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Chess to Enjoy Mungo says, “Black is Better!” By GM Andy Soltis


40 years ago this month PBS hit ratings gold with their broadcast of Fischer-Spassky.


Forty years ago this month a 13-year-


old Bronx high school student—who knew how the pieces move but not much more —turned on the TV. “There weren’t many channels then,” John Fedorowicz recalled. As he flipped from one to another, he suddenly saw ... chess. “And I thought, ‘Wow, what is this?”’ This was live coverage of the Fischer-


Spassky world championship match, presented by a former sociology lecturer who had never been on TV before—and was appearing in what turned out to be the most-watched show in public televi- sion history. Who came up with the idea for the


show is in dispute. What is certain is that Mike Chase, a producer for New York public TV stations, had attended classes at the Marshall Chess Club given by Shelby Lyman, and in the spring of 1972 they discussed covering every game of the upcoming match. But when Chase, the son of playwright


Mary Chase, pitched the idea of chess on TV, only New York City’s Channel 13, WNET, was interested. “The other sta- tions told him it was a lousy idea,” Lyman said. The show was launched with no spon-


sor and virtually no budget. The unpaid announcer was Chase’s wife, Chris. The show was shot in a small studio in Albany because, as Chris wrote in TV Guide, it was “the only place in the state of New York willing to lend WNET a studio.” There were only two cameras and few amenities. “There was no air conditioning. This was the summer, in the ’90s, and I was wearing a black suit!” Lyman recalled. And he remembers his salary as $1,000 or $1,500—for hosting the entire summer run, of more than 100 on-air hours. The original plan was modest: Lyman


would only cover the opening moves of each game, from 1 p.m. until 2, when the station’s big hit, “Sesame Street,” came on. Even that plan sounded daunt- ing. “I was thinking ‘How can I do this for a whole hour?’” Lyman recalled.


14 Chess Life — July 2012 After the first hour, he was supposed to


appear only at the top of each subse- quent hour, to briefly update viewers about the current position. When the match began on July 11, 1972 and he got to 2 p.m., “I said ‘Whew! That’s over.’” But Channel 13 viewers demanded


more. “We got 300 phone calls!” Lyman was told. “We’re going to go on!” On, that is, until 6 p.m., that day and three days a week from then on. “I was not happy about that,” Lyman recalled. “Everything went wrong” on that first


show, he remembered. “I think we called Ed Lasker on the phone,” he said of the 86-year-old international master. “And it turned out he was deaf.” The interview was a disaster. Meanwhile the game took a striking twist.


Fischer’s worst blunder? GM Boris Spassky GM Bobby Fischer


World Championship 1972, first game


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After 32. Kf3 Fischer had made a stunning capture


on h2 three moves earlier. By now it was clear he had counted on 32. ... h3 33. Kg4 Bg1—overlooking that 34. Kxh3 Bxf2 35. Bd2! and Kg2 wins. He blundered again and lost. “The thing I remember is: my heart


sank. We’ve waited for long for this moment, Bobby playing for the world championship, and then this,” Lyman said. “It was like a sign from the gods.”


But to the shock of everyone involved,


the show took off. Hundreds of people called Channel 13 each day, several of them wanting to suggest moves to Fis- cher. The infectious novelty of several straight hours of live TV—something you see today only on election night—was captivating. A New York newspaper sur- veyed 23 bars and found the sets in 18 of them were tuned to the day’s show and people inside were betting up to $1,000 on the next move. The show’s format was primitive, even


by 1972 standards. Lyman, 35, stood at a demo board while two or three guest commentators sat in chairs. The pan- elists often argued passionately with each other and with Lyman. “Mike always said that was great TV,” he said. Eugene Meyer, an up-and-coming 20-year-old master, became a frequent guest because he always had his own opinion. He recalled, “Mike Chase pulling me aside and urging me to continue disagreeing with Shelby.” Soon the shows were getting better


known guests, including Reuben Fine. But the 57-year-old Fine, who had given up chess for psychology, denigrated Fis- cher. “Fine really got me very angry,” Lyman said. “Bobby was in his heyday. And Fine characterized him as paranoid. I thought this was unprofessional and besides it was not the time to do that.” In that pre-Internet era, the moves


crossed the Atlantic by Western Union teletype to Chase’s office in Manhattan and were then phoned to Albany. Whenever a new one arrived, someone in the studio would ring a bell and Shelby would cut off conversation with “We have a move!” But due to Spassky’s long thinks, there


were often extensive lulls that had to be filled, somehow. “I do think one of the rea- sons the show was popular is that we really had no idea what was going to hap- pen next, not only on the chessboard but also in the studio. It was not scripted at all,” said Meyer, now president of the Federalist Society.


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