November 28, 2016


World Chess Has a Big Problem : While grandmasters earn millions, the sport still can't shake ties to tyrants and a leader under U.S. sanctions. (Carol Matlack, November 28, 2016, Bloomberg)

The championship, which runs from Nov. 11 until Nov. 30, is back in the U.S. for the first time since 1999.  Staging the 12-game showdown in New York is part of the latest push to make chess lucrative for its players and promoters. Bolstered by internet fame, the world's dozen or so top players now can make upwards of $500,000 annually, more than the world's best rodeo cowboys and surfers and way more than elite bowlers. Carlsen, who models for the luxury denim company G-Star Raw, reportedly makes more than $1 million. The prize for the World Chess Championship--‎€1 million euros ($1.06 million), split 60-40--was staked by the event's promoter and sponsors, a departure from tournaments of yore whose pots came from wealthy patrons and sovereign governments. 

Fans are ponying up, too. Tickets to the championship matches ranged from $75 to $300, but the real action has been online. U.S.-based says it has millions of subscribers, many of whom pay up to $99 a year to subscribe. For the championships, Agon Ltd., organizer of the New York tournament, offered fans a $15 pay-per-view live stream. More than 1 million people have followed the game play each day, according to Agon, although the company won't say how many have paid for live viewing.  

Modern chess has much going for it: millions of fans and players around the world, charismatic young stars, and a game uniquely suited for the internet age. It also has a substantial problem. The World Chess Federation, the game's official governing body and awarder of "grandmaster" status, keeps doing business with some of the world's worst regimes. Known by its French acronym FIDE ("fee-day"), the organization is in the firm grip of its eccentric president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a 54-year-old Russian businessman and ex-politician. He has flaunted his relationships with Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi, having played chess under a tent with the Libyan leader a few weeks before Qaddafi's death. His ties to Vladimir Putin have raised suspicion that he secretly works for the Kremlin--an idea he dismisses as ludicrous. Ilyumzhinov also claims to have been abducted by aliens in 1997 and says extraterrestrials introduced chess to humans more than 2,000 years ago.

Posted by at November 28, 2016 2:41 PM