Carlsen vs Karjakin: Missed opportunities

by Yasser Seirawan
12/7/2016 – Having a World Championship in Manhattan, in New York, the financial and media capital of the world - this sounds like a dream come true. A golden opportunity to put chess into the limelight, to experience three weeks of chess fever and a chance to show the world why the game is so exciting. But in his first part of a three-part review of the Carlsen vs Karjakin match in New York, Yasser Seirawan critizes that a lot of opportunities were missed.

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Looking back on Carlsen vs Karjakin (1/3)

Hopes and excitement before the match

When the FIDE and its commercial partner, Agon, announced in 2015 that the World Championship Match (WCM) would be coming to the United States in 2016 there was a holler of delight from American fans over the marvelous news. They wanted to know all the details: which city; the venue; dates; ticket prices & reservations; match sponsors and the like were the most asked questions with a view towards planning a potential trip to see the event in person.

Folks at the US Chess Federation were equally excited as well. The event promised to be both a fantastic opportunity to promote our game as well as their community organization. Vendors were intrigued. Would crowds come in droves? Might they sell their wares on site? Merchandizers were also eager to participate: stamps; pins; postcards; posters; clothing items; as well as facsimiles of the sets and boards hold enormous appeal to collectors all over the world. Would there by a DVD or a book about the match? What about an opportunity to get signatures from the players?

Round 12 in New York City

Game 12 in New York City, all pictures by Max Avdeev / Agon

As the many questions continually swirled around the answers remained stubbornly unknown. When the Challenger, from the Moscow Candidate’s Tournament, Sergey Karjakin, was crowned in March 2016, all the same questions were again asked in far greater earnest. Again there were no definite answers. Only rumors told of three potential cities under consideration: Los Angeles, Chicago or Manhattan. For many in the American chess community it was a time of genuine confusion. No one knew the process for choosing a city, whether each one was making a bid offering a Convention Center as a lure for example or whether there was an auction taking place at all. Even worse no one seemed to know who the local – on the ground – organizers representing Agon might be. The USCF the most obvious and best partner for Agon was simply left in the dark. Ignored. Agon hadn’t contacted anyone.

Months would pass before the winning/chosen city of Manhattan was announced. Excited, I immediately got into contact with many friends in Manhattan to ask them about details of the event. It was staggering, simply put those most likely to be in the know knew nothing. Including who was in charge with the actual running of the event. In short the staging process for building up the event was handled very badly leaving many bewildered and quite possibly angry at their inability to plan a trip to the Big Apple.

Magnus Carlsen backstage in round twelve

Blitzing out the final moves

Only after the Baku Olympiad in September 2016 did major details for the WCM finally fall into place. They seemed to come quickly in rapid last minute succession. Two major sponsors were announced, PhosAgro, a global fertilizer and nitrates company was joined by EG Capital Advisors, a financial group specializing in Initial Public Offerings (IPO), would guarantee the one million Euro prize fund ($1.06 million USD). Dates were announced but ticket pricing, reservations for the Opening and Closing as well as other key details would be shortly announced as Agon was finalizing an arrangement with a local partner who specialized in VIP arrangements. The site would be the newly renovated Fulton Market Building in the Seaport District of Manhattan. Once again, I eagerly inquired to my Manhattan friends and asked what they knew of the site as it was new to me. Their feedback wasn’t encouraging: the site was going through major renovations; the stage itself was being hurriedly built and would require strenuous efforts to be completed on time. Oh dear. No one knew who the (American) event coordinator in NYC might be.

Sergey Karjakin entering the stage 

To put the above in perspective, I asked chess legend, Garry Kasparov, now a New Yorker, for details about the event, his answer was humorous but even more precise disturbing, “Yasser, don’t you know? I’ve been banned by the FIDE for two years!” Oh my, how times have changed since Garry’s two celebrated NYC World Championship match victories in 1990 and 1995. Due to the disastrous lack of planning, pre-match main-stream media publicity was scant too none-existent. Fantasies of images of iconic buildings such as the Empire State Building or Radio City Music Hall or a historical Broadway Theater hosting adoring throngs were dashed.

Missed opportunities

If the shoddy organizational planning for the event meant that folks had to put their vacation trips on hold, well the next best thing to being there in person would be watching the online show. As it had done with the Moscow Candidate’s Tournament, Agon continued with its practice of threatening any and all with legal action if they provided commentary of the moves made in real time. An emergency request for an injunction filed in a NYC Court by Agon’s attorneys was brutally quashed by a judge. Another setback for Agon in its disastrous copyright of chess moves (global) dispute. This meant that such sites as as well as the Internet Chess Club and others could all continue with their efforts in promoting the match.

And what about Agon’s own official show? I was greatly cheered when Agon announced that it had secured Judit Polgar as their analyst. Judit would be making her debut as a major event commentator and I knew that she would be terrific. A wonderful public speaker combined with her fantastic chess skills and first-hand knowledge of the pressures of elite events make her ideal. Additionally, Kaja Snare, a Norwegian television presenter who I’ve met at several chess events would assist Judit for the official show. Kaja is a wonderfully professional presenter, comfortable before the camera sporting a ready smile and bubbly personality as well. They were both well suited for one another. Simply excellent choices. I was very happy for the online audience. Kudos to Agon for getting that part right.

After the very promising announcement of Judit and Kaja teaming up with an assortment of guests, celebrities and grandmasters an epic online show was in the works. Things crashed and burned badly thereafter. The online show would be a pay-per-view production only. Good grief. What? Why limit the viewing audience to a mere fraction of a fraction of its potential? The evolutionary 360-degree webcam virtual reality footage was promising. Millions of fans who couldn’t be there in person would be delighted by such an innovation along with the shows commentary, the post-game interviews with the players. It was a slam-dunk cinch to be the most watched WCM online show ever. After all the event would be held in NYC, the financial and media capital of the US.

Making the show freely and publicly available would mean that television, cable and other mass-media outlets would, hopefully, pick up the webcam feed for their own programs, sites and news announcements. Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo!, Microsoft’s Zone and other social media giants may have streamed the show for their customers as well. Reaching far beyond the traditional online chess audience. Chess sites in numerous countries might even create programming based on the webcam feed for commentary in their own native language giving local stars an opportunity to shine. Such possibilities for attracting a global audience seem endless. Sponsors, PhosAgro and EG Capital Advisors, would have been delighted to run their own professionally produced one minute commercial advertisements to such massive audiences, whether separated by one degree or more.

Instead, the business model Agon sketched out for itself is staggeringly short sighted: get 100,000 chess fans to pay $15 each. With revenue of $1.5 million, the event would pay for itself. Gasp. Get a million paying subscribers and there would be dancing in Agon’s boardroom! Genius this is not. No one at Agon seems to understand the concept of sponsorship, combined with media capture as well as numbers of impressions. What missed opportunities.

Sergey Karjakin, day 10 of the World Chess Championship match

Alternative variations

Consider a different model for a moment: imagine the online show had been streamed by numerous partners, reaching millions of people simultaneously, with often mentioned offers of signing up to a mailing list for free, to special contests for prized signed merchandize gifts as well as special offers on select merchandize products. Those who might be interested in collecting stamps, postcards, posters, DVD’s, boards and chess set facsimiles of those used by the players could be offered premiere member discounts and the like with direct orders sent to a virtual store. Millions of fans may well have submitted themselves to a mailing list and kept informed of future events. A marketer’s dream. None of this is rocket science. It happens every single day.

Professional event organizers have dedicated themselves to just such opportunities. To my knowledge none of these things involving merchandizing as mentioned were done. A pity. In my view, Agon missed a golden opportunity to create a fantastic business model with the potential for untold successes in numerous countries. I can only shake my head in tragic disbelief. Lastly, as far as I’m aware, the USCF was never contacted. Ignoring such a willing partner, with its own, 100,000 members is … well you find the words.

Fortunately, for all concerned, the match did come off as planned. Reports were of a well-attended Opening Ceremony, a nice if a bit too small venue, excellent ticket sales, well attended games, great comradery between the fans and guests all occurred. New friendships made. Yay. Which means we can finally come to the games themselves.

Part two, dealing with the games, will follow soon.


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