Chess bets

by Thorsten Cmiel
11/26/2018 – Chess enjoys the reputation of being a rational game in which chance plays no or only a very limited role. However, one of the sponsors of the World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana in London is "Unibet", the Swedish company that provides an internet platform for sports betting and online gambling. Thorsten Cmiel looked at odds, betting and possible manipulation in chess. | Photos: World Chess

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Betting in Chess

One of the sponsors of the World Chess Championship is "Unibet", a platform for sports betting, casino, games and online poker based in Malta. The parent company is based in Sweden and it's the first time a betting company supports a World Chess Championship. Ilya Merenzon, CEO of World Chess, stated before the match that they would be proud to be able to have an exclusive partnership with Unibet, and Richard Ostrom, regional manager of Unibet Norway, added that there would be great interest in sports betting at big tournaments and that they would hope to establish chess as a permanent betting field.

When we talk about sports betting, bookies usually know more, don't they? Unibet did not have much doubt about the outcome of the match: if you had risked ten Euros one day before the match to predict Magnus Carlsen as winner you would get 14.30 Euros should he indeed win.


CaruanaIf you had put your ten Euros on Fabiano Caruana you would get 29 Euros if he wins. And three more euros should Fabiano win after just twelve games. But shortly before the first game the odds changed slightly and were a bit better for Caruana than before.

Still, a lot of chess experts saw good chances for Caruana who had a fantastic year in 2018 and looked to be in better form than Carlsen. During a ChessBase TV broadcast, Vlastimil Hort predicted a win for Caruana and Mihail Marin also saw slight advantages for Fabiano.

Would-be betters also might be interested in the opinion of Ullrich Krause, President of the German Chess Federation as a contra-indicator. In stock exchange parlance contra-indicators are market players whose predictions are usually wrong. Krause recently was quite wrong when predicting the new FIDE President and saw Magnus Carlsen as a slight favourite, arguing: "I hope that Magnus Carlsen wins because his very relaxed and winning manner, to my mind, makes him a real gift for us chess players." If Krause had 100 Euros to bet with he would have put 51 on Carlsen. That, however, would not be a good betting strategy at Unibet.

The odds at the beginning of the match were definitely wrongly "priced", at least if you take the almost identical ratings of the two contenders as the statistical basis for your betting decision.

What you can bet on

Before the first game the odds were 5.5 for a win of Caruana in game one where Caruana had White, 1.35 for a draw, and 6.5 for a win of Carlsen with Black. Betting on 1.e4 as the first move gave odds of 1.45, for all other moves Unibet offered 2.65. One could also bet on the number of moves. For betting that the game lasted 42 moves or less you received odds of 22 for 10 if you were willing to risk money on the prediction that the game would last longer you still received odds of 16.50 for 10. Apparently, there are also live-bets on every move.

Is betting on games the future of chess sponsorship?

Sponsoring is always welcome in the world of chess and betting platforms might have an interest to present chess in a more glamorous way.

CarlsenBut, chess is easier to manipulate than other sports, e.g. by betting on individual moves. To manipulate soccer games you usually need the arbiter and some others to "play along". Manipulating chess games is easier and some players might be happy to earn a little extra money by deliberately placing huge bets on the first move in their games. And what would happen if a player misses a mate in one in time-trouble and the betting platform loses a lot of money because of the unlikely odds for such an event? Will FIDE then inquire into a possible manipulation? And is FIDE and its commissions ready for such questions?

In London questions about manipulations by the players are moot — there is simply too much at stake for both players. But cybersecurity could become more important in chess. For someone intending to manipulate bets, files with match and game preparations would be pure gold. Thus it makes sense that a company like Kaspersky also sponsors the event in London. But the fact remains that World Chess and FIDE open the proverbial Pandora's box for future manipulations of games and tournaments by opening the doors to betting companies.

I would like to close with a disclaimer: sports betting can be addictive and one should not be fooled by attractive offers to begin betting on chess. In the long run, the bookie always wins and if need be he will regain his money when people bet on soccer — which is a real gamble.

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer


Thorsten Cmiel is FIDE Master, lives in Cologne and Milano and works as a freelance finance journalist.


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