CHESS Magazine: An interview with... Andrew Paulson (Part two)

11/15/2012 – He is a man with a mission for world championship chess. Early this year Andrew Paulson and his company Agon were handed the rights for all of FIDE’s major events – the Grand Prix series, the Candidates and the title match itself. Last month John Saunders and Matthew Read of Britain's CHESS Magazine were invited to meet him at his office in Whitehall for an indepth interview. Here is part two.

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An interview with... Andrew Paulson (Part two)

The new world championship overlord talks to John Saunders and Matthew Read

Part one of this interview

Measuring the excitement

Paulson then discussed the metrics by which he wanted to measure the success of his plans for improving commentary. He wants to rig up equipment to measure and display the heart beat, not just of the players but also the audience (so that the audience can see it during play). If he can excite the audience as much as the players, he says, he feels he will have succeeded. “If not, we can go home and start playing tic-tac-toe.”

Paulson, seeking further information, turned the interview round and asked if Matthew and I, as chess spectators, felt excited as we watched chess. I answered in the negative. I said I felt more excited playing an informal blitz game than I would feel watching pretty much any big-time chess match. At least I thought so at the time – I did mention a key game, where Mickey Adams had Rustam Kasimdzhanov at his mercy for a few fleeting moments in the FIDE World Knock-Out Championship in Libya, and where an English world championship might have brought about a bonanza for chess in this country. After the interview, I remembered the incredible eighth game of the Kasparov-Karpov match in London in 1986 which rivalled the famous Borg-McEnroe tie-breaker in 1980. So maybe, on balance, I should retract my original answer.

At this point we discussed some of the YouGov statistics on chessplaying that Agon have commissioned with the results showing a surprisingly high number of people who play chess in a short time span, and a surprisingly balance between men and women who play. These are given separately at the end of this article. I raised the distinction between competitive chess, and chess as a parlour game. Paulson was charmed by the latter term – which perhaps survives only on this side of the Atlantic (and – “when were you last in a parlour?” he joked, though admitting he liked the phrase).

My feeling is that chess statistics may look better than those for other sports and games as they benefit from the ease of setting up a game. It is possible to play a chess game anywhere and anyhow, whereas other sports and games require a much greater degree of organisation, even for a relatively informal game. Around this point, listening to the recording, the interview morphed into more of a symposium, with your editor perhaps doing too much talking and not enough interviewing. Paulson keen to soak up data to inform his picture of the culture in which competitive chess is played, but perhaps it detracted from our getting answers to questions.

However, interesting items emerged from our discussion. I explained the scholastic background to chess in my educational era, with activity mainly centred on selective grammar schools, with second-tier ‘secondary modern’ schools not participating. Paulson revealed he had attended Highgate School in London – a prestigious and quite well-known independent school, of course. (I looked it up afterwards and found a whole host of famous people who had attended the school, including the chess-friendly former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, son of the man who invented the English grading system, Sir Richard ‘Otto’ Clarke. The school has a good track record for chess up to the present: promising English junior Isaac Sanders attends it.)

Whole new board game

Paulson then told us a story about his schooling back in New Haven, Connecticut, when he had a cellist friend with whom he also played chess and go. “We would play a game of chess – which he would always win – and then a game of go – which I would always win – and then he’d play me some cello music.” So our man is an accomplished go player. I was impressed, pointing out that go is often said to be more complex than chess in that there are more quantum leaps between the beginner and the best players at the top of the pyramid. “It’s a sublime game. There is a maxim that chess was invented and go discovered... that go always existed – there is something primal about go, whereas chess had to be manufactured.”

Paulson then went off on a very intellectual tangent about various complex differences between go and chess and we allowed ourselves to be beguiled, as usual. He is a fascinating man to talk to but it did mean we strayed rather from the point of the interview, which was to tease out his specific vision for world championship chess. Mea culpa.

Keeping time

At this point Paulson turned the interview round on me: “I want to ask you a question – the absence of an answer to which stuns me – when did time become important in chess?” Seemed easy enough: I answered that it was 150 years ago. But that was only the lead-in to his $64,000 question. “A pretty major change, then. Given that it is now inconceivable to play chess without a timer, why is it that in chess’s so elegant notation, the parameter of time has been absolutely lost?” A fair point, of course, as a note of the time available and/or time taken tells you a great deal about the quality of the chess being played. Though we pride ourselves on having the complete scores of games going back more than 400 years, we have no idea whether they were quick skittles games or serious encounters played over many hours. Even today, the latest games on databases very rarely show the elapsed time taken by the players or the time control used.

Illuminating chess

Paulson was now on a roll and posed this conundrum: “When you walk into a room and see a game in progress, say the Anand-Gelfand match, and see the screen, what’s the one piece of information you immediately want to know and it doesn’t tell you?” Matthew and I failed to come up with his preferred answer, which was the amount of time since the last move was played – had a move just appeared on the board or was it minutes before. Interesting point.

“These are very simple parts of chess that I want to try to illuminate and bring into the performance of chess. Our goal is to make a game – and chess is a game [he stressed the word ‘game’], pretending to be a sport – it pretends to be a sport because it has leagues and competitions and rankings and so forth. But really it is about two people who are playing each other. And I want to turn it into a spectator competition where people can actually get pleasure. I generally like things that make me cry, and I will generally enjoy a sport that gives me an adrenaline rush every once in a while. So our goal is to turn chess into a spectator sport where the audience is really engaged, where they feel as well as think, with the eyes and the heart of a chessplayer.”

Stay in your seats

I asked if he had plans for changing what the players do when they sit at the board. “One thing, absolutely yes, and quite aggressively. I want them to sit at the board!” Would he force them to? “No, I can’t force them to but I can limit the things they do elsewhere.” So, sitting rooms with comfy chairs and bowls of fruit are out, just toilet access. “Fruit but no sitting rooms!” (laughter)

So, to the Simpsons event: “This will be after the Olympics, which has done so much good for London but which has created a huge carbon footprint. The Grand Prix at Simpsons is the ultimate ‘green’ event, where we don’t fly in hundreds of thousands of people in aeroplanes, we don’t build stadia, etc – we simply have the players sitting in a room, by themselves, broadcast to the world. The feed will be given free to all chess websites in the world and we’ll be encouraging as broad a retransmission as possible.”

“When we do the Candidates in March ... the venue is lined up but not announced as yet... it will be the grandest place in London where it could possibly be held.” He just managed to pre-empt my next facetious question: “Not Buckingham Palace! Although the Lisbon event is in a sixteenth century monastery.”


The playing hall in in Simpson's-in-the-Strand in September 2012

We talked about the London venue lay-out and arrangements. “The holding of the Grand Prix there is an emergency. It was not planned, we didn’t want to do it, but because of a logistical problem in Russia, we had to take it there.” I queried the adjective ‘logistical’ which wasn’t in line with news accounts. Paulson became more frank. “That is a euphemism – it was basically a conflict between the Russian Chess Federation and the World Chess Federation, and we got stuck in between. The Russian federation denied us the right to hold the event in Russia. They were simply holding us hostage in the negotiation.”

The problem in Chelyabinsk

What was the problem? A very small question, you might well think, but it elicited a titanic answer, like a verbal symphony in four movements, starting with this cantata apasionata: “A good question to ask them! The consequence should be embarrassing to them, because you should not be able to ask that question. They should be doing everything they can to promote chess in any form, especially as it would have brought 250,000 Euros to Chelyabinsk.”

“Our intention was to unveil a few new elements in March at the Candidates. One, is to bring chess out of small cities in Siberia, to western Europe; two, we’re doing this on a regular basis, announcing a four-year schedule in advance. We hope to stick to the dates, but have moved the London event by one day to fit in with Simpsons arrangements. We have moved the Candidates by one week in order to satisfy the venue here, with a knock-on effect for Lisbon.”

“We’ve checked with the players in advance to make sure it’s OK with them. That’s the sort of thing which is also an innovation – communicating with the players.” That flourish drew a smile from a knowing audience. “We called in Pentagram [London-based design agency] to make sure the event in Simpsons would be worthy of our ambitions – beautiful, elegant and comfortable for the players, and so. It’s really a half-step on the way to planning what we intend to do in the future.”

“You’ll see some new things at Simpsons, some new things at the Candidates and some new things at events thereafter. We’ve hired the woman in charge of interactive design at the BBC to be in charge of product development, and we’re in the process of developing a whole new interface for the audience.”

He seemed to have strayed from the question about the problem in Chelyabinsk, but Paulson had not lost sight of it and was returning to it for a final restatement of the opening theme, capped with an elegant coda. He quoted us a figure of 57 Russian or ex-Soviet players in the world’s top 100, but also indicated changes such as the involvement of a Chinese player in the Grand Prix and the major continental initiatives like the scholastic chess programs in western Europe and the USA. Even so, Paulson said he didn’t have a problem with Russian dominance in chess: “but if I’d held the event in Chelyabinsk, I would have been put in gaol!” A pretty good reason not to play there, I suppose...

Another side to Paulson is his impish wit: “If we were to include FIDE politics in the commentaries of the games, then you’d have really high quality entertainment!” Matthew and I chuckled and muttered something to each other about ‘Comical Ali’. “Is that what you call him?” Paulson was laughing too and guessed immediately who we were talking about (Turkish organiser Ali Nihat Yazici, who wants to suspend the USA and UK from FIDE – see our last issue).

Future plans

Matthew, who has previously worked for a chess business in the USA, asked about prospects of Paulson taking his events there, and possibly China and India. “In 2013, it’s Europe, and we want to focus on Europe as otherwise it will be a logistical nightmare. It was also the intention to bring back to its 18th century roots in capitals of Europe and re-establish the championship cycle as a very high level event. In 2014 we will be taking it to North and South America. And the year after, to the Far East. And the year after that [2016] to India and the Middle East. And then probably back to Europe. Yes, we want to make sure that we cover the world. Our sponsors will be interested because we cover the world. We are only really interested in having sponsors who have a global presence. About America, I don’t know which cities yet as we are going to build up some competition.”

At first Paulson downplayed the sponsorship angle: “We will probably make the sponsorship announcement in January. It’s not really all that important.” I asked whether chess on the TV was a major priority. Paulson was informative but again downplayed this aspect of the project: “We hope to be producing a weekly magazine format chess programme broadcast on TV. Also, we are hoping to have specific chess events on TV. That could be very interesting. But, hard work as it is, as much money as we will invest – I don’t think it is that important. I’m happy that it will be there, but the future is not screen-specific. Every chessplayer has a computer and benefits from interactivity much more than other sports fans with other sports. Nigel Short claims he said this: ‘The Internet was made for chess’. So, because there are still people who we think we can attract to chess, we are doing it, but in a few years’ time we are going to talk about video content independent of its means of delivery.”

Matthew asked what he thought the main hindrance to success might be. An innocent enough question but Paulson suddenly went silent. This uncharacteristic silence wandered on for more than 30 seconds. (Just as well that we were not on live radio as ‘dead air’ of that magnitude would probably cause a radio producer to die of apoplexy.) He looked up and down the room, making brief eye contact with Robert Fontaine and another assistant, and then finally, a change of tack: “No... sponsorship is very important. I simply meant the date we announce who our sponsors are is not important. I am convinced that we will have the sponsors that I want to have. And yet, the single weakest point is sponsorship. And that has to do with how much value we can deliver to the sponsors. It’s not a matter of whether or when we’ll have sponsors. They’re lining up. The real question is choosing the right sponsor, to whom we can give the most.” He talked more technically on this theme, explaining that it wasn’t about who would give the most money but more about the best fit and the best brand values, talking in terms of a team of sponsors rather than one big one.

Matthew had a question about the importance of the players’ characters to the marketing. Another long answer but Paulson emphasised that he valued “the stature of the players, the complexity of their personalities, the way they are embedded into a great history, their sophistication, their madness, all combine to create a rich resource.”

Hearing that pejorative word ‘madness’ slipped in there, I took the bait and interrupted his flow: “We don’t have many mad ones any more.” Matthew seemed unconvinced and Paulson chuckled wickedly. Was the disingenuousness of my assertion really that obvious? Probably. Anyway, we’d better draw a line under the ensuing discussion about who in the chess world is mad and who isn’t as CHESS Magazine doesn’t want any defamation suits being pushed through the letterbox at 44 Baker Street.

Paulson seemed confident of finding a way to make the players show emotion: “Ah, we’ll find a way. We’ll put them in a room and turn up the heat,” said Paulson with a Machiavellian chuckle. “This is why you’re nailing them to the chair!” I countered.

Wild about Garry

We talked about the wild card for the Candidates and Paulson pointed out an error that had appeared in the Guardian account as regards Kasparov: “I was not offering him a wild card for the Candidates, but wanted to get him in the Grand Prix.” The wild card went to Radjabov – who, a hitherto silent Robert Fontaine pointed out, had just been in London. (In fact, Radjabov seems to be a regular visitor to London.)

I asked Paulson how he came to meet Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. For his answer Paulson made a reference to a Bloomberg article which, when I looked it up, said: “Andrew Paulson has a knack for spinning chance encounters with the rich and famous into business opportunities.” “So we met informally and he [KI] said he must talk to more about this. It’s what happens in Moscow. It’s a much more dynamic place for meeting people and doing business than you’d expect.”

Chesscasting

We had a generous hour and half in Paulson’s company and he closed by telling us what part of the project excited him most. He felt it was the product itself that would present live chess on various platforms (mobile, YouTube, etc). “That’s the real challenge – everything else... sponsorship...” – Paulson uttered the word in a bored, world-weary voice. “You can get sponsorship for the Wigmore Hall, a badminton tournament – it’s all been done before. It’s the innovative side of things – where we play, how it goes down in those cities, and for the live audience. The product. ChessCasting. That’s a new word. The rest is just business.”

ChessCasting, a new application developed by the former Director of Interactive Design at the BBC, Vibeke Hansen, will transform chess into a spectator sport: both the live and remote audiences will be able to understand games through the eyes of a grandmaster and approximate the emotions of the players themselves. The games will be held in a purpose-built ‘cockpit’ (created by Pentagram Design) before an intimate live audience and broadcast in various formats to the public via cable, online and mobile platforms. – (Source: AGON)

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