CHESS Magazine: An interview with... Andrew Paulson

11/6/2012 – 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 one.

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CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by John Saunders. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organised the London Chess Classic.

An interview with... Andrew Paulson

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

Andrew Paulson is a man with a mission for world championship chess. Mention was first made of him in CHESS in April when Malcolm Pein described an encounter with him in his editorial (page 4). Malcolm described how he and his company Agon had been handed the rights for all of FIDE’s major events – the Grand Prix series, the Candidates and the title match itself. Malcolm also admitted to a degree of scepticism before meeting him (we’ve been here many times before during the Kirsan era) but he was agreeably impressed by how the American entrepreneur had done his own homework on elite chess (rather than relying on FIDE’s version of history) and was forming his own vision of how world chess might be designed and marketed.

Paulson likes to talk to journalists and so it was that I and Matthew Read were invited to meet him at his office in Whitehall for an interview. As we arrived, he was with the French GM and journalist Robert Fontaine, and they were perusing some huge photos of the designs for the FIDE Grand Prix at London’s Simpsons in the Strand (picture right). As well as designs for the lay-out of the playing room – the same room used for the former Staunton Memorial events – with specially-designed tables and supplementary overhead lighting (very necessary as the light from the elegant chandeliers is inadequate for chess play), Paulson drew our attention to his proposed design of the chess pieces. They weren’t very different from standard Staunton pieces (just as well, as this is the only design permissible under the rules) but had been adjusted so that they could be hung by the collar (is that what one calls the raised ring in the middle of a Staunton chess piece?) on a rack inside the containing box (as tools are sometimes stored in a wall rack).

Matthew and I later admitted to some mutual puzzlement at this – chess box design seems peripheral to the main thrust of the project. But Paulson is multi-faceted, one moment riffing on stratospheric thoughts about how to present chess but then getting down to the minute detail of design elements. Of course, we practical chessers are rarely bothered about the aesthetics of the pieces but it may be interesting where his visionary thoughts take him.

As the interview recording beings, it sounds as if Matthew and I were being interviewed by Paulson, rather than the other way around. A healthy sign: he is still in the early stages of this huge chess project, hence fact-gathering about the chess world is an ongoing process and he took the opportunity to pump us for some information about CHESS Magazine, the business and other aspects of the chess world that we knew about.

The importance of PR

Having listened to us, Paulson started in with one of the first planks in his plan: to “invest in journalism”. He’s aware of the existence of specialist chess magazines and the many columns in newspapers worldwide but he wants to take things further. “I want to bring young journalists in, and get them excited about chess.” Feeling somewhat marginalised by the adjective “young” (which sadly no longer applies to your editor), I then put in a word for old journalists and was reassured to hear that those well stricken in years might have a role as “shepherds” keeping the “young dogs” in line.

Paulson has been talking to the Association of Chess Professionals, and he has suggested to their president, Emil Sutovsky, that tournaments should be paying for journalists to attend who wouldn’t attend otherwise. He has definitely put his finger on a weak point here. Quite a number of chess tournaments these days seem to think that bald results and game viewers somehow suffice for the reporting function and that they can save money on hiring journalists to write good quality daily reports on the play – which is the only way to ensure that proper reports go round the world. Paulson is talking in terms of gathering chess journalists together, with a view to holding special events for them at one of his forthcoming Grand Prix events. “Maybe on a rest day. I know what journalists are like – when there’s a rest day – they get restless!” Paulson is an expansive, jovial character and his quips are invariably followed by hearty laughter. “I’m aggressively pro-journalist.”

Paulson the player

Andrew Paulson was born in 1958, the son of an American professor, and graduated from Yale with a degree in French in 1981. Since 1993 he has been engaged on various projects in Russia, including the founding of an entertainment listings publication and a blogging platform and social network which have both been very successful.

We asked Andrew about his own play as he was quoted recently as saying he’d been playing a bit of chess. “I went online, and I ordered a magnificent chess set from...” well, guess where from, readers. Of course, the London Chess Centre in Baker Street. Commercial break over... “I played one game, declared victory (over a friend of mine) – and put the board away. I’m trying to educate myself as best I can. I like puzzles. I am afraid of becoming...” – at this point Paulson couldn’t remember the technical term for the sort of person he had in mind but gave us a vivid description of the sort of person he had in mind. “OCD?,” I volunteered. “Yes, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I am borderline OCD and I’m afraid if I start playing chess, I will become addicted.” With my trademark disloyalty to the chess world, I suggested that nobody would notice as we are all OCD sufferers. “I’m aware of my weakness and I’m trying to avoid this demon.”

Joking apart, Paulson told us he preferred to play through other people’s games in order to figure out what’s going on. “I’m reading a lot about chess engines, about endgame theory...” Here Paulson selected his words carefully as he was trying to make a rather complex point: “I am trying to find metaphors that work for chessplayers but that are visualisable. [I want] to be able to represent visually what is going on in the game in a way that the general public can consume and feel directly.”

I asked him if he had seen the old 1970s BBC TV series The Master Game. He had. “I was interviewed on Radio Four with William Hartston. It was very funny. I don’t think that the BBC intended to sabotage their own history, but the 20-second audio clip that they managed to find and broadcast at the beginning of our interview was such that Monty Python could not have come up with a better chess commentary.” But he acknowledged that the famous TV show had had a positive effect on the collective unconscious of the ‘chess-consuming’ world. “They’re wonderful to watch.”

Turning to the question of chess culture in the UK, Paulson waxed lyrical: “For me, in England, it has always been easy to explain to people what I aim for with chess commentary. The great history of the British, sitting in the back garden, sipping Pimms, listening to cricket on the radio for five hours on Sunday... yes, what’s happening in the cricket is important but, in fact, you fall in love with the voice of the commentator, you fall in love with the incantatory, rhythmic style as he repeats again and again the same old stories, with some new twists, but you feel comfortable with hearing things you already know and being pointed out that there are patterns in the world. Pattern recognition is the essence of chessplaying but also pattern recognition is the essence of enjoying music...”

Your editor has to confess he is a sucker for nostalgia (well, you must know that by now with the long trail through the magazine back pages) and I don’t mind admitting that I was beguiled by the idyllic image of cricket and Pimms and Sunday afternoons on the lawn being conjured up by this remarkably eloquent American. As he spoke, I was hearing in my head a gorgeous amalgam of the ‘Sceptr’d Isle’ speech from Henry V, the Hampshire burr of old-time cricket commentator John Arlott and the dialogue from old British wartime propaganda movies like Mrs Miniver or Brief Encounter.

Slightly reluctantly, I had to haul myself out of this reverie and point out that cricket and its all-day, all-week commentary was firmly embedded in the culture – in contrast to chess, which has no broadcasting culture that any non-chessplayer could remember. Paulson was unmoved but continued with his teasing soliloquy: “... whether it’s cricket or whether it’s football ... I grew up listening to baseball on the radio ... granted, baseball is not as boring as cricket, but ... (distinct sounds of British teeth being gritted on the recording at this point)... it’s short... but ... I don’t even remember what the question was, frankly...” (laughter – but now Paulson comes to his point...) “In commentary I’m looking to bring the skills and the style and the professionalism of professional sports commentators to the content and the sophistication and the rigour of chess commentators.”

Curiously, we could hear live sports commentary and crowd noises even as the interview was being conducted as we were only a couple of streets away from where the Olympic beach volleyball was taking place in Whitehall. Of course, Paulson has in mind the more calmer commentary that applies to cricket or golf, rather than the high-octane commentary, mixed with crowd noise, that applies to noisy sports such as soccer. Even so, Paulson foresaw intense moments where the commentators would need to get across the message ‘what on earth is X thinking about here?’

– Part two of this interview will follow soon –


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