Interview with Macauley Peterson

Macauley (centre) with his chess24 commentary team GM Jan Gustaffson and IM Lawrence Trent at the 2014 chess Olympiad in Tromso.

Macauley (centre) with his chess24 commentary team GM Jan Gustafsson and IM Lawrence Trent at the 2014 chess Olympiad in Tromso.

I’m scheduled to meet chess24’s ‘Content Director’, Macauley Peterson, in London the day after the 2015 edition of the London Chess Classic has finished. He’s been there to orchestrate the live online commentary but isn’t due to fly home to Hamburg until later on the following day so he has a little bit of time to take a break after a busy production schedule during the Classic.

I think we both anticipated a leisurely ninety minutes or so to chat about the tournament, his work and the future of online chess. Unexpectedly, the Classic itself has put paid to that idea. The previous day saw a dramatic final round in which World Champion Magnus Carlsen beat Alexander Grischuk to draw level with the leaders Anish Giri and Maxime Vacher-Lagrave. This called for a series of blitz play-offs, and with the tournament organisers seemingly caught off-guard by this outcome. The final day’s play went on late into the night. There was even a chance that a second play-off for the overall Chess Grand Tour title would be needed if Vacher-Lagrave had won the first play-off. That outcome would have completely put paid to my meeting with Macauley, but predictably, the World Champion over-powered the exhausted Frenchman and there was no need for more rapid or blitz chess on the Monday.

Nevertheless, the late finish has meant that Macauley is still in Olympia tidying away his audio visual equipment when I arrive. Gamely he offers to begin our conversation as he does his packing and so it felt like the best place to start would be by asking him for his views on the tournament which he’s been involved with from its earliest incarnations.

“I’ve had the pleasure of producing the on­site live webcast every year since 2010 (the 2nd Classic) and the goal has been to make incremental improvements each time. This year the biggest change was the addition of the Grand Chess Tour, so there was extra focus on the tournament as the culmination of the inaugural cycle, with lots of extra prize money at stake. The London Classic has always been a high profile event, and the new partnership looks to build out its international reputation even more. The tournament was bigger and stronger than any of the previous editions.”

I ask Macauley if there have been any moments from this year’s competition that he will remember with particular fondness.

“I always enjoy Alexander Grischuk’s dry sense of humor in the post­game interviews. His explanation of some of his time trouble escapades were memorable.”

(An example of Grishcuk’s deadpan postgame interviews is in the video link above. Fast forward to 04:27:37 to see him interviewed after his game with Anish Giri who joins him, Jan Gustafsson and Daniel King in the commentary room.)

I tell Macauley that Grischuk’s post-mortems are also on my list of highlights. We agree that the Russian was an ideal opponent for Carlsen to have faced in the final round. There was no chance of Grischuk playing for a draw when a win would have seen him tie for first instead of the World Champion. That game was simply never going to be a draw. For that reason, their encounter would probably be my choice for game of the tournament.

As Macauley finishes off his packing our conversation turns to the subject of live commentary, and in particular, commentators. I observe that the commentary team for the London Chess Classic is extensive and diverse, perhaps more so than any other tournament broadcast. There were a few new faces this year and I mention that I was particularly impressed with Grand Master Nigel Davies who was clear and not too excitable (which I consider to be a positive characteristic). Macauley tells me that rapport is the key to developing a team that is both entertaining and educational:

“It tends to take a little while for commentators to develop a rapport, so the first time is usually not the best, but I think Jan (Gustafsson) and Danny (King) have a lot of potential as a team. It also helps that the players tend to be very generous with their time in London, providing a lot of insight into the game and entertainment for the live audience both in the hall and online, and this year was no exception.”

As we leave Olympia complete with Macauley’s panoply of flight cases full of kit, I decide it’s time to ask him how he ended up working in this relatively new area for chess. He gives me his back story as we wander across to the hotel next to the venue where we’d originally been scheduled to meet.

“It was a quite a gradual process in fact. I wrote a few magazine articles in 2005­2006, and then went to Amsterdam for a Masters in Film Studies (theory and criticism). I’d previously worked with video and editing, and a bit  of journalism, but also had taught chess in schools for many years in New York and New Jersey, including running my own after school programmes, so I had quite a varied background.

After freelancing for the  Internet Chess Club throughout 2007, I was offered full time work with them, which I did from 2008­2010. At that point live video was just starting to take off, and I saw that this was going to be the future of the sport, so I set up a company to independently produce live webcasts, in addition to other video and writing pursuits. For the next two and a half years or so I travelled all over producing shows at tournaments like the London Classic, including a dozen or so productions for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

But I’d also envisioned a  new kind of online platform leveraging video to bridge the gap between the booming scholastic market, and the professional sport. Peter Doggers (of ChessVibes and now and I had spent quite a while sketching the outlines of such a platform while I was with the ICC, but we didn’t have the capital or the programming expertise to get it off the ground.  Nevertheless, when I read the business plan and early designs for chess24 in May of 2012 it was extremely familiar. They were actually building what we’d only been dreaming of. I signed on to join the project a few months later and moved to Germany (after having lived in the Netherlands for much of the previous few years).”

Remember this? The much missed Full English Breakfast podcast (hosted by Macauley) last aired in January 2014. You can still find a lot of the episodes on iTunes.

Remember this? The much missed Full English Breakfast podcast (hosted by Macauley) last aired in January 2014. You can still find a lot of the episodes on iTunes.

At this point I feel I have to ask Macauley about another of his pre-chess24 projects – The Full English Breakfast podcast –  which he produced and hosted with regular guests the English players IM Lawrence Trent and GM Stephen Gordon. I know that a lot of chess fans (particularly in the UK) really miss that show and I wonder if it’s dead forever or might it make a comeback sometime? Macauley has both good and bad news for me on this subject.

“The FEB is now officially dead. Lawrence is managing Fabiano Caruana and Stephen is working full time outside of chess. However, I’m working on a new chess podcast to be launched later this year, which will definitely carry the mantle of the FEB to some extent.”

By now we’ve reached the Hilton Hotel next to Olympia and as we sit with a cup of coffee I start to ask Macauley about chess24. His job title is ‘Content Director’ which sounds a bit mysterious for anyone how isn’t familiar with the internet industry. What does his role involve?

“It varies widely. I have some level of involvement in everything to do with video that appears, including the Premium Video Series, and I’m the primary contact with tournament organisers interested in our broadcast / webcast system. The News section is editorially separate (Colin McGourty is the editor in chief), but I also help out there from time to time. Everything is interrelated, however, and we’re a small company so my day to day will also include many other areas of the platform’s content development and testing, marketing, and community interaction.”

I tell Macauley that I’ve been really impressed with the way in which chess24 has managed to carve out a niche for itself so quickly in an online services market for chess that includes very well established brands like his previous employers the Internet Chess Club as well as Chessbase and chess24 appear to have built their reputation and success to date largely on the back of their live broadcasts. But I’ve also noticed that they do things a little differently from some of their competitors. How would Macauley describe the chess24 philosophy?

“Tournament broadcasts have indeed been a showcase in our first two years, and I think it’s safe to say we are the clear leader in presenting live chess online at this point, but ultimately that’s just one item on the Watch menu. The site encompasses the full range of online chess activities. The Internet has transformed the way people play, learn and watch chess, and chess24 aspires to be the only chess site you’ll ever need. Many online destinations are good at one or a few things, but we want to be the best at everything. To get there we rely on the rapidly growing community of players and fans to refine the experience and set the direction of new features.”

It feels like I’ve given Macauley enough of an opportunity to plug his product! Now it’s time to move on again and I want to take the opportunity to ask this leading light of the online chess revolution what impact he considers the developments of the last five years or so have had on the professional game. Perhaps surprisingly he still thinks there is a long journey ahead.

“Chess is being watched live by more people in more countries than ever before. But the numbers are still quite small compared to other sports, so I expect it will be some time yet before we see a substantial impact. It’s very much still in an experimental phase, but I see a lot of potential for chess as a sport to gain mass appeal. That’s needed to achieve the level of sponsorship that will reward players commensurate with their effort.”

This answer tells me that Macauley is thinking big and has a clear idea of how he’d like to see the industry help to develop the sport, so how does he see live broadcast and commentary developing in the next five years?

“We’ll continue to see increasing use of live video to showcase chess events, and not only the major tournaments; the technology around online video is always getting cheaper and easier to implement, which will open up options for organisers at all levels and budgets. There will also be more information available to break down the action and make it accessible to a wider audience. Now, with computer evaluations and expert commentary, the games of even the best can be appreciated by chess fans at all levels. chess24 has added interactive live broadcast boards, which allow you to try your own moves while you watch, and also gives ready–‐access to tools like an opening tree and database to enhance the viewing experience. Lately, a few organizers have been experimenting with providing biometric data like heart rate and stress levels of the players, and if these are embraced by the community we will certainly look at building them into our platform as well.”

It sounds like there are plenty of interesting developments in the pipeline at chess24 and the success of the company is driving others in the sector to up their game as well. Clearly chess fans can look forward to some exciting times ahead. But I wonder what impact Macauley thinks online chess is having on over-the-board (OTB) chess, at least at an amateur level. I tell him that, in England at least, OTB chess seems to be dying a slow death with participation levels in league and weekend tournaments declining. What does he think that the game in general, and online services in particular, can do to convert some of the many millions of online only players into OTB players, or does he think OTB chess is dead at an amateur level? He tells me that he thinks the two are inextricably linked.

“The goal of online services should be to grow the chess community in absolute terms. There are certainly a lot more possibilities to use online tools and communities in place of OTB activities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that OTB play can’t grow along with them if the overall active chess community is increasing. For me, chess as a team sport was a social activity first and foremost. Growing up, scholastic competitions were a formative extracurricular endeavor and I continue to enjoy competing today. In fact, chess24 participates in a local company league here in Hamburg. We are certainly interested in partnering with tournaments, chess clubs, schools and other organisations expanding the reach of the game.”

My time with Macauley is drawing to a close so I end the interview by asking him about a news story that broke the day before we met (14th of December) which saw the company behind ‘World Chess’, Agon, signing a broadcasting deal with the Norwegian TV network NRK to televise the World Championship, Candidates Tournament and World Blitz and Rapid Chess tournaments until 2020. In the past, chess on television hasn’t really worked very well but NRK, riding the wave of Carlsen-mania in his home country do at least seem to have made it work in Norway. I ask Macauley what, if anything, television can still bring to chess that online coverage can’t?

“TV can bring higher budgets, entertainment expertise and broader distribution reach through established media channels. Norway is unique at this point in time, however. It’s a small country where the World Champion is a superstar. NRK and TV2 have both mounted excellent productions in the past two or three years, but they are firmly focused on Norwegian language content. To have a truly global impact, a media company of NRK’s caliber would need to be interested in producing content in English for worldwide distribution.”

We agree that this occurrence still seems to be a long way off happening but until then the global community of chess fans can look forward to much more from chess24 who clearly have plans to develop their product and work with tournament organisers to create the best possible broadcast experience for everyone.

Post Script
Since I interviewed Macauley at the end of last year there has been another significant development in the world of live online chess broadcasting. At the recent 2016 Candidates Tournament to decide the next challenger to Magnus Carlsen, the organisers, Agon, announced that they were not going to permit any third parties to broadcast the moves of the games live. They initiated legal action against chess24, the Internet Chess Club, and who all went ahead and transmitted the moves (or broadcasted live commentary) anyway. The online debate about Agon’s approach and the legal basis for their position has raged on since then. The discussion seems to have at its heart a key question: who (if anyone) owns the intellectual property rights for the moves of a chess game?

I contact Macauley by email to ask him if these recent developments have changed anything for chess24 and their competitors. Is this a new and alarming trend for online chess broadcasters or are Agon just testing the boundaries?

“At this point, we don’t know. chess24 was alarmed insofar as the Agon policy was announced just one week before the start of the Candidates and we already had our commentary team hired, travel booked, and so on. In fact, we had Colin (McGourty) in Moscow to report from on site, which he did for the days leading up to and including the first round, before being asked to leave — his press credentials were revoked. Obviously we don’t agree with that approach and are confident that the way we transmitted the live games is legal. I can’t comment on any actual or potential legal wrangling beyond that, but probably we haven’t heard the end of this.”

That seems like a suitably open ended note to end this interview with. ‘Watch this space’ as any good online broadcaster might say!


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