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Interview with Mike Klein, Chess Journalist of the Year Print E-mail
By Jennifer Shahade   
August 18, 2012
FM Mike Klein, at work at the STL Chess Club
Popular writer, coach and journalist FM Mike Klein talked to CLO after being anointed as the 2012 "Chess Journalist of the Year" by CJA. Mike answered these questions while traveling around Eastern Europe, from Sarajevo to Zagreb before heading to Istanbul for three weeks, to cover the 2012 Olympiad for both CLO and Chess Life Magazine.

See full list of CJA award winners on the official site, and at the end of this article.

Jennifer Shahade (JS)
- Tell us a little about your background in journalism.
Michael Klein (MK)-I have a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I worked for several sports publications while I was there, and I interned at a small weekly newspaper at N.C.'s Outer Banks. I also completed an internship at the Charlotte Observer, where I accidentally wrote a front page story on my first day (senior reporters were either out of town for the holidays, or covering the murder trial of one of the Panther's former football players). At the midday meeting, the publisher of the paper found out an intern who'd been on the job for five hours would be above the fold on 1A and turned to the metro editor and recited some mild profanity. It all turned out well in the end.

A few years ago I began to write for Chess Life and Chess Life Online, which was my reintroduction to the journalism world. I'm happy to blend chess and writing.

JS -Which journalists or specific works have influenced you the most, in chess and in the mainstream? 
MK-I like long-form nonfiction. One of my favorite writers is Burkhard Bilger. The subject matter of his feature writing is all over the map, from skydiving to craft beer, and his writing is nonpareil. David Foster Wallace's piece in 2006 on Roger Federer showed me the peak of sports writing, which was especially important after covering college athletics. I'm hoping someone writes something about a chess player that could close to matching his artistry. I'm also really impressed with the depth of research with writers like David Grann - "A Murder Foretold" is as gripping as it gets. And I'm a sucker for first person travel narratives. Tony Horwitz is a riot and Paul Thereux is the still the master.

As for chess writing, I was really engrossed by J.C. Hallman's The Chess Artist. Maybe it takes someone from outside the chess community to offer his insights. I'm also hoping Jesse Kraai writes more about chess. I think he's penning a novel now, and I'll be the first in line to read it.

JS -When you read a chess report online or in a magazine, what do you often think is missing?
MK-More direct quotes give the story life. I like to think of chess players as athletes, and as such it is incumbent upon them to offer interviews, even after painful losses. I think top players are getting much better about this because they see a renaissance in the way tournaments are being publicized. The human drama helps the sport grow. I think most top tournaments should make post game interviews mandatory, whether a player wins, loses or draws.

I'm also glad to see fewer writers expound upon the tournament organization. Too often in Chess Life articles from years ago we had to read five paragraphs about how great the lighting was. I realize many organizers are volunteers, but when I read about the World Series, I don't want 500 words on how MLB gave the players a fancy locker room. I want to read about the games.

JS-What’s the best thing to happen to chess journalism in recent years? 
MK -This is easy. Real-time commentary by witty, talented chess players. I realize it is more chess production than journalism, but the quality has made watching live chess fun.

Also the bounty of chess news sites that are vying for scoops has made players and officials more accountable for their actions, even if there is a long way to go in terms of making the game better.

JS- What are some of the best or worst questions you can ask a chess professional after a tough game? 
MK -I just try to get out of their way and let them talk. My "day job" is teaching chess, so when I go to report an event, I go from the smartest chess player in the room to a guy who tries not to say anything stupid. I ask a lot about emotions during the game, because you never know what a player will discuss. Once, Yury Shulman referenced a Bangladeshi Cricket match while being interviewed. You won't get that if you only ask, "Why didn't you play Ng5?"

As for worst question, no player ever seems willing to admit that they have looked more than one game ahead in a round-robin, so there's little use in asking. I also try to avoid asking questions where players can give stock answers. If a player says to me that he/she is just "taking it one game at a time" then I probably haven't asked a very good question.

Mike in Budapest, Hungary
JS- A few years ago, you won a Best of CLO award for “Castling Queenside Around the World." Tell us a little bit about that epic trip. 
MK- My last big trip was nine months long and went around the world. I got to see a lot of places and now I have the luxury of returning to places that I liked. In the winter of 2008 I was in the northern Balkan countries - Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia. This time I wanted to see the more southern Balkans, so I flew into Bulgaria, but then traveled to Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro (completing the tour the seven former Yugoslav republics), before going back north to Croatia and Bosnia again.

In Sofia, I played a few games in the park against their best player. After winning a few, he did the typical park trick of changing the squares pieces were on, only using touch-move for me, and of course not paying after he lost. Still, it was not about the money. I left after earning the respect of the people there, and they were surprised that an American with a backpack was capable. 

Later I met a bartender who claimed she lived next door to Veselin Topalov, but it may have been bluster. Still, she at least knew his name! I've taught chess to eager travelers in a few hostels and today I returned to the square in Sarajevo with the oversized chess set. Like my first visit here, the cadre of old grumpy men would not let me in to play.

JS- How many countries have you been to?
MK- I've been to about 55 countries. The exact number is fuzzy. For instance, among countries I don't count would be Denmark and Ethiopia, as I've only been to their airports. But should I count countries I've only had a meal in and not spent the night (Italy, Monaco, Albania and Lichtenstein, though I would offer that more than half of all people who have been to Lichtenstein have not spent the night)? The number by itself it vapid, but I would like to know for myself if I ever get to 100 countries. As Thereux would doubtless agree, travel is pretty selfish anyway, so keeping a count is maybe a natural result (when you go to a lot of these countries, you see how ridiculous it is that you want to visit 100 countries and some people you meet will never travel 100km). Still, I've yet to visit a country that ceases to exist in present day, which I think would be a good indication that you are well-traveled.

Varuzhan Akobian and I talk about travel a lot when we see each other. He's been to nearly as many countries, though mostly to play chess, so I feel lucky that I chose a career (teaching and writing) that allows me to see so many places without always being burdened by "work". It's funny that he is the world-class grandmaster from half a world away but he is habitually inquiring about where I've been. It is fun to exchange stories, but I suppose I would trade 20 countries for 200 rating points.

Mike in Dresden
JS- What was the highlight of covering the 2008 Olympiad in Dresden? 
MK- The highlight was the final day. Journalists are supposed to be dispassionate chroniclers of events, but when the both American squads medaled in dramatic fashion, it was hard not to be moved. I really enjoyed seeing the ten U.S. players and how much the event meant to them.

There is also a great vegetarian restaurant in Dresden that I will return to someday. In many ways it was an ideal city for hosting an Olympiad. Not too big where the event gets drowned out, but certainly sizable enough to offer good hotels, history and nightlife.

JS- You've also been doing a lot of intense media work during US Chess Championships in STL including some on camera work with me! How different it is to write and perform on camera than write for print?
MK- In college, us print media people looked down upon broadcast journalists. As Mitch Hedberg quipped, "If you have to deliver bad news to the public, it would help if you are not ugly." Now I understand that being on camera requires a special set of skills and not just a pretty face, which despite the protests of my girlfriend, is not my defining feature I assure you. I'm also fortunate that you are on the other half of the camera. Your legions of fans probably don't even know I'm there.

Being on camera is intense, rapid, and in many ways unnatural. The turnaround before publication is one night, not one month. I rely on good editing to hide my shallow learning curve. To show my naivety, the last video report that I did from St. Louis, I showed up in a green tie. The green screen of course does not allow for such indiscretions, and I was left borrowing a tie from Rex Sinquefield, who can dress quite dapper.

FM Mike Klein and WGM Jennifer Shahade covering the 2012 US Chess Champs in STL

JS-  I was in Turkey for the 2000 Olympiad, and Istanbul is one of the most exciting cities I've ever visited. What are you looking forward to about the upcoming Olympiad?
MK- I'm excited about the quality and chances of the U.S. teams. They are both stronger than in 2008 and if you are to believe some of their comments, this may be one of the last chances for an "aging" open team to do well. There is still a lot of questions about the organization and location, so we will have to see how it all comes together. I plan to eat a lot of falafel and baklava.

JS- Any closing thoughts on being recognized as 2012's Chess Journalist of the Year?
MK-I'm humbled that I won this award, as I'm only a part-time journalist and a relative newcomer when you look at recent past winners. Im not sure I belong in their company. My chess isn't getting any better so I'm glad I'm still getting better at something. 

Prize List for 2012 CJA Awards

Best Features Article

Winner: The Awonder Years - Brad Rosen

Best Humorous Contribution

Winner: Bobby Fischer's Shoe, or The Absolute Truth by Mark Taylor

Best Instructive Lesson
Winner: I Don't Know What to Do? by Dan Heisman

Best Review

Winner: New York 1927 by Joel Benjamin


Best Chess Magazine Newsletter Layout
Winner: Chess Life, July 2011 - Daniel Lucas

Mainstream Media
Best Regular Newspaper Article of Local Interest
Winner: Forfeit by Disconnection Wins by Bill Cornwall
Honorable Mention: Aaron Wins State High School Championship with 6-0 Score at Saratoga Springs by Peter Henner

Best Regular Newspaper Column

Winner: Americans Reach the Pinnacle by Bill Cornwall
Honorable Mention: Battle Between Teenage Grandmasters by Peter Henner

Excellence in Chess Writing, Mainstream Media
New Media
Alexandra's efforts to promote chess was featured in the recent CLO piece, "The Chess Queen Wears Prada"
Best Chess Blog
Winner: www.chessblog.com - Alexandra Kosteniuk

Best General Chess Website

Winner: uschess.org

Best USCF State Chapter Website

Winner: www.calchess.org
Honorable Mention: www.masschess.org

Best Tournament Report Article

Winner: Chess Burns in Iceland by Macauley Petersen

News or Features
Best Analysis

Winner: Mikenas Benoni - Larry Evans and Cory Evans
Honorable Mention: Opposites Attract - David Vigorito

Best Article for Children

Best Chess Art
Winner: Winding Down by Caroline Kaye
Honorable Mention: Chess in Isolation by Martin Bibbs

Best Historical Article

Winner: A Game of Considerable Ego Involvement by Neil Brennen

Best Interview

Winner: Tale of a Winter Rating Spike: An Interview with Matthew Herman by Jennifer Shahade

Most Notable Achievement in Correspondence Chess

Winner: Brave New World: Human Intuition by Howard Sandler, Ph.D. and the Chessgames.com World Team

Best Chess Photojournalism

Winner: Krush/Seirawan - St. Louis Chess Club (no photographer named)

Top Five
Best Chess Column

Winner: Novice Nook by Dan Heisman

Best State Magazine - Newsletter

Winner: Georgia Chess by Mark Taylor, et al.

Best Story of the Year

Winner: "I Must Tell You ..." by Al Lawrence
Honorable Mention: Tenacious by Al Lawrence

Chess Journalist of the Year

Winner: Mike Klein


Winner: The United States Chess Championship, 1845 - 2011 by Andy Soltis

Find out  more about the CJA on the official website and look for FM Mike Klein's reportage on the 40th Olympiad in Istanbul here on Chess Life Online and in an upcoming issue of Chess Life Magazine.