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‘We haven’t captured the magic’: Chess missed out on a massive opportunity

Daniel Roberts
Editor-at-Large

On Wednesday in New York City, the FIDE World Chess Championship culminated in a thrilling tiebreaker of four “rapid blitz” games. At the end of the day, the 26-year-old Norwegian chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen had retained his title.

But most Americans, even those living in New York City, were completely unaware of the event.

It’s the Super Bowl of chess, it happens every two years, and this year it was an epic battle of Norway (Carlsen) vs Russia (Sergey Karjakin) and carried a $1.06 million purse. Yet still the event was only able to recruit two “major sponsors”: EG Capital Advisors, a Russian wealth management firm, and PhosAgro, a Russian chemical company. No Coca-Cola here, no Pepsi, no DraftKings, no Red Bull, no GoDaddy.

So how did chess, the brainy pastime played in parks all over the world, the game that gave us such lore as the disappearance of Bobby Fischer and the computer Deep Blue vs Kasparov, fall out of favor in America?

Maurice Ashley, an international grandmaster, says it’s because the game hasn’t found and packaged compelling stories for the mainstream media.

“We have a wonderful, beautiful sport that millions of people play and enjoy,” Ashley tells Yahoo Finance. “But we haven’t captured the magic yet and made it into a story. That has always been part of chess’s problem. The story has always been the single genius. And people get caught up in the story of one genius, and not in the magnificence of the game. If I want to tell the chess story to ESPN, I need a hook. The hook can’t just be, ‘Do you know how fun chess is?’ They’d say, ‘What are you talking about, it’s hard to learn and hard to watch.’”

Indeed, the FIDE Chess World Championship didn’t show on ESPN or any other television network in the US. To watch the action, fans could pay $15 at worldchess.com (lowered to $7 for the tiebreaker on Wednesday) which gives you full, professional camera angles like any sports event, plus commentary, or could watch a stripped-down game board, without any camera views of the players, for free at chess24.com. There was also, at times, a live stream available on the Amazon-owned site Twitch.

from the World Chess web site

The viewership at these sites has been small. Agon Limited, which owns World Chess, is not sharing the viewership numbers, but chess sources say fewer than 10,000 people have paid to watch at worldchess.com. Some 11,000 concurrent people watched a Twitch stream of one of the matches. “I don’t think the broader public is aware of the event, unfortunately,” says Ashley.

Much of the problem is the sheer length of the matches: most have taken seven hours apiece, and all but two ended in a draw. Carlsen and Karjakin have played 12 matches, resulting in 10 draws, and one win each. But on Wednesday, in the rapid format, each game is limited to one hour, and could take as little as 20 minutes. “That’s thrilling chess, that’s the kind of stuff people want to see,” Ashley says.

Ashley has taken pains to help the popularity of the game, such as offering his own Millionaire Chess tournament in Atlantic City. This year’s event, in October, drew just 400 players, “not enough for us to feel good about it, in fact we feel terrible about it, and if we don’t get some sponsors for it we aren’t going to do it again,” he says.

The vast majority of the audience for chess is outside the US. In Norway, this tournament is showing on NRK TV (public broadcasting) to millions of people. Carlsen, the best player in the world, is a mega-celebrity in his home country, and even a minor celebrity here in the States. He is the sport’s only current “single genius,” to use Ashley’s term, that the media has embraced. He has been sponsored by the clothing label G-Star Raw, Iskra bottled water, and appeared in a TV spot for Porsche (with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Maria Sharapova).

So why not hold the Super Bowl of chess there, in Norway, or in Russia? Why have it in New York City? Precisely because this is where the sport needs a boost, Ashley says. “Everyone in chess knows that if you make it here, you make it anywhere. The sport needs to explode in the US. We keep bashing our heads on this market and coming up bleeding.”

If Carlsen were American, it would be a different story, many in chess argue. Three of the world’s top 10 ranked players are Americans (Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, and Wesley So), but they are far from celebrities.

Carlsen in a G-Star RAW ad

Nakamura himself has told Yahoo Finance that Carlsen’s fame is understandable: “When you have people like Magnus who don’t fit the stereotype, it’s definitely a benefit to chess,” he said. “I mean, we play chess. We aren’t exactly born and bred to be popular with media and fans.”

Ashley points to Caruana as the most promising figure to revitalize the game in America. Caruana was born in Florida, raised in Brooklyn, and then moved to Italy (his mother is Italian). He became a chess grandmaster at age 14, the youngest ever in the US and Italy. He is ranked No. 2 in the world, and only narrowly lost to Karjakin at the World Chess Candidates Tournament, which decided who would face reigning champion Carlsen in the Championships.

“We all sit here grinding our teeth, like, if Fabi had just won, we’d be in a different position,” Ashley says. “So we’ll have to wait two years for the cycle again to see whether he will make it. What’s going to be the media interest in the storyline of an American challenging the Norwegian god of chess? We’d have to see. If Bobby Fischer could come back from the dead, that would maybe make people interested.”

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports-business and technology. Sportsbook is our recurring sports-business video series.

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