By Ian Rogers
Chess was a regular visitor on Australian television in the 1970s and 80s, starting with the daily coverage of the Fischer-Spassky world title match of 1972, hosted by world class correspondence player John Kellner, and culminating in The Master Game.
1972 was peak chess on Australian television, as it was in many parts of the world. Kellner had a nightly programme covering Fischer’s match with Spassky, featuring regular guests Max Fuller and Peter Parr.
With Fischer’s antics leading to his loss of the world title covered widely in the general media, chess programmes were seen sporadically on the ABC after 1972 until early 1977 when a chess programme arrived which genuinely appealed to a wide audience – The Master Game.
The Master Game was a weekly programme created by the BBC where world class players competed in a classical tournament, with the games condensed to a half hour format. The shows were hosted by IM William Hartston (author of How to Cheat at Chess and now a star on the English version of Gogglebox) and the affable amateur Jeremy James (who was a current affairs reporter in England as well as a chess fan).
Left: Jeremy James and William Hartston. Right: John Nunn during an episode of The Master Game.
The key innovation which made The Master Game stand out from other chess programmes was requiring the players to voice their thoughts, move by move, after the game. These voice-overs were then matched with footage of the games to give the impression that the competitors were thinking aloud while playing. (In the modern era, the confession box is an attempt to similarly gain access to the players’ thoughts, though in real time.)
John Nunn v Nigel Short
Robert Byrne v Viktor Korchnoi
Nigel Short v Robert Byrne
The Master Game ran to eight series, ending in 1983 when the series was filmed by broadcast partner NDR during a BBC strike and broadcast only in Germany. The relevant British union refused to allow a series filmed with ‘scab’ labour to be shown, while the BBC refused to make a new series while they had one already in the can. So The Master Game died. (NDR, however, continued creating similar chess programmes exclusively in the German language.)
A few years ago many of the Master Game programmes were uploaded to Youtube but they disappeared when DVDs of the series were produced for sale. Unfortunately the final series was not included on these DVDs so the world may never hear Karpov’s squeaky voice dubbed into a basso profundo German explain how he was taking apart my Scandinavian Defence.
Ratings for the Master Game when shown on the ABC were excellent, though not as stellar as the snooker programme Pot Black, the trailblazer for niche sports adapted to become televisual.
Since the death of The Master Game only SBS has attempted to broadcast a chess series, a poorly produced and poorly rating show produced by the world body FIDE about a World Rapid Cup in 2002.
England continued to create occasional chess programmes, including a fine documentary by Stephen Fry on the 1988 Thessaloniki Olympiad, but none were shown in Australia.
Ultimately the dire live coverage of the 1993 World Championship match – hour after hour of talking heads trying to emulate excitement – probably killed most British programmers’ interest in putting chess on the small screen. (Bill Hartston prefers the theory that after showing an Englishman playing for the world title, any other programme would have been a comedown.)
In any case, soon it was accepted wisdom that the internet was becoming the superior medium for chess broadcasts.
Nonetheless, in recent years Norway has witnessed the rise of ‘slow tv’. This, coinciding with the rise of Magnus Carlsen, led to that country successfully bringing live coverage of complete classical tournaments to the screen – so much so that this week the national broadcaster NRK successfully bought the television rights from FIDE to all World Championships – classical, rapid and blitz – until 2020.
No other country seemed to be following Norway’s lead but in fact one person had been working on making a chess programme that would hopefully be viewed around the world – 32-year-old Slovak player Monika Gergelova.
The executive producer of not-yet-hits such as After Frankenstein, Geregelova decided to move The Master Game into the modern era, creating Checkmate.
Checkmate was filmed on Malta’s second island of Gozo in October and utilised many of The Master Game’s techniques, including voice-overs and a pair of hosts; one expert – English GM Simon Williams – and one curious amateur.
The main difference was that in 2015 Checkmate could not afford the large appearance fees requested by the best players in the world. Instead Gergelova selected a mixed field where sparks were sure to fly, including multiple female players competing alongside noted misogynist Nigel Short. Richard Rapport, Hungary’s prodigious new talent, was another inspired invitation (and won the tournament).
While The Master Game generated their footage of the players solely from the games, for Checkmate players were also filmed away from the board, for example socialising and relaxing in Gozo.
Sales of Checkmate to television stations around Europe have been encouraging and a second series, filmed in London, is planned. However whether any Australian station will pick up Checkmate remains to be seen. More likely the chess drought on Australian television will continue and Australian chess fans will have to stream the series from an overseas television station or wait for the DVD.