous said...

One thing I don't like about AGON, is the black-on-white colour scheme. This may be the colours of a chessboard, but it is *not* particularly the colours associated to playing chess. They expanded this as a marketing gimmick, beyond its rightful realm.

Laar said...

Looks like the closing ceremony might even surpass the j'adoube as the most watched video, as everyone tries to parse whether the BMW rep was misleading or not.

Unknown said...

Anonymous said...

At Caruana-Anand "press conference" (Round 10), no one asked why Black resigned? His position is lousy but not 100% a child's play loss in my opinion, and this is the Candidates after all. Even if the "pawns fall off" (like people say), Black is the exchange down but White has nothing obvious to wrench out a win. Again maybe I suck at chess, but can't the commentators at least ask this??!

Well put!
And leads to the broader question of chess professionalism and attempts to raise the status of chess to a sport and reap some benefits thereby.

Two boxers in a pro fight tap each other a few times, shake hands and leave the ring telling the referee that a draw has been agreed.

Andy Murray is a set down and is a double break down in the second set against Novak Djokovic. He informs the umpire that he resigns the match and leaves the stadium.

Chelsea go 2 down at half time against Leicester and have several key players on yellow cards with an important international game coming up. The manager informs the referee that he will not be bringing his team back on the field, he resigns the match.

These three scenarios would see drastic measures taken by their respective governing associations but in professional chess ...?

We still have a long way to go to be taken seriously.

Some suggestions:

- all games be played out to checkmate

- where this does not or cannot be achieved the player with the LEAST material is declared the winner

- in the event of equal material, black is declared the winner.

ejh said...

Problem with the second and third suggestions is that they would change drastically the nature of the game, just as it would change the nature of a football match if the numbers of corners gained were to serve as a tie-breaker. Problem with the first suggestion is that it would involve hours of wasted time for the players involved and the fans would have turned off long before the end.

Anonymous said...

I think it possible to "resign" in Tennis, just plead an injury. Medical backup may be needed for plausibility.


Anonymous said...

"Problem with the first suggestion is that it would involve hours of wasted time for the players involved and the fans would have turned off long before the end."

Huh? .....we do use clocks in tournament chess!

There was no use of clocks until relatively recently in the long history of chess, drawn games were replayed. Imagine if the rules had not been drastically changed by our chess forbears and no clocks were used!

Drastic changes have been part and parcel of the evolution of the modern game so why are we so enfeebled?

The change to the way the Q moved drastically changed the game: no doubt there were howls of complaint by some at the time.

Likewise the introduction of the en passant rule and castling (moving two pieces at the same time, shock horror!)

Anonymous said...

The point is, most if not all of those changes made the game *better*.

Many of those proposed above would do anything but.

Anonymous said...

Re: playing games out to checkmate. It's an interesting experiment. I give you queen odds, you have to checkmate me in X moves. What do you think a fair X is? Most players guess 25-30, but it's hard to even win a pawn in the first 15. Swelling forces for an attack also requires time. Admittedly the deluge comes quickly when it comes. But I would guess closer to 40-50.

Unknown said...

People shit on Maurice Ashley for his reliance on computer evals in commentating (even though that's basically his designated role and a nice contrast to the "blind" evals by Yasser imo), but at least Maurice has demonstrated he's not shy when it comes to asking tough questions to even the most elite players (even Carlsen), at least by "chess interviewer standards".

But the backlash he faced from that, I believe, is at least in part precisely what these commentators are afraid of, being directly ridiculed and counter-challenged by those whom they most admire (need thicker skins).

Prevalent among interviews with these top players (many introverted and taciturn geniuses) is the fear of the potentially real risk that these players will shut down and devolve to single-phrase or single-word answers when asked questions they deem offensive, of a biased and leading nature, or just plain beneath the chess-understanding level (in the case of actual "journalists") in which they care to indulge in (AKA arrogance, unwillingness to have their valuable time wasted, etc.--you decide). See Carlsen's interview with Vice--Though from what I understand of the background context there, he was well justified in his approach and tone with the interviewer.
Even the title of the resultant article from that interview speaks volumes.

Another strong factor is the fear that these players will simply opt out of interviewing (or worse, opt out of post-analysis altogether) especially after a loss. As a huge fan of Live Top Level Chess Commentary, I relish the rare moments when a player experience a crushing loss joins the winner at the commentator's table!

I'm not sure what the solution is, though including detailed contract stipulations on the requirements for post-game interviews might be all that's needed if done properly--easier said than done, perhaps.

Some contract ideas for starters (at least for standard time controls):

-Require all winners AND losers to participate in a minimum number or minimum time length session of Q and A, as well as engaging in the post-mortem of their game.

-Hire seasoned and capable journalists as producers in the ear of those commentators to assist in suggesting tough questions

-Don't let them off the hook when they give b.s responses, like, "yeah whatever," or "I don't know how to even answer that", but add justification if available, for example, "well according to our instapoll this is actually our number question from YOUR fans. Would you mind addressing that with more complexity and detail, even if only for their understanding?"--Basically a guilt trip, but a justified one if it does the job and you are guilting them with the truth.

-Guilt them with truth! "I understand your reluctance to go into detail on such a hot button topic especially after this loss, but professionalism demands it--more importantly--your fans desire, and perhaps most crucially, the impact on the growth of the game itself for the next generation may well be impacted one way or another by your refusal or elaboration here!"

Ok, that may be a little extreme, but the elite need to be held accountable for the degree to which they are ultimate ambassadors of the game and of utmost influence on its future and rise or fall of its popularity and legitimacy as worthwhile pursuit.