NYT: Masters of Chess, Not Self-Promotion

3/31/2016 – In an interesting piece on the recently held Candidates tournament, the New York Times discusses the various issues involving the promotion of chess for corporate sponsorship, from the broadcast exclusivity demanded by AGON to magazine photoshoots with the players. Accompanying the write-up is an excellent gallery of images by James Hill. Well worth a look.

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By Andrew Higgins, March 30, 2016

All photos by James Hill

MOSCOW — In the chandeliered ballroom of Pashkov House, an 18th-century mansion on a hill overlooking the Kremlin, a chess grandmaster dressed in a jacket that seemed several sizes too big declined offerings of canapés, vodka and wine.

Surrounded by Moscow glitterati and well-groomed waiters who looked as if they had been borrowed from an expensive nightclub, the grandmaster, 23-year-old Fabiano Caruana of the United States, was not having much fun.

“This is not my favorite thing,” the cerebral Caruana said of the gala, held early this month to celebrate the start of the grueling World Chess Candidates tournament. “I just want to go back to my hotel.”

His discomfort at having to make small talk over cocktails with strangers who, for the most part, barely understood the game at which he excels helps explain why, in a sporting world filled with noisy stars and deep-pocketed corporate sponsors, chess remains a struggling also-ran.

The article represents an interesting look at the challenges in attracting corporate sponsorship

Many world-class chess players are simply not cut out for the nonstop self-promotion that celebrity culture demands.

Still, while perhaps not the most effusive ambassador for his sport, Caruana was the man to whom chess aficionados and promoters had been looking to help turn the game into a mass-market spectator sport at the World Chess Championship, which is set to begin in New York in November.

Those hopes took a big hit on Monday when Caruana, considered America’s best hope in decades for a world championship title, lost his final match in the Moscow tournament, folding to Sergey Karjakin of Russia and missing the chance to advance to the event in New York.
Karjakin will face the reigning champion, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, for the title.

“Didn’t quite work out at the end, but gave it a shot in a tough situation,” Caruana, who entered the match tied for first place with Karjakin, wrote on Twitter shortly after his defeat.

Caruana congratulates Karjakin shortly after the game

Caruana also used his Twitter post to congratulate Karjakin “on a well deserved victory,” showing the kind of manners that Bobby Fischer, the last American-born player to win the world championship, in 1972, was not known for.

Chess has come a long way since the days of Fischer, who sulked when he lost, gloated when he won and forfeited his title in 1975 when he declined to defend his crown.

The economics of chess have also moved on. Fischer’s Cold War showdown with Boris Spassky in 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland, was preceded by bitter wrangling over money, with Fischer agreeing to play only after he had secured a doubling of the world championship prize fund, initially set at $125,000 (the equivalent of around $700,000 today).

Ilya Merenzon, the chief executive of Agon, which holds the worldwide licensing and marketing rights to a series of tournaments held every two years to decide who is the world’s best player, said the prize fund for this year’s title match in New York would be 2 million euros ($2.2 million).

The rise of the personable Carlsen, who has been named one of the world’s sexiest men by Cosmopolitan magazine, has provided a dash of glamour long missing from a game often associated with the introverted or the plain odd, like the reclusive Fischer, who spent his later years spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

“We are selling an elite event that we hope will be part of the global news cycle,” Merenzon said in an interview. He also noted that far more people around the world played chess than played golf, which he described as “much more boring than chess.”

There is a small but excellent gallery of images by James Hill at the New York Times site

That chess has a passionate following was clear from a controversy that erupted during the Moscow tournament, which ended on Monday.

Merenzon had tried to make sure that live coverage of each move was available exclusively on his company’s website, WorldChess.com, and through NRK, the Norwegian state television company, which last year signed a six-year deal for chess rights worth nearly $2 million.

That created an uproar in the chess world, with complaints that Merenzon, by trying to enforce exclusivity, would only curb interest in the game and thus undermine his goal of pushing chess into the mainstream.

Merenzon, whose company has filed three lawsuits in Moscow seeking damages of nearly $900,000 from websites that violated this exclusivity, said he merely wanted to turn chess into a sport like any other by ensuring that sponsors could be sure where the audience was — just as they know which TV channel will have the broadcast rights to the Super Bowl or the World Cup.

Holding chess tournaments costs lots of money, Merenzon said, so there has to be a system of exclusivity in place “for monetizing games in each world championship cycle.”

(...)

Click here to read the complete article at the New York Times site



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