Knightly Newsman Shelby Lyman Makes Chess a TV Spectator Sport

updated 10/06/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/1986 01:00AM

Pushing for a win in the 18th game of the world chess championship series in Leningrad, defending title holder Gary Kasparov has seemingly shredded challenger Anatoly Karpov's defense. As Karpov fights back, a rapt U.S. television audience follows the action with Shelby Lyman, the whimsical, Socratic host of public TV's World Championship Chess.

After posting the latest moves on a wall-size board, Lyman turns to his panel of chess mavens for analysis. Anticipation fills the room as Lyman receives a printout of the next series of moves. With his allotted time running out, Kasparov has made a fatal mistake. Karpov has seized the opening to gain a victory and pull within a game of Kasparov in the series. "Kasparov opened Karpov up like a can of sardines, then committed several blunders at key points," Lyman says.

Now the tension of the championship is drawn tighter: Could Karpov be coming back? "What other sport has an individual champion with the weight of the world champion of chess?" says Lyman. "If you're Pelé, maybe it's like being Karpov or Kasparov. The whole world is watching when you play."

Thanks to Lyman, the finale of the Karpov-Kasparov contest will be played out this week and next over 120 public TV stations. His show, which may comprise the two funkiest and intellectually demanding hours on TV, is taped at tiny WNYE-TV in Brooklyn, with a colorful cast ranging from 8-year-old, World Under-10 champ Jeff Sarwer to International Grandmaster Edmar Mednis, 49. Lyman has been doing chess shows ever since he covered the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky battle move-by-move for PBS in 1972. Teacher, author and syndicated columnist, he makes the chess board as lively for spectators as the gridiron, yet he is anything but slick. He ad-libs the show, sometimes lapsing into silence in mid-sentence to puzzle out a position or grope for a word. Says Marcy May, Lyman's ex-wife and a panelist on the show's Kibitzer's Korner, "He's one of the few people on TV who can be so natural that if he has an itch, he'll scratch it." Whatever his allure, says the American Chess Foundation Inc.'s Allen Kaufman, "Shelby has been able to put chess on television and keep it on, which from my point of view is a miracle."

Although Lyman's analyses match the sophistication of his guests', he can seduce even nonplayers into thinking chess. "There's a great tendency on the part of chess players to look down on someone who's not as good as they are," says Kaufman. "Shelby does the opposite."

With his fine, silvery-gray curls going thin at the top, Lyman has the look of a tonsured monk. Like any guru, he has a cult following. A collection of chess groupies attends his show's tapings, and the attraction may be more than mental, as occurred to Lyman once when a female fan committed a Freudian slip. "I don't know anything about sex," she gushed, "but I love watching you." The incident moves Lyman to observe that "chess" can be rearranged to spell "sechs." He's available. His first marriage, in 1965, was annulled. His second, to May, a phys-ed teacher, ended in divorce in 1979, but he says they're "extraordinarily good friends." Lyman divides off-air time between work in his apartment near Manhattan's Columbia University and boulevarding around his Upper West Side neighborhood. He relishes good food, cigars, ideas and the cerebral conviviality of the game room.

Growing up in Boston's Dorchester section, Lyman started playing chess at 9 with his uncle, Harry Lyman, a New England Champion. He went on to become a social-relations major and the top player at Harvard, and represented the U.S. at the 1956 Students Chess Olympiad. Later, while a lecturer at City College, he won New York's prestigious Marshall Chess Club championship and became the 18th-ranked U.S. player. In 1972, a public TV producer in a chess class Lyman was teaching agreed with Lyman's suggestion to put the Fischer-Spassky match on the tube, and Lyman became the proverbial overnight celebrity. "In 1972, I would walk down a city block and 50 people would come up to me," he says. "I was the hottest thing in town."

Some of that adulation still comes his way. Both Karpov and Kasparov granted him interviews before their match. The rare interview with Karpov was in Yugoslavia and Kasparov's was in Switzerland. Closer to home, as he strolls to his apartment, the neighborhood kids greet him with calls of "Hey, chess master!" Lyman loves it. "Chess," he says, "has made the whole world available to me."

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