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.”


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patliy patliy 4/2/2016 07:16

If Agon wants to test the real audience of chess ,it should sponsor the chess olympiad in Baku and ask for a small 10 euros payment to view all games live,then we will know if chess has a paying audience. The Chess Olympiad is much more interesting than a world championship as there is action all the way from top boards to amateurs and there is sure to be a ready chess audience due to so many national teams playing
johnmk johnmk 4/1/2016 01:57
Soissons - I agreed with your post up to "chess popularity in the US plummetted after Fischer".

Not true. Chess saw an enormous surge in popularity stateside after his match with Spassky in 1972. He inspired the next generation of US masters. It also was a real boon to the press, the media, mainly thanks to Fischer's antics. He was the Trump of the chess world you might say, with all that that implies.
soissons soissons 4/1/2016 01:04
I am not sure Fischer didn't do more harm to the sponsorship of chess than good. Certainly he would have launched tremendous support for the gamr had he not abdictated his title and demonstrated to the world he was unreasonable and unreliable. What sponsor would take a chance with such a person? Look also what happen with IBM and Kasparov! After the computer won Kasparov accused IBM of cheating destroying in ten seconds any value they got fron the match. They reacted with a "never again" attitude and dismantled deep blue. Chess popularity in the US plummetted after Fischer and is only now regaining popularity with the emergence of chess in schools and real sportsmanship among the top players. While I revere Fischer's game I personally have utter contempt for his behaviour and the huge damage he did to our game. We all wish the Fischer story ended differenty but sadly the reality is he set chess back by two decades in my opinion and today the only sponsors seem to be billionaire russian oligarchs and Norwegian companies. Let's look at the fcta and stop the Fischer hagiography.
chessdrummer chessdrummer 4/1/2016 07:15
Amatuerish. The writer sounds like he didn't know Fischer much. People have to make of their minds. Fischer sold chess, warts and all. Do they want someone who is stoic or someone who is gregarious? Fischer was full of personality, but he bashes him. No other person made the kind of impact he made.

Not sure why he is mentioning the retired Fischer. Carlsen's glamour? Not sure what this has done to popularize chess.

The other problem... people still anticipated Carlsen-Nakamura of Carlsen-Caruana. Despite the lopsided record, Nakamura would have be wildly exciting and probably quite different (i.e., Fischer-Spassky).
jajalamapratapri jajalamapratapri 4/1/2016 07:07
Agon is a disaster, combining incompetency with arrogance.
okfine90 okfine90 4/1/2016 06:12
So after how many years V. Anand will be watching a world chess championship?. This time also he was very close to qualifying. At this age also he has enormous energy!.
koko48 koko48 4/1/2016 05:07
Another Fischer bashing article from his friends in the mainstream media....Completely ignoring the fact that Fischer brought more money and popularity to chess than anyone before or since....The $5 million purse for the 1975 Manila WC match was the biggest prize fund at the time in Sport (all of sport), after Muhammad Ali....Top professional golf and tennis players in 1975, were looking at chess prize funds with envy

And if Agon and the organizers really wanted to popularize chess, they would not have chosen a challenger for the world title with Sonnenborg Berger tiebreaks, rather than rapid matches....Either they are too stuck in the old ways, or they really are clueless about the basics of promotion....It's pretty much a 'no-brainer' that nothing would have been as interesting and fan friendly as a series of rapid mini-matches for the challengers' spot
Cocolisso Cocolisso 4/1/2016 05:02
why people still talk trash about Fischer he is dead please be more respecfull!! Can Albert Silver be sure that Caruana is really honest? Nobody is happy when loose unless is not human!!
LetsReason LetsReason 4/1/2016 01:40
Sergey's silhouette in the first image reminds of Joseph Smith silhouette I've seen growing up. The whole image reminds of that.
johnmk johnmk 4/1/2016 01:15
Greed walks in. If the players would settle for modest rewards, that would resolve part of it but of course they are not going to argue with being well compensated -- who would? Chess players and chess afficionados historically have not been high-income types so it's hard to imagine fans paying through the nose like people do for tickets to the World Series or the Super Bowl. I can't see that happening, I don't think the game will ever be quite that popular but clearly some entrepreneurs are pushing for that, and "that" is always accompanied by law suits. I pine for the days of just a few obscure publications bringing us news of tournaments....
santie54321 santie54321 4/1/2016 12:55
what a piece of journalism trash by the NYT /shame
Ken Walters Ken Walters 3/31/2016 11:48
This piece has nothing to do with the intellectual aspect of chess. It is typical cheap journalism (today's standard across the board) focused on PR and money. Did we read anything in this piece about the intellectual content of chess? Nothing. Of course some (of the usual) dissing of Fischer for being a nut-job and an anti-Semite. As if there were not some prominent politicians in Europe in America today who are nut-jobs and anti-Semites. Come on. Report on real chess news -- on the supremely intellectual side of it.
Beanie Beanie 3/31/2016 11:21
Caruana didn't play a match in the final round.
Webbimio Webbimio 3/31/2016 10:51
@Chesstalk: looool! :)
ChessTalk ChessTalk 3/31/2016 10:27
I was shocked to see that Sergey's second, Vladimir Potkin, was also a hair-dresser.