News magazine DER SPIEGEL and its chess reporting: „An overwhelming success.“

The even years are chess years: Candidates tournament, Chess Olympiad, World Championship match. For some time now, the editors of SPIEGEL ONLINE have covered events like these extensively. Also in between the big events SPIEGEL ONLINE reports on chess, be it Magnus Carlsen’s beef with the Norwegian federation or Vincent Keymer’s eagerly awaited Grandmaster title.

Lukas Rilke (39), Deputy Head of Sports Department at DER SPIEGEL. (Foto: Jeannette Corbeau)

DER SPIEGEL is the largest European news magazine, its online offshoot SPIEGEL ONLINE is, according to Wikipedia, one of the most widely read and the most frequently quoted German news website. Why would they do chess? We talked to Lukas Rilke, Deputy Head of the SPIEGEL’s sports department, about why an old board game is so attractive, why SPIEGEL readers want more of this than other, supposedly more modern sports.

Chess is neither fast nor colorful nor loud? „Exactly!,“ says Rilke, explaining how chess, traditionally covered prominently in the printed magazine, has found its way into the online coverage of one of the largest German-language news portals. And why it’s going to stay there.

The printed SPIEGEL used to report about chess regularly and extensively. SPIEGEL ONLINE continues this tradition. Why?

In fact the printed SPIEGEL’s chess reporting lead to the website reporting, too. Initially, our magazine authors and freelance writers also wrote for the website. Nevertheless, until a few years ago SPIEGEL ONLINE had never reported as extensively as we do now.

What changed?

Before the 2013 World Championship we had noticed a captivating Carlsen portrait in English-language media, a colleague had watched a Carlsen documentary. „Exciting guy,“ we thought and decided to give chess more space than usual. Christian Gödecke and Mike Glindmeier, then heads of our sports department, pushed this experiment. They decided to do the works: expert game analysis, portraits, pre-reporting. Chess should be one of our main focuses during the match and we should be the online site with the best and most informed coverage. Together with ChessBase, for example, we developed the chess live ticker. Until then, our readers only knew a ticker from other sports.

All this just because Magnus Carlsen is an exciting guy?

Chess was connected to our publishing house anyway given the the chess tradition at the printed SPIEGEL. We also believed that chess would interest our readers. Chess texts had always worked well, better than those about other smaller sports. Now we wanted to illuminate this mysterious scene, show the brilliant characters who roam in it. We assumed there was potential, but we did not know if that would work of course.

„Exciting guy,“ we thought: Before the 2013 Anand-Carlsen match for the World Championship the editors of the sports department decided to cover chess bigger and better than every competitor. „The success was overhwhelmig,“ says Lukas Rilke. Since this match news magazine DER SPIEGEL has rebooted its chess reporting tradition online.

And?

The success was overwhelming. We counted many more clicks than we expected during the 2013 match. Also, the resonance: We received a lot of mail, gratifying feedback, and the scene was talking about what we’re doing. That in turn gave our team pleasure: we had created something that caught on. This success is the foundation of the new tradition of our chess reporting.

Chess as a clicker.

I have to relativize this aspect from today’s perspective. In 2013, clicks were the hardest currency in online journalism. A live chess ticker generates a lot of them when people play back and forth. Today, clicks are still important, especially in the context of the ad business, but in the editorial team we look at visitor numbers and the length of their stay in the first place. How many people view a journalistic form, do they read to the end, that’s what I care for. Chess works very well in this regard.

Your success story „live ticker“ reminds me of the chess scene’s internet Stone Age. Many years ago grandmasters typed their comments live. Then bandwidths increased and the age of live streams began. Today there is at least one, sometimes there are several streams for every top tournament. Increasingly, we see high end chess TV for several hours, produced with a lot of effort. No tickers anymore. But SPIEGEL ONLINE continues to rely on it?

The ticker has a firm place in our coverage. This is related to how SPIEGEL ONLINE is used: by people in the office or people on the go who check in from time to time. Nobody visits our site with the intention of watching a chess stream for several hours. For us, the ticker is the more appropriate model: you do not have to stay tuned for hours, you do not need headphones or the like. Many chess fans open our live ticker at the beginning of the game. It then stays open for hours, and the visitor checks in again and again.

Would you also do chess if there was no Carlsen? Or put differently: Does a fringe sport require a superstar to be interesting for you?

Not necessarily. Of course, Magnus Carlsen makes chess more accessible. Many of our readers know him, he has a high recognition factor. On the other hand, regardless of the sport, we repeatedly find that we can captivate readers by showing exciting characters from a close-up perspective, something only authors with expertise can do. Many colleagues could write a Carlsen portrait, but to be close to someone who is not or not yet in the limelight requires an author with expert knowledge. With Florian Pütz we have someone who knows his way around, who follows chess diligently. That’s good news for our chess coverage.

SPIEGEL ONLINE chess reporter Florian Pütz (right) with World Chess CEO Ilya Merenzon at the Grand Prix in Hamburg. (Foto: World Chess)

You are a sports expert, but say you are „not a big chess expert“. Do you know a German chess player whose name isn’t Keymer?

Um … (ponders)

Please do not feel exposed. In my opinion hardly anyone in German chess sees the need to produce characters whose stories to tell will seem attractive to someone like you. Now I’m trying to find out how much of our national top chess makes it to a leading German sports editorial office.

Sure. I am bad with names unfortunately. For me as a golfer, „Keymer“ is easy because of the similarity to Martin Kaymer. But someone else, hmm … (ponders) … Luis Engel? Is that his name?

Whoa! I expected „Hübner“.

The little chess knowledge I have comes from work. We have covered Keymer of course, also Luis Engel when he became the youngest German grandmaster.

Do you know a German international?

Unfortunately, there’s no name I can come up with beyond Keymer and Engel.  

Second youngest German Grandmaster: Luis Engel. (Foto: Niki Riga)

What do you have in store for chess-affine SPIEGEL-ONLINE readers? The Candidates Tournament is imminent, Carlsen’s challenger will be determined there, then the World Championship match.

We have covered past Candidates Tournaments with live tickers, portraits, reports and analysis. We will probably do that again in 2020. Same goes for the World Championship match. Apart from that, I’m curious which topics or characters Florian Pütz proposes to illuminate. We do not have a minimum chess quota that we want to meet, but chess texts between all the football serve the mix on our side well. There will also be chess when there is no Candidates Tournament or World Championship.

Is chess old-fashioned? Does it need more action?

In my perception, chess represents an anachronism. Its tradition is a major part of its charm. A chessboard is a chessboard, everyone knows the pieces, a lot of people know the rules at least. The basic idea has been unchanged for centuries: two players, one board in between, and the game lasts for a long time. People enjoy this recognizability, maybe even long for it. There may be a fundamental longing of humans that nothing shall change, we experience it when rules in other sports change. Our readers do not like the video referee in football at all for example.

One debate in chess is about whether the game has to become faster in order to reach more people.

In my view, the fact that it may last throughout the day makes a game of chess attractive. A chess duel can be followed by occasionally looking closer, otherwise it runs alongside. Chess has something meditative even. If a game was finished after half an hour the viewer would experience pressure to not miss anything. From the perspective of SPIEGEL ONLINE I can tell you that chess works the way it is …

… hallelujah!

…?

Those who want to make the game faster say that nobody watches chess for five or six hours. I believe that this argument misses the heart of the matter. If you watch chess, be it via stream, on Norwegian television or in your live ticker, you are engaged in chess for hours. Not because you watch all the time, but because it’s on your mind all the time. This unique feature of our sport would fall away if it was played quicker. Unfortunately, with this view I feel like being part of a shrinking minority. Now you, someone who knows his stuff, have come out as an ally. Therefore: hallelujah!

(Laughs) Chess organizers have to decide what their stage should be. If chess is supposed to fill halls, then it would have to get faster probably because nobody has that much time. But if chess is to be presented like we do then it fits as it is.

Rapid chess fills halls like it did at the Tata Steel Chess India recently. One may argue that it’s not ideal for online coverage. (Foto: Tata Steel Chess)

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