[Edition 29] Several years ago, the look-out was grim. Falling attendance at tournaments, dropping sales of chess-sets and reports of school chess clubs closing across the world pointed to an eventual decline and, perhaps, an end to chess as we know it. All this has turned around 180 degrees with the appointment in 1999 of a new CEO, Jonathon Yates.
One of chess’s younger fan relaxes during a game
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[Edition 29] LAUSANNE, Wednesday: In the battle for the hearts, minds and pocket-money of the notoriously fickle youth market, there is little room for sentimentality.
This was the simple truth that faced the organisation that once called itself the “International Chess Federation”.
Several years ago, the look-out was grim. Falling attendance at tournaments, dropping sales of chess-sets and reports of school chess clubs closing across the world pointed to an eventual decline and, perhaps, an end to chess as we know it.
All this has turned around 180 degrees with the appointment in 1999 of a new CEO, Jonathon Yates.
Yates, whose background in advertising and management consultancy prepared him for an ‘image-sensitive’ post like the top job at the ICF, has a reputation as a tough corporate warrior who was prepared to take on established ways of doing things.
On his first day, after a 15-minute orientation to introduce him to the history, culture and rules of playing chess, Yates told his management team that, in his view, “complete reconstructive surgery” was needed to save the sport.
Yates is uncompromising in his approach, and it shows in his candid assessment of the situation in 1999. “We were stuck in the past – locked into a ‘look and feel’ that didn’t address the market. There simply wasn’t a value proposition involved. No hook.” So the Federation accepted advice from a high level advisory team, lead by German-born enfant terrible of M&C Saatchi’s “youth markets” division, Yusuf Clergen.
A series of strategic focus groups identified an image problem. “Kids felt that we were too hidebound, unable to appeal to their more radical side” notes Yates, who attended many of the group sessions.
“Many of the potential clients spoke with distaste of the association between the game that they knew as chess, and what they saw as – and I’m quoting an example here – “brainy nerd-faced suckmeisters”. Again and again, terms like “nerd”, “geek”, “dickhead”, “poindexter” and “freakazoid” were used to articulate a deep-seated frustration that was clearly damaging our chances of establishing a client relationship.”
The answer was a total overhaul of the game’s image, beginning with the name. “We conducted a survey and established that ‘Xtreme Chequerboarding’ was a more accepted name amongst key demographics.
“Many were already familiar with, and more positively disposed towards, the game former known as ‘Chequers’ (now trading as ‘Kingmaker:2000’) and considered it to be not nearly ‘gag-a-rama’ as Chess.”
Also up for graps were the board-design – still a closely kept secret (“I’ll tell you now – we haven’t ruled out a half-pipe version”), the terminology of play (“We’ve found that ‘Yo Bitch!’ is much more arresting that plain old ‘Check'”)and the structure of tournaments (“Why not include categories like ‘Most awesome cutback’ and ‘Wackiest Pawn Sacrifices’ to keep interest up?”)
The first of a planned series of expansion packs, “Xtreme Chequerboarding II: ‘Dinosaurs to Queen’s Pawn Four!'” will hit the shops later this summer.