Chess soon to be a million dollar business?
Interview with Dutch businessman Bessel Kok
Will chess soon become a millions dollar business like boxing or soccer? Dutch media tycoon Bessel Kok, 65, is chairman of the Amsterdam based company “Global Chess BV”. The aim of this enterprise, which reportedly commands an initial start-up capital of 4.5 million Euros, is the marketing of major FIDE events, with special attention to World Championships. German journalist Dr. René Gralla conducted an interview with Bessel Kok who, after having been the Vice-President of Český Telecom, now lives in Prague, from where he runs “Global Chess BV”.
Dr. René Gralla: You are the chairman of “Global Chess BV”. The aim of that company, as far as we understand, is to professionalise of the marketing of chess. So big chess events, like the world championship, will be marketed in the near future like a world championships in soccer or boxing?
Dutch businessman Bessel Kok
Bessel Kok: We need to make chess more interesting to follow, both from the sponsorship perspective as well as the public perspective. The marketing strategy to promote chess is not like that of boxing, of course, since we represent a different product and concept. However we will have to rebrand FIDE and the game of chess as a sport which can be supported with benefits to all stakeholders.
Dr. Gralla: “Global Chess BV”: Is it a big company or more a kind of task-force? How many employees does “Global Chess BV” have currently?
Bessel Kok: Today Global Chess is a company with a small work force, whose mission will be to make chess more attractive and by coming up with sponsorship, branding and communication opportunities.
Dr. Gralla: Now that “Global Chess BV” has taken over the professional marketing of chess, can we, in the near future, expect prize funds in chess – for instance in a world championship match – to rival the prize funds that are common in world championship boxing?
Bessel Kok: The comparison with boxing or football is not feasible today, since professional chess nowadays has become marginalized – especially in the daily press. It is only with great effort that we will manage to push up the prize funds and allow professional players and organisers to make more money out of chess. The fundamental requirement here is to increase the public interest and to help the development of chess as a mass sport in each country. Only in this way will sponsors be more willing to support chess competitions and ultimately increase prize funds.
Dr. Gralla: In 2006 you ran a campaign for the presidency of FIDE, against the incumbent Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. That campaign was bitter and sometimes very polemic. After you lost the election at Torino it comes as a big surprise that you have started to work together with Mr. Ilyumzhinov, and that you have even agreed to run the commercial arm of FIDE, “Global Chess BV”. Can you explain this decision to us?
Bessel Kok: Firstly, “Global Chess BV” is not the commercial arm of FIDE. It is a private company, in majority funded by Mr. Ilyumzhinov. After Torino, we spent several months negotiating with FIDE to strike a deal, whereby FIDE and “Global Chess” clearly define their individual responsibilities and where there are no conflicts of interest. This will allow a better platform for success as the modus operandi is clear. Secondly, on the issue of the election, Kirsan and I had met on the day following the election and he clearly indicated he would like to execute the business strategy defined by Right Move during the campaign
Dr. Gralla: To outsiders it looks like as if you might have "sold out" your supporters, the ones that endorsed your campaign against Mr. Ilyumzhinov, by joining the Ilyumzhinov camp. Can you understand that perception of your former supporters?
Kok's speech during the Chess Olympiad in Turin for the "Right Move" campaign
Bessel Kok: I am not aware of any supporters who believe they have been sold out, as all the people supporting our campaign understood the strategic program and the need to get the chess world looking at our game from a business perspective. I believe that a failure to co-operate and work together after Turin would have been a bigger failure for the chess world.
Dr. R.Gralla: Key to a better marketing of chess and to bigger prize funds is the acquisition of potential sponsors. FIDE has failed so far to achieve that goal – with the consequence that the incumbent President of FIDE and the Head of State of the Autonomous Russian Republic Kalmykia, Mr. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has many times had to step in to finance big chess events with his own personal means. Why should “Global Chess BV” achieve better results than FIDE in acquiring potential sponsors for chess?
Bessel Kok: The key to getting sponsors interested is in having a professional body with whom they can communicate. Also we need to create an environment in the chess world which is stable, credible and reliable to settle down. This will take several years. We are currently in a transition phase. This is why we have retained the World Cup and in parallel introduced the Grand Prix which we believe can be interesting to sponsors. The image needs to be improved with a more dynamic website and marketing tools that are required in today’s business environment.
Dr. Gralla: Could companies of information technology or investment banks become the ideal partners for chess?
Bessel Kok: We have targeted a number of business categories who we believe are ideal partners for FIDE, and our objective is to find the right package for each one of them.
Dr. Gralla: Will it ever pay off for sponsors to invest in chess?
Bessel Kok: Yes, if we work hand in hand as a world sport and help develop the game at grass root levels in each country. Once there is a critical mass, we will have no problem in attracting sponsors.
Dr. Gralla: You are a successful businessman. You have been, to name just some of your positions, Vice-President of Český Telecom, rotating Chairman of Czech-based Eurotel, advisor for Morgan Stanley in the Czech Republic and Chairman of the Scarlet Telecommunications Group in Holland and Belgium. Apart from that you have organized and sponsored a number of major chess events. How come that a successful businessman like you gets interested in the somewhat strange and esoteric mind sports of chess that does not attract big crowds so far?
Bessel Kok: It is simple: the love for a game that is both artistic and creative, which may offer so many unique benefits to all of us, may explain my desire to help.
Dr. Gralla: Do you expect that with the help of your contacts from the past you can make “Global Chess BV” a success with regard to its aim to attract new and potent sponsors for chess?
Speaking to the FIDE delegates in Turin 2006
Bessel Kok: This is our objective although we still need to ensure that we are delivering a product which interests sponsors rather than just utilizing a contact base. We have to deliver satisfactory results to sponsors, as any sponsorship would be short lived if all we want to do is exploit them.
Dr. Gralla: But there is a basic obstacle that is very difficult to overcome with regard to the goal of convincing big companies to sponsor major chess events – namely the fact sponsors do not see any economic benefit for themselves if they would sponsor chess. Unlike soccer or tennis, chess does not produce thrilling pictures or catch emotions that can be understood by millions of people. So it makes no sense for the sponsor to be connected with a big event of chess by, say, having the logo printed on t-shirts of the players or on advertisements referring to the chess event.
Bessel Kok: The exposure for sponsors does not come from branded t-shirts or merchandise but rather through global exposure. We have a big benefit in that chess events can be transmitted live, 24 hours a day, and there are close to a couple of hundred thousand people watching world class events on chess servers throughout the world. Offline or in printed media, the number increases substantially as there is a large base of people around the world who are interested in chess generally.
Dr. Gralla: But the lack of thrilling and emotional pictures that everybody can understand, even people who do not know the rules of the game, makes it hard to get average people interested in watching the game. How do you plan to tackle that problem?
Bessel Kok: There is no clear-cut solution. The advantage of Internet is that we can bring several ideas into play to make a chess event more interesting. Of course, faster time controls will make it interesting, and also expert commentary with good presentation skills will help overcome the lack of understanding of the rules. For classical events, we should be capable of having edited versions which give the key developments of the round. Players should also understand that the public in general do not understand quick draws so players will be encouraged to fight harder in their games.
Dr. Gralla: Are there any new concepts that could produce thrilling and attractive pictures of chess events?
Bessel Kok: Yes, there are quite a few ideas actually coming from all over the world. These will continue to grow as communication networks, bandwidth and television expand rapidly everywhere.
Dr. Gralla: Could the development of innovative and advanced big scale 3D-diagrams be the answer? Where the additional application of optical markers, such as colored arrows, would make it easier for the public to watch a chess competition? Such techniques are used in television today when soccer matches are covered.
Bessel Kok: Possibly. Any concept that helps make the transmission of a chess game easier should always be considered.
Dr. Gralla: Could faster matches be the answer? There are young Russian grandmasters who argue today that the future of chess will be blitz chess, since 5-minutes-matches are most attractive for the public.
Bessel Kok hosts Kramnik, Ilyumzhinov, Kasparov and Karpov in Prague in May 2002
Bessel Kok: There is no unified answer about the speed of chess. For TV 5-minutes-games coverage is a great advantage. Blitz is fun for the public. However the quality of the game should not be sacrificed. I believe in chess we should accept the co-existence of different tempos and not try to unify for the sake of unification.
Dr. Gralla: It is well-known that chess players – especially professionals – are stubborn and very conservative with regard to changes in their sport. Have you any idea how to overcome those psychological barriers?
Bessel Kok: Professional players understand clearly that they have a duty to make chess interesting. We have many players who are good for media, but in general, the environment we have developed for chess over the years has led to a more difficult life for professional players. Look at how many top players have stopped playing competitively and today make more money as chess teachers or working in private companies.
Dr. Gralla: Players are reluctant to accept changes that are intended to reform tournament chess, e.g. faster matches, in order to make chess more attractive to the public. How do you explain that?
Bessel Kok: Actually a large number of top players prefer faster time play for open events, Olympiad, etc. since they would prefer to play Swiss opens over three days than seven or Olympiads in seven days rather than two weeks. This makes it more economically feasible for them. When it comes to World Championship cycle tournaments however, they understand the importance of these events and hence prefer longer time controls.
Dr. Gralla: Have you any ideas on how to make chess fit for the digital third millennium?
Bessel Kok: Yes there are many ideas but it would be too early to disclose anything at this point in time.
Dr. Gralla: There is no realistic way of doping in chess, so chess has the potential of offering a more or less “clean” alternative in sports.
Bessel Kok: Well, apart from the fact that there are no drug-related scandals in the chess world, as drugs can offer little benefits to chess players, we also offer key benefits of chess being an intellectual sport that helps the community develop higher learning skills. Chess is perceived at quite a high level by the public in general.
Dr. Gralla: Can chess be an alternative to the violent PC and console games that are now very popular?
Bessel Kok: Chess is a traditional game and, of course, gaming communities are always coming up with more and more attractive, interactive games and consoles for a huge public willing to pay big money for these games. Our opportunity is to make chess interesting, affordable, available and accessible to the public.
Dr. Gralla: Does chess make parents sleep well at night, knowing that their children are playing a game has been tested by many generations?
Bessel Kok with his bride Martina at a recent birthday party
Bessel Kok: Parents sleep well knowing their kids are doing things which help them develop their character and knowledge skills. Chess could be one of these skills which kids can acquire.
Dr. Gralla: There are an estimated 600 million chess players and around 500 million players of Chinese Chess – a total of 1.1 billion players of chess on planet Earth. Would it make sense for FIDE to start a dialogue with the World XiangQi Federation in order to explore the possibilities of cooperation for the mutual benefit of the promotion of chess?
Bessel Kok: FIDE is not our direct area of responsibility, but I am aware that the FIDE President has an open mind to discussing areas of joint marketing and development with many other organizations.
- Original Neues Deutschland interview in German (heavily condensed)