Last month in Salt Lake City, as Derek Parra glided to speed skating glory, Michelle Kwan landed triple axles, and Jim Shea cruised headfirst to victory in skeleton, several other Olympic hopefuls were awaiting their chance to capture the spotlight and, hopefully, win medals. But none of them will be donning skates, skis, or sleds anytime soon: The equipment of these "athletes
consists of bishops, knights, kings, and queens.
But before chess players get their chance, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has to accept chess as a sport. No, it's not the ski jump, the pole vault, or even water polo, but many argue that chess requires just as much concentration, conditioning, and skill. And leading that charge are the Seattle Chess Foundation (SCF) and DDB Public Relations, whose goal was given a significant boost at the US Chess Championships in January.
Getting the IOC to consider chess a sport is one thing, but making that the common perception is something else entirely. But chess players do have the international community on their side. "Especially in Europe and China, it's more of a sport,
says Nancy Gardner, SAE at DDB. "And in India, it's part of the sports page in the newspaper. But it's a hurdle for us here."
Gardner and the SCF realize that while reaching the Olympics is the ultimate goal, smaller steps toward acceptance have to be taken in the meantime.
So the SCF and DDB decided to use the US Chess Championships as a means for attracting more young people to chess, as well as make the media more aware of the SCF and its mission. "We wanted to show that in our culture, we don't just award muscle, but the mind,
To get media attention for the US Chess Championships, Gardner and SCF executive director Michelle Anderson took a page from NBC's Olympic coverage manual, and its frequent looks at the athletes' life stories.
"We highlighted the personalities involved in the competition,
explains Gardner. Among them were a Seattle housewife, as well as a 13-year-old girl from New Jersey, and the three-time US champion, who appeared in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer.
And in a tactic equivalent to the taking of a queen or bishop, Gardner targeted an AP reporter she knew to be an avid chess player.
The AP story was picked up by several outlets, and even made CNN's crawl.
As a result, visits to the SCF website quickly went from thousands to millions, with users staying at the site to watch all the pawn-taking and checkmates in real time. "We've gotten a lot of feedback commending us for our efforts, and for the success of the event,
On February 19, the Puget Sound Chapter of the PRSA presented DDB with a Totem Award for the success of the campaign.
Several problems and concerns remain about chess' validity as a sport, such as whether it would be part of the Summer or Winter Olympics, and whether caffeine should be considered a performance-enhancing drug.
But believing that youth interest is the key to changing perceptions about chess, the SCF has worked to make chess part of several Seattle public schools' curricula. This has led to several other school districts from around the US inquiring as to how they can bring chess into the classroom.
"Seattle is the blueprint to expand,
says Anderson. "There are studies that show that chess improves cognitive development, but the studies are biased, so we need to develop our own research."
The SCF has partnered with the University of Washington in support of that effort. In the meantime, however, the world's chess players are anxiously awaiting the IOC's next move.