Is chess a spectator sport? Can a complicated, cerebral game in which players occasionally ponder key moves for an hour or more make successful TV fare? As the latest world championship match between Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov unfolds in Seville, Spain, Americans are having a chance to decide.
An analysis of selected games is being presented on PBS's ``1987 World Chess Championships,'' whose host is Shelby Lyman, the New York master who has performed the same function during every world title match since the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky duel in 1972.
The one-hour programs are carried on a delayed basis, with each station scheduling them as it sees fit; so it is necessary to check local listings for dates and times.
``They said we were crazy in '72,'' Mr. Lyman recalled in an interview this week. ``They said people would never watch chess on TV. We heard all the jokes about watching grass grow, watching paint dry, and so on. But we were on for entire five-hour playing sessions, and people watched it and liked it. We actually outdrew the Mets when we were on against them.''
Of course, the 1972 match was unique. Even ordinary Americans who had never played chess were fascinated by Fischer, the controversial enfant terrible who, after bursting upon the scene as a teen-age prodigy, had stormed to the top of the world's rankings via a series of crushing victories and was now in the process of wresting the crown from decades of Soviet possession. Lyman and his panel of experts presented the games live to an eagerly waiting audience as as the moves came in from Reykjavik, Iceland, and the whole thing was a big success.
Since then, with Fischer dropping from the scene and the Soviets again dominating the game, the US public has shown much less interest. And so Lyman has concluded - undoubtedly correctly - that he needs a lot more than pure chess to attract anyone except dyed-in-the-wool followers of the game. Thus his coverage of the 1984, '85, and '86 Kasparov-Karpov encounters and the 1978 and '81 title matches between Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi featured ``human interest'' segments as well as analysis.
This time, Lyman is weighting the coverage even more heavily on the human side. Thus the program is probably aimed for the somewhat casual player - with the hope that there will be enough serious analysis to keep the aficionados tuned in and not too much to turn the general audience off.
It's a delicate balancing trick, with Lyman never letting any one element hold the stage too long as he switches back and forth from game analysis to various theme episodes throughout the eight-program series, some segments of which have already aired in some communities.
The overall package includes such topics as computer chess; women in chess; chess in education; the infusion of big prize money ($2-3 million a year) for world class players; and, on the lighter side, chess hustlers, chess set design, and variations of the game such as Chinese chess and 3-D chess.
Each week Lyman selects the most interesting recent contest in the 24-game match, announces at the beginning that it is a re-creation, then presents it as though the game were actually in progress. To achieve spontaneity, the two masters who serve as panelists refrain from looking at the games beforehand so the moves they analyze are indeed new to them. But Lyman never lets the commentary go on too long without moving to the human-interest elements.
WNYC in New York, the producing station, sent a crew to Europe last summer to shoot pre-match interviews with Kasparov, Karpov, and other chess figures, and these are weaved in from time to time along with telephone calls to International Master Jonathan Tisdall, who serves as the show's correspondent in Seville. And there are excursions into blitz games and other aspects of chess designed to show it as a more active and exciting pastime than is generally perceived.
The regular weekly panel also includes two North American children who have been world champions in their age categories (9 and 11 years old), plus a special guest who has expertise in the topic of the week. For example, Jack Collins, a famous New York master who was Fischer's first mentor and continues to spearhead youth chess, appears in an episode dealing with Bobby's career, while Anna Akhsharumova, twice the Soviet Union's women's champion and now a US resident, will be the guest on the ``women in chess'' program.
Program-by-program, the themes are: 1. Prologue, including interviews with the combatants and a recap of their previous matches. 2. Chess the sporting struggle. 3. Bobby Fischer. 4. Chess in education. 5. Women in chess. 6. Chess and computers. 7. Chess as a major sport. 8. Chess in America.