Ilya Levitov: A million ideas to market chess

12/13/2011 – Ilya Levitov is the Head of the Management Board of the Russian Chess Federation, and more recently a vice-president of FIDE. Recently, chess in Russia has been developing at a frantic rate, and among the Federation's sponsors we now see companies dealing with gas, diamonds, finance, etc. Has the new leadership created an innovative system to attract sponsors? A must-read interview.

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Ilya Levitov: A million ideas to market chess

Interview by WGM Maria Manakova

Ilya Levitov is the Head of the Management Board of the Russian Chess Federation, and more recently a vice-president of FIDE. When Arkady Dvorkovich (an assistant to Dmitriy Medvedev, the President of the Russian Federation) took the leadership of chess in 2009, he actually deputed the Federation to Ilya Levitov and Evgeny Bareev – a sort of double-headed eagle, which, incidentally, is depicted on the arms of Russia. Actually, it has become popular in Russia – to manage in tandem. Here it is in our sport: Levitov, the experienced PR-manager and chess amateur; Bareev, a famous grandmaster, who is skilled in the chess specifics.

The chess community in Russia was not quite ready for the unexpected change in the line of the ancient game. Over and over again reproaches poured in at the new leadership's address. It is no coincidence: almost unchallenged Levitov and Bareev take decisions: sometimes interesting, innovative, sometimes unexpected and shocking. But as they say, the dogs bark, but the caravan goes on. Recently, chess in Russia is being developed at a frantic rate, and in the ranks of the sponsors of the Federation we see companies dealing with gas, diamonds, finance, etc. Did the new leadership manage to create a system to draw sponsors (as for example happened with tennis), or is the improvement of chess life only a temporary occurrence – this is the question I tried to clarify with Ilya Levitov. But the interview began with a discussion of the matters concerning the organization of the Tal Memorial in Moscow.

Ilya, they say that the Tal chess memorial is not only a tournament of the highest category, but it also represents a landmark in the history of chess for you successfully introduced the most up-to-date innovative technologies. Is that true, in your opinion?

Not exactly. In general our standard technologies were applied, but we had doubled the number of cameras, thus the viewers had a unique opportunity to see every single corner of the game room including the clock, the chessboard and even more importantly – the faces of the contestants and their emotions. We have a professional crew and a highly professional director. As a result, the quality of broadcasting has significantly improved.

Is it aimed only at the Internet viewers?

So far, yes. It’s not broadcasted on TV. But professionally it approaches the same quality level. It’s a product which deserves being on state TV channels. Of course, not the whole of it – you can’t demonstrate it live, not for six hours anyway.

Are you prepared to offer your product to the TV officials?

Oh, yes. We have an agreement with sports channel. So when the product is ready, when we have a 15-minute exciting review it will be broadcast. But the picture should be of impeccable quality.

Will you be able to sell it to them?

I don’t think so. Moreover, I am sure we won’t. TV will not buy chess. However, the important thing is for chess to be on TV. It’s not the money we are after.

Sorry, I would still like to clarify one issue; on what terms are you prepared to give your product to the TV officials?

On any terms at all. It’s highly important that they take it, the terms don’t matter at all.

So, you just want to be on TV?

Yes, that’s one of the goals we are pursuing, not the main one though. But I must admit, we do want to be on TV.

But who will watch it? What’s your target audience?

Anybody and everybody! Children, adults, veterans, old people – just everybody! Chess should be pitched at the level for everybody to understand it.

And how are you going to do it?

We want to show the most exciting, memorable episodes of the tournaments accompanied by very clear and understandable explanations, without going into complicated and hardly comprehensible details. Our aim is to demonstrate the most beautiful bits.

And if our viewers are just amateurs, just beginners, will they understand what’s going on?

I believe in Russia everybody knows the basics of the game.

Will it be interesting to the TV viewers in your opinion?

I really don’t know! I have never done it before. We’ll do it and see if it works, evaluate the result.

Can we say that this tournament was the first step in this direction?

It was definitely a step, but by far not the first one. We have been gaining invaluable experience from tournament to tournament… and learning from it. Every other tournament gives us a 15-20% increase of the audience.

Really? Is that true?

Nothing extraordinary about it. It’s a standard expected increase for consecutive events of this kind.

Is your goal to make chess spectacular?

Not in the slightest. Chess is not spectacular by definition. Football, tennis, even curling – in fact, any action is spectacular. Chess is not as it hasn’t got a moving picture. Our ultimate aim is to make chess interesting.

So, in your opinion, interest is not necessarily related to a spectacular event?

No, interest can be intellectual, cultural. There are loads of types of interest.

And in chess?

The “little gray cells” start working. I mean, the brain starts functioning and you are excited and pleased when the problem is solved I believe it’s the main thing. The question is, what audience we are to target. Unfortunately, we need all kinds of audience, which makes the task more complicated. We could have concentrated on one type, for example, on people who already play chess decently, or on professional chess players, or on amateurs or on the political elite. The problem is to understand which type of audience we need. And the answer seems to be that we need everybody – amateurs to develop chess and professionals.

In the United States, for example, professional chess players are ignored. They can’t care less how their grandmasters and their team play. As far I see it. They invest money in the development of mass chess, particularly, children’s chess. As well as children’s football. My son is currently living in the US. I once attended a football match at his school – hundreds of children play football. Gradually they give up football and go in for American kinds of sport. Another thing to mention is that professional chess can’t be ignored. Our chess players, the national team should win sometimes at least.

Do you mean to say that in America they are not obliged to win?

I think they don’t set this goal.

And in Russia?

This goal has always existed here. Taking into account the chess background of Russia.

The main sponsor of the Tal memorial was Gazprom, wasn’t it? What did they fall for? What is their interest? Why did they swallow the bait?

I don’t think, to be honest, that that’s the right wording. They didn’t “swallow the bait”. They have traditionally been backing up chess. This year just the scale of their support has increased. We have managed to increase their financial investments in chess by 50 percent. How? Just by a more professional and intelligent approach. We are honored and proud to have Gazprom as our chief sponsor. At the beginning of the year we came up with several enticing proposals to them. One of them was a program of grants to talented children. Now children, world and European champions get a monthly scholarship from Gazprom. In fact, the child who won the European tournament receives more money than his father and mother combined. I am not joking. How does the figure of 50,000 Rubles per month sound to you (almost 2,000 USD)? For a provincial town that’s a lot of money. This is the way to develop professional chess. By the way, let’s say, in Turkey it was done ages ago.

In Turkey there is a system whereby chess federation members are obliged to be clients of a certain bank and the bank makes money. I still don’t quite get what Gazprom gets out of it.

Gazprom doesn’t want to generate a profit investing in chess. They reap a profit on gas and invest the money earned in various spheres of life, particularly, in chess.

How did you manage to nab them?

As I mentioned before, they have been investing in chess for about a decade. How it all began I have no idea. This is just their social function. It’s a socially responsible organization supporting around two hundred activities: chess, basketball, hockey etc. They also back art. There is a certain logic to it. The money made from extracting, processing and utilizing the Russian natural resources comes back to Russia, just in a different form.

What about other major chess sponsors who have lately appeared on the scene. Do you mean to say that like Gazprom they haven’t got any financial interest?

Unlike other kinds of sport, football, for instance, which is notorious for bribery, chess in Russia has earned an impeccable well-deserved reputation. So it’s prestigious to invest money in chess. Needless to say, for large corporations the sums are not so tangible.

Could you divulge the figures?

The annual budget of the Russian Chess Federation is $5 millions. And it’s not a secret, everything is absolutely transparent – it’s on our website.

As far as I know, businessmen are not known for parting easily with their money…

If you are alluding to the fact that they invest money just because Russian chess is headed by…

I am not alluding. In fact, I have prepared a question about Arkadiy Dvorkovich.

I personally don’t know a single sponsor who would give us the money only because our leader is an assistant to the President of the Russian Federation. That wouldn’t be a sufficient reason.

And if not for Dvorkovich, would they still support you?

No doubt they would, but probably, on a smaller scale.

Why?

Because he gives the whole thing credibility. Compared to 2009 our budget has increased by 40 %.

I wonder what you did to get such powerful sponsors.

Persuaded them.

Just came up to them and persuaded them? Really? Are you serious?

Absolutely. My friend once asked me: “How did you manage to conquer such a beautiful woman?” I replied: “I begged.” How does it happen? You just present your ideas, your concepts and your vision.

Your ideas? Which ideas?

A million ideas! Children’s chess, chess for grown-ups, broadcasting, the Internet. “Thy name is a legion!”

If you mention broadcasting, does it mean you are offering advertizing space?

Can you imagine an audience of fifty thousand people a day? This is elite audience. An advertisement of Gazprom appeared a hundred times on our website during the tournament and it was watched by the right audience, by Gazprom’s audience. We actually did very well. One day the number of our website visitors exceeded the rock concert of a famous Russian artist. If you want precise figures, he had 55 thousand visitors, whereas we had 60 thousand. I mean the Internet, of course. There are different figures in play when we talk about TV. They talk in millions, the Internet in tens of thousands. But these figures shouldn’t be disregarded. Neither should they be treated lightly as this is our target audience!

Can you say that you have found the system that could attract sponsors without Dvorkovich’s aid?

That’s right.

Can this system be launched in other countries?

It’s difficult to say. There is no universal recipe. If you love chess and want it to develop, you more or less understand how to sell them. Arkady Vladimirovitch’s help is substantial. He helps with his contacts, adds influence, credibility and gives us an access to the right people. It’s not that he has done something for these people and they are rushing to give the Federation money in return. It doesn’t work like that. His contribution is the appearance of sponsors, but it’s not an exactly direct contribution.

Do you mean to say that you believe that there exists a system where chess will produce a profit?

I am sure of it, in fact, a hundred percent sure. Everything can be sold; it’s just a matter of price. But in chess it’s a different story. You should love it very dearly, be totally committed to it. That’s the key. Then the ideas pop up all the time, every day. For example I was approached by Andrei Filatov (a Russian billionaire) with the idea of organizing the world championship match. To be honest, the idea didn’t immediately appeal to me. But we mulled over it and in the course of time we transformed the initial idea into something that was to become a momentous cultural event of international importance. Andrei is a great collector and lover of art. He is a very wealthy person as well. We discussed the problem many museums are facing at the moment. They have stunning collections and fantastic stocks but they lack recognition and authority in the world of art. Thus prestigious collections are not displayed in these museums. This has an adverse effect on their finance, cash flow etc. But why not combine the Match for the title with several large art exhibitions, with the presentation of these museums to the world. To put it in a nutshell, the presentation of Russia through its art. I have always believed that Russia should be promoted only through its spirit. When this idea was formulated Andrei was really enthused. Enthusiasm of a wealthy person is the problem half solved.

I have never organized an event of such magnitude and don’t know what effect it will have, but I do know that it will be interesting. The Tretyakov Gallery will host the exhibition. We are expecting hordes of foreigners who will at least pass by the chessboards and the players while looking at the pictures. They will see Boris and Vishi, which is super! I will be very happy.

So, you thought of a very intelligent move to generate loads of money?

An intelligent move to hold a memorable event. I think you shouldn’t seek money - seek an extraordinary idea and the money will follow. That’s the sequence of events.

In your promotion of chess do you define it as sport, art or science? In general, do we need a definition?

Of course, we do. For national teams, for professionals it’s sport. What our national team has been doing lately is not exactly sport, but it should be. It should be the sport of highest achievements, of striving for excellence. On the other hand, for children it’s an element of education, of upbringing and personal development. For adults it is a hobby bordering on art, like going to a concert hall to listen to music or to the theatre. You can’t and needn’t think about chess in terms of a universal definition. Come to think of it, football is not just a kind of sport. It’s also a game. The world chess championship is apparently a sport. But now it’s a major cultural event as well.

If we define chess as a kind of sport, do you think it’s acceptable for the sportsmen to wear the logos of the sponsoring companies?

Carlsen is wearing it already, as well as Kramnik and many others.

Yes, but of their personal sponsors. What I mean is, does it stand to reason to oblige the players to wear the logo of the tournament’s sponsor?

What for?

Are the banners and the Internet advertising sufficient for the sponsor?

The sponsors’ needs vary.

Apart from monitoring the number of visitors on the website, is it possible at all to determine the efficiency of advertizing through chess?

Unfortunately, not at the moment. But there will be a new system of monitoring at the World championship. It’s inside information, but we have come up with the technical solution. It’s important to understand how long a person spends scanning the website, what he looks at, at what point he comes and goes, that is, what exactly captures his attention, what keeps him in suspense. Is it time pressure, is it Nakamura pulling a face? Or it might be an episode from the history of chess.

Once in Yugoslavia interesting statistics was published on how many times the name of the major sponsor of the InvestBank tournament was mentioned in mass media and how it affected the profits of the bank. Do you think it will be important to mention the Tretyakov Gallery or even Russia in relation to the World Chess Championship?

Just mentioning the name is pointless. Mentioning it in the articles written by acclaimed reputable journalists is a different kettle of fish. Names can be mentioned in positive as well as negative aspects.

The notorious “Toilet Scandal”, was it positive or negative?

And what do you think? It was the greatest disaster for chess.

Can you disclose the financial information on the cost of the Tal memorial? Is it public information?

It’s not confidential information. But at the moment we are in the process of financial evaluations. To put it simply, we haven’t made all the calculations so far. Roughly, it’s from five hundred thousand to a million US Dollars including the prize fund.

Why isn’t chess an Olympic sport yet? What do they lack?

Everything.

Is it your ambition to contribute towards including chess in the Olympic program? Can Russia do it?

Firstly, Russia has nothing to do with including chess in any program. Chess is not an Olympic winter sport as there are ground rules: ice or snow. Chess has none of these. As for the summer program, it is already overloaded and new kinds of sports are not admitted. Besides, there is a slogan: “Faster, higher, stronger !” Again, it’s not in any way related to chess. But just imagine for the moment that one day chess is included in the Olympic program. What then?

Chess will be financed as an Olympic sport.

Chess will still be an incomprehensible game. It might give more finance to the game, but not more interest. This is not one of our ambitions. What’s really needed is a way to teach chess, to broadcast it, to trigger interest. When millions of people start playing chess, it will be included in the Olympic program. But, again, remember curling. It is an Olympic sport. Nobody knew about it before it was announced as an Olympic sport. Have people started playing it? The answer is ‘No’.

Who should rule chess: businessmen, politicians and PR professionals or chess players?

The people who are skilled to do it.

But should these people know how to play chess?

They should certainly love chess. I don’t really think that there is a lot to know in chess. I have a whole blog on the Internet dedicated to the issue. I often hear: “He is not a professional. He won’t understand it.” Honestly, what is there to understand? Of course, there are some specific features in chess, but, frankly, no more than in music or any other kind of art. Chess players are a special breed of people, though. They are self-absorbed and immersed in their own world, in their ideas and moves. Their view of life’s different from that of common people. To put it very mildly.

What about the “live audience” at the tournaments? Is their era coming to an end?

Bygone already.

You don’t even want to go this way?

But is there anything to look at?

Will it be correct to say that chess among other kinds of sport, is occupying the Internet niche?

Yes, chess is to be played live and to be watched on the Internet. Unfortunately, now the situation is just the reverse.

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