Football and chess are two games that have caught my fascination at a very early age. Not that I’m particularly good at one or the other, but the amount of depth available in interpreting, analyzing and enjoying these games has fascinated me from an early age on. Therefore, as a closing post to the year 2010, in contrast to the usual 11tegen11 match reports, I’ve decided to share my view on the parallels and differences between football journalism and chess journalism.
At first glance, football and chess don’t seem to share all that much. Football matches see two dynamic eleven-men teams face each other on an outside grass pitch, involve an round element called ‘ball’ and generally draw audiences, even at lower levels, of thousands of people. Chess games, on the other hand, may be interpreted as indoor, static, longer lasting intellectual battles between two, often a bit nerdy, men.
Despite these superficial differences, the in-depth strategy involved in both games is very similar. Think of the chess player as the football manager and both sports consist of a match between two teams, with the football players on the same level as the chess pieces. The manager / chess player comes into the match with a prepared game plan, anticipating on the quality and the expected game plan of the opponent. Constant adjustments, balancing between maintaining one’s own strength and limiting the opponent’s game are made as the match carries on and eventually either a winner comes out or a draw has to be agreed.
As football has its home and away (dis)advantage, chess has its white and black pieces and as not every football player has the same attributes and quality, the chess pieces have their respective characteristics too. But here’s where the worlds of chess and football are different too. A rook will always be a rook, irrespectable of its form of the day, its fitness and its mental state during the match. It will perform just as well during the first few moves of the game as it will during the last and it will do exactly as instructed by the player behind the board. Needless to say that football players are different, very different.
Players bring about endlessly more variables than chess pieces. There’s the form of the day, physical and mental fitness, motivation, relations with team mates and/or opponents, and countless other parameters that have to be considered when assessing strategical choices in a football match.
What’s more, chess pieces move in orderly fashion, one at a time with both players taking alternate turns throughout the match. A football match, in contrast, is characterized by a constant movement, or at least potential movement, of all 22 pieces / players involved. And on top of that, these pieces are alive, are constantly making choices of their own, partly thinking about the collective interest and partly of their own, the rate of both parts, again, dependent on their mental characteristics. Therefore, the amount of control exerted by the football manager is incomparable to that of the chess player. Yet, the strategy planned out by the manager remains one of the key determinants of the outcome of a football match.
The art of analyzing football matches starts to approach the way in which chess matches have been analyzed for decades. The typical chess analysis consists of all moves played, annotated with exclamation or question marks for excellent or dubious choices made. It describes the type of opening played, which is in a way comparable to the type of formation that a football team sets out with. The analysis continues with drawing parallels between the match at hand and earlier matches, preferable involving the same players and otherwise listing choices made by other chess players in comparable match situations. The trend to do so for football matches too is currently emerging, at least in the football blogoshpere, at high speed.
Signs of the direction that the match will take are indicated before key events actually take place. In a chess match report, diagrams illustrate where one player has the upper hand and variations of play are shown to explain different directions the game could have taken. Chess computers are able to assess a given match position with a quantified evaluation of both team’s chances, whereas football match reports indicate the early signs of key match events to come by showing screenshots of the player’s position on the pitch, often illustrated by color markings and/or arrows.
In the digital information technology era, video images of football matches can now be recorded, saved for future use and shared. Football fans around the world can now access all sorts of matches from their home computer and allow themselves not only to watch matches live,
but also to re-watch (parts of) matches, or view an integral version of any match at any convenient time or place. Much the same as chess fans have been able for decades, just by taking a game’s notations and a (travel) chess board with them.
In addition to that, there’s an increasing amount of abstract data coming available to assist in experiencing a football game. Companies like OPTA Sports and Infostrada Sports provide elaborate high quality data on all sorts of details involved in a football match. For the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga these kind of data sources are freely accessible and the information provided in chalkboards assists the football consumer to digest matches much like chess fans have done for years. Average position diagrams structure expansive pub discussions on what type of formation a certain team fielded, detailed passing and movement data express what type of role a player played in a certain position.
Therefore, the option that chess fans have had for decades, which is to experience the full game at any desired time or place, comes to life for football fans too. And this bears an enormous influence on the way that traditional media will report on football matches in the near future. Football media are only just on the verge of discovering the vast amount of options available to them to transfer to their customers the details of how a football match reached its final score line. The traditional article describing mostly background information and illustrating just about who scored at what moment in the game has had its longest time. The information technology era will shake football journalism around the world.