Masters of Chess, Not Self-Promotion


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 the magazine Cosmopolitan, has given chess 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.”

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 own 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.”

For much of the 20th century, tournament funding often came from resort and spa towns — like Carlsbad (in what was then Czechoslovakia) — that sponsored chess events as a way to attract attention and business. Iceland put up money for the Fischer-Spassky championship match for much the same reason.

Today, however, funding, including prize money, comes mostly from Merenzon’s company, Agon, which organizes world championship events for the World Chess Federation, known as FIDE.

Photo

Schoolchildren entering the hall where the competition was taking place.

Credit
James Hill for The New York Times

Agon pays for halls, hotels, travel and a host of other costs and, in return, has exclusive rights to license the events, as it did with NRK, and to seek out corporate sponsors.

But getting big-name companies that pour billion of dollars into other sports to cough up for chess has been a struggle.

The principal sponsor of the Moscow event was a little-known Russia-based developer called Tashir, which plastered its corporate logo around the playing hall in a Soviet-era telegraph building near the Kremlin. Beluga, a high-end Russian vodka, sponsored a glassed-in V.I.P. room with leather club chairs and unlimited drinks.

Caruana, although a supremely gifted player, has two niche sponsors: the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis and the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. He has their patches on the baggy jacket he wears to matches and other public events.

Hikaru Nakamura, another American who played in Moscow and finished in fifth, is sponsored by Red Bull. He put a can next to the board at each of his 14 matches.

The idea of making chess able to fund itself and turn a profit like other sports gained prominence with the American entrepreneur Andrew Paulson, who set up Agon and in 2011 secured chess marketing rights for 11 years from the world federation. But he gave up trying to create a vibrant chess economy, sold Agon to Merenzon for a symbolic 1 pound and moved on to other ventures in London.

Merenzon had hoped that a victory in Moscow by either Caruana or Nakamura would prod interest from big American sponsors for the coming world championship.

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