Why is it More Exciting to Watch Chess than Endurance Racing?

Some of the most beautiful and impressive machines ever created compete in Formula 1 and endurance racing series such as the FIA WEC. In the GTE category there are some of the fastest sports cars tuned further into aggressive race cars capable of lap times on another level than their road going cousins. The prototype class is a proving ground and test bed for next generation technology that eventually trickles down into everyday road cars. Formula 1 is the absolute pinnacle of technology in materials and aerodynamics but also in race strategy, team work, pre-race setup and of course driver skills.

These are impressive machines competing head to head in tough races over grueling distances, a dream to watch for engineers and petrolheads alike. But the problem is that watching these races are plain boring. Formula 1 is a little better than endurance racing but not enough to actually make me sit down and take time out of my Sunday to do it. So much of what’s actually going on gets lost and the actual TV-production lacks drama. These are sports that are more or less strategy based and right now no one makes a good job of conveying the subtleties that’s going on. Much less connecting it with the actual action on the course.

How can it be that chess and poker are far more exciting to watch than racing? One element missing in racing is the direct interaction between players; an intense stare down, a player trying to keep cool after making a mistake. But this should easily be compensated by the wheel-to-wheel action, the sounds and the sheer intensity of real life racing.

One of the secrets are the commentators and format of the broadcast. Although popularized in 1999 it was with the airing of the World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour on ESPN in 2003 that the hole cam really took off. This device lead to fascinating discussions and analysis of the players potential choices and plays by the commentators. All of a sudden it became possible to understand how the players were thinking and see the traps they set up for each other. Televised cash games took poker to the next level due to the even higher level of strategy and plays involved. In addition to showing the hole cards a normal poker broadcast screen also show the pot size and the chance for a player to get the best hand should he stay until showdown. This is all information that really brings the game closer to the viewer and makes it possible for the commentators to dig deep into the minds of the players.

In contrast to poker I’ve never had much interest in chess, but living in Norway it’s been hard to stay away from it after Magnus Carlsen won the World Chess Championship over Viswanathan Anand in 2013. A combination of a computer that calculates the advantage each player has after each move and an expert panel that shows the potential moves and what they lead to not only makes chess interesting and accessible for novices but captivating, intense and exciting. During the World Championship match of 2014 NRK’s broadcast team has also used twitter to a very good effect by highlighting comments and suggestions of moves from internationally top ranked players and amateurs alike. In a game that’s 100% based on applied theory with no physical skill component or hidden information the broadcast team has made a truly remarkable job of explaining the game and the player’s strategies in a way that’s accessible to anyone.

Why the same evolution of the format and methods isn’t used in motor sports is a mystery to me. The strategy and tactics behind the scenes are on an equal level, there’s titillating action on the track and there’s even live information coming from the drivers during the race. Please, someone, make motor racing inspiring again!