Can chess cash in?

Chess is enjoying sponsorship deals - and scandals - to rival football. But can it really hit the big time?

by Steve Barrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The popular image of chess in the UK is that it's best left to the nerds and the geeks: the kids at school who can't play football, who wear NHS specs but can't look anyone in the eye. However, this is not necessarily the case elsewhere in the world, where chess is classed as a sport and attracts a gallery of top professional players whose antics put the automatons on the golf, tennis and motor-racing circuits to shame.

In fact, the appeal of chess is broadening sufficiently to attract serious commercial sponsorship. There's definitely money to be made from it, and the ancient game in which two minds battle it out on an eight-by-eight grid shows every sign of hitting the big time.

'Chess is cool,' says the women's world champion chess player, 25-year-old Alexandra Kosteniuk, whose image belies all stereotypes. 'And we grandmasters must show we are not nerds, by dressing nicely: no jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. And more women should be invited to tournaments, so kids can see it's not only for boys.'

The Florida-based Russian became a grandmaster at 14 and is also a successful model, having appeared in magazines including Vogue, Elle Girl and Marie Claire. She endorses companies such as electronics giant LG, Balmain Watches and Russian clothing firm Zimaletto.

She believes the tipping-point for chess is in the hands of the media and officialdom. 'Champions should be made into true stars, and the media should push them to be real heroes,' she adds. 'The Olympic committee should declare chess an official Olympic sport.'

Others would go even further to promote chess. The Russian-born, Cannes-based grandmaster Vladislav Tkachiev is a master of blitz chess, the high-octane variation in which games must be completed in only a few minutes. He believes chess must revolutionise itself to win the mass market, although he got people talking for the wrong reasons when he turned up for a game in India last year so hung-over he fell asleep at the board and was defaulted.

Tkachiev employs methods that - if none too subtle or universally popular - are effective. He set up a website where visitors could vote for the best-looking female chess players and has even suggested women should wear mini-skirts while playing and appear in naked calendars.

'Tkachiev further eliminates the stereotype of the chess player as an academic, introverted person who doesn't mix in wider society,' says Malcolm Pein, chess correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. 'He's certainly not a role model as a sportsman, but he's in the world top 100 and has normal human instincts and failings.'

Former heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis is a massive chess fan, as are Ukrainian heavyweight boxers, the Klitschko brothers. In fact, chess-boxing - where participants duke it out in alternate rounds of board and ring-based combat - is another, rather more extreme variant of the game that is taking off in the UK.

One attribute that chess shares with boxing is a complicated administrative structure. Like boxing, chess has had multiple world championships in the past, though it is unified now. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, controversial president of chess governing body FIDE (Federation Internationale des echecs) since 1995, is president of the oil-rich Buddhist Russian republic of Kalmykia. The multimillionaire businessman was a pal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and initially brought a lot of money into top-level chess, even if players had to travel to obscure outposts of eastern Europe to hit pay dirt. Sample chapters in his autobiography include 'Without me, the people are incomplete' and 'It only takes two weeks to have a man killed'. He claims to have been abducted by a UFO while on a business trip to Moscow. There's also a video of him chess-boxing on YouTube (you wouldn't find him cowering in the playground in his NHS specs).

Speaking in December at London's Olympia, where he was participating in the biggest chess event to hit British shores in 25 years, former world champion Vladimir Kramnik is sanguine about the governing body's influence. 'The situation is not that bad nowadays, but FIDE can do many things better. It's not achieving its full potential - there's no strategy, management or promotion in chess.'

Despite this, he is quick to state: 'I've made a good living out of the game. I'm not an oligarch, but I wouldn't want to be. There's only so much money you can spend.'

Forget superstar footballers Ronaldo, Messi and Torres, Olympia also featured teenage prodigy Magnus Carlsen, who is leading chess's push to shed its geeky image. A former ski-jumper, Carlsen was once trained by the Norwegian national football team's goalkeeper, who also happened to be a chess grandmaster. He is now mentored by Garry Kasparov - widely regarded as the greatest player of all time - who expects his protege to outdo even his startling achievements.

Like any self-respecting megastar, the 19-year-old Norwegian attracts commercial endorsements, sporting the logos of Norwegian law firm Simonsen and investment bank Arctic Securities on his clothes, each of which sponsors him to the tune of more than £200,000.

Olympia was the latest stop for a travelling roadshow of top professional players chasing serious prize funds in locations such as Bilbao, Zurich, London and Moscow. At this level, the sport is far removed from its nerdy UK image. And it has a catalogue of scandals, intrigue and complicated characters to rival any international sport.

Veselin Topalov, the Bulgarian about to be usurped as world number one by Carlsen, contested a controversial $1m world title reunification match with Kramnik in 2006 that descended into farce when both sides accused the other of cheating in what became known as 'Toiletgate'.

Topalov is set to challenge Vishwanathan Anand in a megabucks $1.5m world championship clash in April. Anand is the current champion, having beaten Kramnik in 2008. He is a household name and national hero in his native India, where he is as familiar a face in TV advertising as cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar.

World number four Levon Aronian is the pride of Armenia, the chess-obsessed state that won the last two Olympiads. He hit global news headlines in 2006 when English grandmaster Danny Gormally took a jealous swing at him in a disco at the Turin Olympiad, because Aronian was dancing with Arianne Caoili, a Filipino-Australian player who is now Aronian's long-term girlfriend.

Hikaru 'H-bomb' Nakamura is the best player to come out of the US since Bobby Fischer. An expert in bullet chess, the ultimate adrenalin variant of the game in which players have just a minute to complete all their moves, he recently defeated Carlsen in a blitz match.

Now 44, British number one Nigel 'Nosher' Short first came to prominence in the 1970s as a seven-year-old prodigy. In 1997, he reached the World Championship final, but lost a match at the Savoy in London to Garry Kasparov. H-bomb and Nosher both played at Olympia.

All are full-time professional sports stars earning big money, and when these super-grandmasters gather, the talk usually turns to fees and conditions rather than the latest opening variations.

Mainstream sponsors include steel firm Corus and banking giant Credit Suisse, and entrepreneurs such as Spanish retail magnate Luis Rentero and Dutch software billionaire Joop van Oosterom, whose annual Melody Amber blindfold and rapid-play tournament in Monaco is named after his daughters.

Kasparov made millions out of chess, but retired in 2005 to concentrate on politics and writing. In his prime, he charged $100,000 per appearance and was sponsored by companies such as Swiss watch manufacturer Audemars Piguet.

He was paid about $1m to take on IBM's Deep Blue computer in an infamous 'man v machine' chess match in 1997 that attracted an online audience of millions around the world. But, after losing the match, Kasparov accused IBM of cheating - prompting the computer firm to 'retire' its machine and pull funding from chess.

Olympia organiser Pein wants to re-establish the global buzz that the IBM match created, in order to prove chess's attractiveness to commercial sponsors and bring the 2012 World Championship to London, to coincide with the Olympics.

The interest is definitely there. According to 2007 TGI data, 5.7% of the UK's adult population (over-18s) play chess, more than tennis (5.5%) and cricket (3.6%).

'The one thing everyone can relate to is that most dads have taught their children how to play chess,' says Pein. 'It's a rite of passage, like the first time you take them swimming, or buy them a football.' In addition, chess is a game made for the web. Tens of thousands play against each other, across continents, online.

However, the challenge remains to infiltrate chess's colourful characters into the public's sporting consciousness. Sports promoter Barry Hearn is sceptical about its ability to cross over. 'You've a mountain to climb to make chess appeal to a mass audience,' he says. 'Can you make it televisual? It's a tough one. Unlike poker, where there are characters and they speak a lot, there's no dialogue between chess players.'

Hearn is the person behind boxing's Prizefighter tournament and, just four days before the chess tournament, Olympia resounded to the blood-and-guts combat of its latest instalment, with top fighters scrapping it out in a winner-takes-all contest for £32,000.

The London chess prize fund dwarfed this, at EUR100,000, but despite the financial discrepancy, Prizefighter was broadcast live to a large TV audience on Sky Sports 1. Hearn says viewers increasingly demand instant entertainment and cites 20/20 cricket, quick snooker and poker formats as further examples. 'The anoraks follow long-form chess games online,' he adds. 'But attracting the casual viewer is the difference between success and failure for TV sport. Watching games that last forever won't work.'

Kosteniuk says chess can attract TV coverage by becoming more dynamic and focused on blitz formats, with commentators explaining every move, computer analysis showing which player is winning, fewer draws, and games carrying on until checkmate.

So if the game is to stand any chance of really hitting the big time and attracting serious sponsorship dosh, it's going to have to lose its geeky baggage and get into the groove. Even if that means donning the boxing gloves and being abducted by aliens on a trip to Moscow.


MY SAD LIFE IN CHESS - BY STEVE BARRETT

I have had a 35-year love/hate affair with chess, inspired by legendary US World Champion Bobby Fischer and England's first grandmaster Tony Miles, both now sadly deceased. I joined my school team in the early '70s and have been hooked ever since.

My ex-wife relished the prospect of living with an 'intellectual' who played in the national chess league alongside grandmaster experts. But her ardour was dampened when I lost to a 12-year-old who could barely see over the board. She never came to watch again, and it was the first step towards inevitable divorce.

I have always had a problem playing against juniors and women, lacking the killer instinct to crush their ego in the manner prescribed by Fischer. Freud would have had a field day.

But my star did shine brightly for one glorious period during the British Chess Championship in Great Yarmouth in July 2007. In successive days I managed to beat grandmaster prodigy David Howell - who played at the London Olympia tournament in December - and GM-elect Stephen Gordon, propelling myself to the top of the leader board and making the Daily Telegraph's chess column.

My girlfriend came up from London and joined hundreds of spectators at the venue and thousands online watching me play the British champion. She kept her head in a book throughout the entire game, only raising a flicker of interest when it finished after five hours to ask: 'Who won?' The disappointment was palpable when I gave her the inevitable reply - and she too has never been back.

Perhaps there is still some way to go before we chess players finally shed our geeky image.

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