Updated: Oct 10, 2022
On Chess: The view from a commentator's chair
By Maurice Ashley • Aug 16, 2018
I am a chess commentator. That is a sentence I write with pride.
For more than 20 years, I have been blessed with a front row seat watching the game’s greatest players spend hour after hour in pitched battles, trying to rip each other to shreds.
I was there in 1994, in a small booth overlooking the stage inside the Kremlin in Moscow during the epic Intel World Chess Grand Prix tournament. It was the first time a major chess event had ever been held inside that grand complex. I was bellowing so loudly from the excitement of the games that Klara Kasparova, the then-World Champion’s mother, switched her headphones from the Russian channel to the English one to hear what all the fuss was about.
A year later, I partnered with the legendary Danny King as Garry Kasparov and Viswanathan Anand duked it out for the title inside a (mostly) sound-proof booth, a match that began on Sept. 11 on the 107th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
In 1997, I helped to call the second Man vs Machine match when IBM’s supercomputer, Deep Blue, dealt a digital blow of revenge against Kasparov, who had defeated it the year before. I felt the collective shiver move down the spines of humans everywhere as a cold truth stared us in the face. The silicon entities had irrevocably surpassed us in our precious pastime, if not in actual intelligence.
Jump ahead two decades and now I travel the world calling the games of a new generation of chess giants. When I witness Magnus Carlsen time and again cut through a field of elite warriors in elaborately staged Blitz competitions, I often feel like an over-enthused fan getting paid to whoop and holler in a stadium while watching Lebron James fight their way through the opposition in the NBA Finals. I get to work alongside a team of Hall of Fame talents (Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade, Alejandro Ramirez,Ioan-Cristian Chirila), as we argue over complicated ideas in front of a live, worldwide audience eagerly following every move of their favorite players.
Why is a commentator important? Well, it’s the commentator’s task to pull back the curtain to reveal the hidden excitement of chess games that are full of dramatic twists and turns, hidden subplots, psychological intrigue, intense mood swings and moments of pure devastation. While we may use engines as partners as they spit out lines of often brilliant analysis, it is up to the human expert to tell the tale behind the reams of code, to artfully infuse dry variations with compelling story lines.
Commentators bring their contrasting opinions and personalities into the mix, keeping track of multiple games that build in tension toward the almost inevitable pulse-racing moments of acute time pressure. In the post-game interviews, commentators gently cajole players who have just stumbled out of the heat of battle to reveal something of the innermost thoughts and feelings they had during games they may have just lost. We ride the waves of emotions with them, recalling how we feel when we play, and we empathize with the game’s geniuses as they suffer over move after move, round after round, day in, day out, till there is only one champion left standing.
As someone who lives to promote our royal game and who wishes to see it move into the mainstream, I relish my role as a part of the evolution of broadcasting chess as sports entertainment. I fully appreciate that we are on the front lines of progress and potential growth, looking to gain the level of respect many other sports have already attained. While it’s certainly easier to call a physical activity where the athletes swiftly dart about the field or court, we chess commentators embrace the challenge of making 32 wooden pieces come alive on a flat board of 64 squares.
I am a chess commentator. I write those words with a satisfied smile.
Check out more stories like these in The Sinquefield Effect: The Resurgence of American Chess on display at the World Chess Hall of Fame.
Maurice Ashley is a Jamaican-American chess grandmaster, author, commentator, app designer, puzzle inventor and motivational speaker. In 1999, he earned the grandmaster title, making him the world's first African-American grandmaster. In 2016, he was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.