Paulson: 'World cities will glorify chess'

by ChessBase
3/12/2012 – FIDE recently transferred the rights to its World Championship cycle to a company called Agon, an action that sent shock waves through the chess world. The man behind Agon is Andrew Paulson, an American born media entrepreneur working in Russia, who is not well known in the chess world. That changes radically now, since GM Raymond Keene sent us this very outspoken interview.

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American born Andrew Paulson is the director of the online media company SUP, which owns the principal blogging platform and social network in Russia. As we recently reported, FIDE decided to stage the next Candidates Tournament this October in London, and transferred the rights to the world championship cycle to a new company, Agon, founded by Paulson. Links to our previous reports, where you will find all the details, are to be found at the bottom of this page.

American entrepreneur Andrew Paulson [photo Ester Dyson, New York]

The following interview was conducted by Raymond Keene, British grandmaster and organiser, during three meetings between the two in London. "Andrew and I met almost by chance at our mutual club, the Garrick, in London," Ray told us. "I took an instant liking to him because he is a doer and highly cultured, especially in English and French literature. His plans for world chess seem to me to be very well thought through."

"World cities will glorify chess"

Interview by GM Ray Keene with Andrew Paulson,
who has taken over the World Chess Championship from FIDE

March 11, 2012

Raymond Keene: Andrew, you are well-known in Russia as the founder of Afisha Publishing House and of SUP, one of Russia’s largest online media companies, owner of LiveJournal, Gazeta and Championat. What is your interest in Chess?

Andrew Paulson: I played chess a lot as a kid in America and closely followed Bobby Fischer’s exploits. Like many people, I suppose, part of my general culture included the names of world champions back to Steinitz, colored in my imagination by the exotic (for me) venues where great matches had been held: Havana, St. Petersburg, Baden Baden and Istanbul. (For me, even Paris and London were exotic!)

As I got older I played chess from time to time, but I’m not a serious player. I have always been a consumer of chess as an idea and an entertainment, I always liked the idea of alpha geeks roaming the earth striving to mortally crush their adversaries!

But I’ve started playing again...

Q. So, how did that develop into a professional relationship with Chess? How did you get involved with FIDE? Are you a consultant?

A. Entirely by chance! I was generally aware of the fact that over the last 10-15 years FIDE has reunified the chess world after the schism of the ‘90s, expanded its membership, initiated educational programs (Chess in Schools) in numerous countries and put its own financial house in order. However, I had also heard it often criticized for not better organizing major chess events around the world and for the eccentric Buddhist who ran it.

Last September, I met the President of FIDE, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov entirely unexpectedly, socially; we immediately got along and I started talking about what I might do to help the World Chess Championship Cycle reach its potential: audience, prestige, sponsorship. I’m not a consultant; consultants don’t “do” things.

Q. What did you propose? How did you get this amazing (some would say shocking) deal done?

A. Well, of course every time I suggested something or came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea, either Kirsan or later members of his team would say: “But that’s not new; we’ve already thought of that,” or “We’ve tried that, but it doesn’t work.” Occasionally, they felt obliged to point out to me that they have significantly higher I.Q.’s than I do. In the end, I realized that they were right and all that was needed was to apply consistently some very simple principles that everyone already knew. So, in fact, all I proposed was hard work and constant attention to detail. Because I sensed a great opportunity.

It wasn’t a question of money or proven experience organizing a match that convinced them. FIDE has money. FIDE has made matches. It was my dogged persistence in coming back again and again with more and more developed, detailed plans -- relentlessly pursuing a particularly truculent Greek called Makro and lugubrious Englishman named Nigel around Europe, to Moscow, to Cracow, to Moscow, to Tirana, to Athens, and again to Moscow -- that finally persuaded them. I think I just wore them down.

Q. Well then give me some examples of these plans. When Ilya Levitov of the Russian Chess Federation wrote about your presentation at the FIDE Presidential Board in the U.A.E., he said: “His presentation was disappointing. No specifics, just general words about lifting chess to a new level.”

A. Ilya is one of those great chess players with a very high I.Q.; the reason he thinks I spoke vaguely is that I was just repeating things he and I had already discussed over lunch with him in Moscow a couple of weeks earlier:

First, the World Chess Championship Cycle has to be made understandable and predictable (to the public and to the players). We have fixed the period of the cycle (two years), clarified the path up the ladder to the Championship Match (via one World Cup, six Grand Prix and a Candidates Tournament), and set regular dates for the events: exact dates for 2012-2015, and assuming that these prove optimal, maintaining the pattern indefinitely into the future.

Second, the events will be held in World Cities which will glorify chess, rather than in small towns that see chess events as an opportunity to promote themselves or local players on the world stage. The theme of the first year is a European Tour: Moscow, London, Lisbon, Madrid, Paris and Berlin. Each succeeding year we will take the cycle to a different continent so as to make it easier to mobilize national/regional enthusiasm, thus eventually bringing chess to the whole world on a regular basis.

Third, the entire Cycle will be conceived as a whole by one hand, not by a committee and a mishmash of conflicting interests. Design, format, and communication will be be focused and consistent. The brand of World Chess and what it stands for must become clearer in everyone’s minds: players’, spectators’, sponsors’. Journalists in both the specialist and generalist media must be supported in every way possible so as to make their work more vital to their editors and publishers, easier for them to produce in high quality, and richer for their readers.

Fourth, we are working on a new ‘format’ to mediate the events for live spectators and for retransmission online (and broadcast) to make the games more understandable and exciting for the general public. Every game is like a musical score for a new, unique composition in a notation that is impenetrable to most people. The two players are creating this score in real time before our eyes. To make it entertaining to a general audience, this composition must be mediated by a dramatic performance -- comments, interpretation, statistics, esthetics and interactivity -- performed, providing direct access to the drama of the game, and pleasure.

Q. What is the nature of your agreement with FIDE? Has it been signed? How long will it last? Kirsan Ilyumzhinov says you are investing €10-12 million. Who are your backers?

A. FIDE asked me to create a new company (Agon Ltd.) that would only deal with chess; ‘agon’ means ‘struggle’ in ancient Greek. They have granted this company the long-term rights to organize, promote and commercialize the World Chess Championship cycle. FIDE receive a fixed fee for the cycle, plus a percentage of the revenues. Long-term means for as long as we are successful and until they get a better offer down the line that I can’t match.

The agreement with Agon took six months to negotiate (Agony!) and we are all now joking about the knock down battles that it took for us to get an agreed-upon document (and get to know each other)! But finally in December the agreement was circulated to the FIDE Presidential Board which approved it unanimously at its meeting in February in the United Arab Emirates.

The €10-12 million that Mr. Ilyumzhinov was referring to is the approximate total production cost, including prize funds, for one two-year cycle. For this I have to provide a rolling Letter of Credit plus $500,000 in cash to FIDE. We need a little bit of seed money that I will provide to handle cash flow; beyond that, I assume we will be profitable.

Q. How do you expect to make money? You talked about sponsorship!

A. These days all over the world advertisers are becoming more and more sophisticated in working with ‘sponsorship,’ as their options have multiplied dramatically and their measurement tools have sharpened. If you can offer real value, advertisers will listen attentively; in the past it had a lot more to do with luck. Chess has often relied on host city sponsorship which is generally a good value whether you are talking about Paris or Khanty-Mansiysk (Siberia). It is challenging to find a brand sponsor for an event that will be watched by a live audience of 300 and by another couple of million chess fans online.

But, if you have those 300 live, plus 2,000,000 online, and soon another 10,000,000 on TV, with over 500,000,000 people playing chess at least from time to time, and another billion who generally regard chess as the epitome of intelligence, complexity and challenge, you can decouple the sponsorship from the finite audience of one event and offer a relationship with World Chess itself. Once again, we are not inventing anything new: simply looking at it from a different point of view, rigorously.

The challenge is not finding sponsors, but finding a few of the right sponsors for whom this relationship holds the greatest value and working with them to extract it. And, of course, the brands must have values that reflect well on chess and each other.

Q. But I understand that there is a pre-existing agreement with Russian company CNC to do exactly the same thing. What happened to that? And before that was an agreement with Global Chess, which produced little result. What makes you think you will succeed where they failed?

A. Bessel Kok (of Global Chess) and David Kaplan (of CNC) are proven, successful businessmen; however, they were never going to roll up their sleeves and do the work themselves. That is why there is little to show for their significant investments. I am an entrepreneur. I will be managing the day-to-day business myself with a small team of top professionals from around the world. We will be investing relatively little but very prudently which will make profits easier to achieve. Our chief asset is chess, rather than cash.

Over the last two years, Kaplan has amassed significant know-how and resources and his CNC will continue to develop its business along the lines that he have identified as their priorities. We will be working closely with them on several aspects of this project.

Q. Mr. Silvio Danailov of the Bulgarian Chess Federation, famous for his participation in the Toilet-gate Affair in Elista in 2006, seems to be seriously questioning the bidding procedure for the 2012 Candidates that you are now planning to hold in London. Can you tell us about that? Azerbaijan also lost its bid, but I understand that they will be playing some role? Are you expecting trouble?

A. FIDE really should answer this question. However, I will give you my outsider’s understanding of it: First of all, of the two formal bids, Bulgaria would have been beaten anyway by Azerbaijan whose bid was higher (so I hear), so there is really no issue here for Bulgaria. Second, by the end of January when the bidding for the Candidates Tournament closed, the FIDE Presidential Board had already for over a month been considering my proposal, which went far beyond the scope of a bid for one event. The FIDE Board unanimously supported the signature of my Agreement, subject to the concurrence of CNC which they still had to get, implicitly rejecting the Azerbaijan bid (as FIDE has the right to do). My contract was duly signed on February 20 and the Azerbaijan and Bulgaria bids were rejected.

However, trying to make sure all the parties remained happy, I immediately sat down with Azerbaijan (and Bulgaria, for that matter; we discussed the possibility of holding one Grand Prix in Sophia and another in Madrid, near where Mr. Danailov lives) and tried to explain to them that we could make an event in London which would have more useful public exposure for them than if it was held in Baku. They agreed and we are currently discussing how they can support this event and what their role will be. Nothing is final on that score.

Q. Another scandal seems to be erupting over the schedules that FIDE is proposing that overlap with some other important events. The Russian Federation President Levitov seems really to be running amok. How will this be resolved?

A. Levitov is getting shriller and raspier as he realizes that no one is listening to him any more. I am convinced that the long-term certainty we are providing to our colleagues -- players and organizers -- outweighs the short-term inconveniences our current transitional schedule is presenting. However, it is true that we have landed right in between two major events and I have been in contact Malcolm Pein of The London Chess Classic and Andoni Madariaga of the Grand Slam Chess Association and we are trying to find a solution with the support of FIDE.

Q. And Kirsan announced that the prize fund will be increased. How much?

A. Prize levels have already been set for 2012-2013, but from 2014 onwards we will revise these significantly upwards, but not evenly across the board. One should use money to achieve goals and reward success: I want to make certain that all the best players play, but also ensure that the whole field of players has an opportunity to make a good living. And, I want to encourage players to always perform at their peak and motivate them to play exciting games.

Q. You have actually met Kirsan Ilyumzhinov! What is he like? He’s rather a figure of fun both inside the world of chess, and outside. Have you talked to him about aliens and Qaddafi?

A. I think that the idea that chess was brought to earth by aliens is a fascinating metaphor that bears deconstruction, and I think that Ilyumzhinov’s claim that he was actually taken into an alien spaceship to play chess with aliens is a grand fairy tale that has stimulated everyone’s imagination. Further, the episode created a remarkable amount of controversy and agitation which must demonstrate Ilyumzhinov’s special genius.

Many politicians have plunged into a conflict area imagining they can deliver a miracle solution to an intractable problem. Many were deluded. Some were cynical. Perhaps this should be called the Bush Syndrome. Jesse Jackson was ridiculed for inserting himself into Syria, Cuba and Iraq; Jimmy Carter likewise in North Korea, Haiti and Syria. Barack Obama was widely attacked in 2008 for saying that he would talk to Ahmadinejad. But sometimes they succeed and I believe that Ilyumzhinov was sincere.

Do these things do harm to chess, as some have asserted? No, chess is impervious to acts of man. As to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov himself, I’ve met him but I’m sure that I’ve not even scratched the surface ... and I’m sure I’ll soon get to know him better.

Copyright Keene/ChessBase. An exclusive interview by Raymond Keene
with Andrew Paulson is to be serialised in The Times, starting on March 17, 2012.

Andrew Paulson (born 1958 in New Haven, Connecticut) is an American entrepreneur working in Russia. He founded Afisha, an entertainment and listings magazine, which became the cultural touchstone of Moscow and St. Petersburg and was sold to Russian media group, ProfMedia in 2005. In 2006, Paulson co-founded an online media company SUP, which now consists of LiveJournal, the principal blogging platform/social network in Russia, with 30 million unique visitors/month worldwide. SUP, which now has 300 employees in offices in Moscow and San Francisco, is currently developing LiveJournal in major markets outside of Russia, including the U.S., the U.K., India and Singapore. Paulson is Chairman of the Board of Directors of SUP.

Raymond Dennis Keene (born 29 January 1948) is an English chess grandmaster, a FIDE International Arbiter, a chess organiser, and a journalist and author. He was involved in organising the 1986, 1993 and 2000 World Chess Championships; and the 1997, 1998 and 1999 Mind Sports Olympiads; all held in London. He has been chess correspondent of The Times since 1985, and is a prolific author, having written over 100 books on chess. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to chess in 1985.

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