Baku, Azerbaijan

Now that the Olympics are over, prepare yourself for the no-holds-barred thrills of…chess
Leon Watson
23 August 2016 • 1:40pm

As the warm glow of the Olympics begins to fade, please spare a thought for another group of GB athletes going for gold: our little-known chessers.

These fearsome gladiators of the 64-square board are gearing up for their own version of the greatest show on earth, the bi-annual Chess Olympiad. But after two weeks of wall-to-wall Olympics coverage – during which, remember, Team GB did pretty well at other sitting down sports – chess’s similarly-named equivalent will get precisely no attention when it starts on September 1.

Unless that is two players die during the competition, which is, unfortunately, what happened last time.

Admittedly there may be very good reasons for chess not making it big in the British consciousness. Wood-pushers don’t tend to have fit, lithe bodies like Max Whitlock, Jason Kenny and Jess Ennis-Hill. And they don’t often endear themselves to us with big outpourings of emotion like Laura Trott or the gymnast Bethany Page.

In all honesty, though, the reason most people will be totally unaware of the Chess Olympiad is probably because the sport (OK, game) is seen in this country as about as boring a pursuit as is humanely possible. It is an obsession for out-of-shape nerds, middle-aged men with furrowed brows and socially-inept child geniuses. Admit you watch chess as a spectator and people will think there’s something wrong with you. Trust me, I know.

Yet that, I would argue, is a big mistake. Chess – which is recognised as a sport by the IOC but has been repeatedly refused entry to the games – may be complex almost to the point where it seems impenetrable, but that is its richness and beauty.

All you need to know is the basic rules, and then you’re on a never-ending learning curve that starts with being able to beat only your granddad and ends with beating a grandmaster at the Olympiad (at least in my dreams). The more you follow it, the more you get drawn into it and before you realise you’re as much an expert on chess as you are on fencing or horse dancing. In fact, the cerebral game is as fascinating and sometimes as fast and furious a sport as any you are likely to claim armchair expertise on.

Believe it or not, chess has thrills and spills, politics and personalities, wild controversies and intrigue by the bucketload. What could be more silly than a challenger earnestly accusing a stony-faced Soviet of getting messages delivered to the table in a bilberry flavoured yoghurt? Or the head of the world governing body – which is reassuringly mired in controversy, just like in football and the Olympics used to be –genuinely thinking he was abducted by aliens (who knows, maybe he was)? In no other game would chairs get X-rayed, or world championship games have to be watched on CCTV from a basement on the insistence of a paranoid participant.

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