Live rating list of chess players’ earnings?

by Peter Zhdanov
1/15/2012 – For some years now live ratings lists of the world's top players – calculated on a day-by-day basis – have become popular. Recently a live list for top female players was set up, and now one interested player and manager proposes a third list: one that tracks the earnings of the top chess stars, just like in many other sports. An interesting proposal that requires helping hands.

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Live rating list of chess players’ earnings

There was a lot noise in the crowded hall outside the playing room at Aeroflot Open after the final round. Chess players were socializing near the tables with the standings and were heatedly discussing the results. One of them, already quite tipsy, started playing the oracle. I wasn’t part of his company, but overheard the conversation anyway:

This time I played in the B section and got a prize! You know, I am real master who can boast having won a few thousand dollars throughout my chess career. Not all the IMs can say the same!

This statement got me thinking. I guess I have never received monetary prizes. Medals, diplomas, books, sweets, souvenirs – yes. But no money. The results of an anonymous poll at Pogonina.com regarding this topic are the following:

Unsurprisingly, the most common reply (27.5%) is $0. The second most widespread option (25.8%) – "less than $100", is basically the same. It is quite probable that people were converting the financial value of souvenirs in their heads and choosing the appropriate category. Nearly 20% went for “from $101 to $501” – those must be strong club players. Obviously, most of the people who replied “over $1 million” are jesting. Anand? Kramnik? Topalov? Confess, guys! Then come the chess players who placed themselves in the “$501 to $10,000” bracket (15.8%, detailed breakdown on the illustration) – predictably, most of them are either titled players, or winners of U-something events. Nine responders won from $10 thousand to $30 thousand per event, seven – from $30k to $50k. How many replies about earning a paycheck of “$100k to $1 million” are frank? In casual conversations quite a few 2700+ players admitted having visited our website, so six may be the accurate figure. Four more said their highest prize was between $50k and $100k.

In 2010 Natalia Pogonina penned an optimistic article about the possible sources of income of a person working in the chess industry and the level of earnings, titled “Making money in chess”. By the way, it has attracted more views (25,305 unique readers) than any other online column she has ever written, ahead of such hits as “Vladimir Kramnik Facts (Humor)” or “Beating the ex-chess sex symbol”. Generally speaking, this interesting topic is controversial and rarely touched upon in the media. Why can one check out the Wikipedia and find the career earnings of a tennis or poker star, while you can never get the same information about a chess player? For example, are you interested to know how much money Kasparov has made throughout his career, or what were the tournament winnings of Magnus Carlsen in 2011? I am.

Taking into account how many chess fans are religiously flipping through the chess live ratings on a daily basis, the hype around a rating of chess earnings should be much larger. After all, counting FIDE rating points is a pastime for a real chess addict, while all of us have to count money. Therefore, we can expect the audience of such ratings to be significantly broader. Some people might argue that this will harm the reputation of chess in the eyes of the laymen, because football or hockey stars earn more than top chess pros. However, I would like to refute that argument in advance by saying that the general public views chess as a game for smart people that can be played in your free time rather than as a full-time occupation. One of the most popular questions any chess grandmaster gets asked is: “Ok, you play chess well, but what is your REAL job?’. This stereotype is so omnipresent that even a relevant ad exploiting it was launched featuring Viswanathan Anand. And when people learn about World Championship contenders earning over a million dollars per match, their attitude changes from amusement to astonishment and deep respect.

Of course, the idea of creating money chess ratings runs into some methodological difficulties. Naturally, the endorsement deals and chess projects not related to playing (e.g. writing books, giving lectures, etc.) won’t be taken into account. But what about matches against computer programs? Or simultaneous exhibitions? On the one hand, those are directly associated with competitive play. On the other hand, any chess fan would tell the difference between, let’s say, getting $1,000 for playing a friendly blitz game against a business person and earning it by winning a Swiss open even that runs nine days. The first idea that comes to the mind is the simple binary criterion: a tournament can qualify if and only if it is FIDE-rated. However, some important tournaments in blitz/rapid/etc. are not (yet) rated, so something has to be corrected in this definition.

Or here is another case: let’s say there were three teams that won, correspondingly, gold, silver and bronze at the Chess Olympiad. The first team didn’t get any additional prizes. Every member of the second team got $25,000 from its national chess federation. Every member of the third team received a car from its country’s government. Now do we convert the value of the car into money? Will it be fair to place members of the teams that got silver and bronze higher on the money ratings as compared to the people who won gold? Nonetheless, let’s not go into such details yet.

The key problem is that as of now no one is accumulating and publishing the relevant data. In some super tournaments the information on appearance fees and prizes is not even available to the public. The only way to find out is to approach a grandmaster and ask how much he has earned. Needless to say, coming up to someone and inquiring: “John, now tell me what your last paycheck was”, seems to be a weird thing to do. Even if one tries to create such a list, most of the people featured there probably won’t be motivated to provide the information, because they will be either lazy, or consider it to be too confidential. It might also be connected with the mentality. Many chess players have been born into families of intellectuals where money talks are considered to be dirty and not appropriate for a decent person. Or are they just not paying taxes?

After having pondered for some time how to implement the idea of maintaining a live list of chess earnings, the following procedure was worked out:

  1. First of all, we are interested in the earnings of chess celebrities. Few people care how much the IM (whom I introduced to you at the beginning of the article) makes a year. One should cooperate with organizers of top chess events and get the information from them. I doubt they will be unwilling to share it, since it will serve as additional promotion of their events and sign of status.

  2. Every now and then top players compete in non-elite events that don’t have the proud prefix “super”. The introduction of money chess ratings will motivate them to update the lists as needed. Let’s say grandmaster A has earned $25k by a mid-table finish in a super tournament, while you, grandmaster B, won three $10k open competitions that haven’t been featured in the rankings. You will probably become upset, and your ego will make you contact the publisher and inform him that you deserve a higher rank.

Now who would be able to bring this idea to life? FIDE? I greatly doubt it. They have other urgent matters to attend to, while keeping track of private tournaments is not something they should necessarily be doing. A private person like me? This would be too much of a burden for one man. Otherwise I would have started working already instead of writing this article. In my opinion, a good answer is the Association of Chess Professionals or a similar organization that represents the interests of chess pros. This project is part of their jurisdiction. Moreover, they have the authority to make the list a) credible b) regularly monitored and updated by the grandmasters.

What do you think?

Copyright Zhdanov/ChessBase



Peter Zhdanov is an IT project manager, expert and author of two books on parliamentary debate
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