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Inside the ultra-competitive world of professional chess

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Even though an estimated 600 million people in the world know how to play chess, the vast majority of people these days probably couldn’t name a current pro chess star. They might remember, or have heard about, when Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972 (the “Cold War of Chess”), or when Garry Kasparov played the IBM (IBM) computer Deep Blue in 1997. If they can name a current chess star—and that’s a big “if”—it is likely only one young man: Magnus Carlsen, who is 25 years old, models for fashion companies with a trademark scowl, and is the No. 1 player in the world.

But beneath Carlsen are legions of players who have built their lives around chess, are extremely skilled, and still struggle to make much of a living competing in the sport. (Yes, it’s a sport—players have to be in top physical shape to compete for six hours straight; international grandmaster Maurice Ashley compares playing in a top chess tournament to taking two college finals, back to back, every day for nine days.) And even Carlsen, who has become a heartthrob and markets his own chess mobile app, Play Magnus, doesn’t pull in anywhere close to what the No. 1 players in other sports make.

“If you’re the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, you probably should be making $10 to $15 million each year, but he doesn’t,” says Ashley, the world’s first black grandmaster, who is personally trying to grow the sport’s popularity with his own tournament, the Millionaire Chess Open. Carlsen makes about $4 million in a year, Ashley estimates, and that’s including endorsement deals that no other player has. (Carlsen declined an interview for this story.) For other top players in the world, “It’s more like a six-figure income,” Ashley says. “If you’re a baseball player, six figures is like a tip.”

Ashley describes the business side of chess as, “just brutal.” And Ashley himself is no unknown: In February of this year, he played and beat a trash-talking, Manhattan chess hustler in a segment for the web show The Tim Ferriss Experiment; the video has 1.3 million views on YouTube.

And yet, take Ashley as an example: “The reality for a person like me is if you never make it to the top 20 in the world, there are very limited ways to make money in chess,” he tells Yahoo Finance. “Teaching is the most consistent, because people want to get coached by a grandmaster. That’s nice money. Writing books, doing lectures, doing appearances. I do live commentary online for tournaments around the world. So a grandmaster has to cobble together all that stuff. Otherwise you’ll starve. You can’t make a living if you only play.” This month, Ashley was inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame just prior to commentating at the U.S. Chess Championship in St. Louis, which ended this week.

Another irony of the chess world: The higher up you are ranked, the fewer tournaments you can play in, and the less money you can earn through competition. That’s because one of the top 10 in the world can’t really play in most of the tournaments offered—it would be embarrassing. So explains Hikaru Nakamura, who is currently ranked No. 6 in the world, and was No. 2 at one point last year. “If you're not at the elite levels,” Nakamura tells Yahoo Finance, “there are a lot more opportunities to play tournaments. Where I'm at now, there are fewer tournaments, because it's a waste of time to play weaker players. In poker, you want to play the weaker guys. In chess, it's the opposite.”

The return of the World Chess Championship to New York City could help. It is the first time the event will be in the largest sports media market in the world since 1995. At that time, Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin, the two players facing off at the event this year (the structure of the event is 12 consecutive games between only these two players), were both toddlers. The event is in Manhattan in November and will last a full month. In a sound bite on the World Chess web site, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio exclaims, “What better place to be than the city where parks are often populated by chess enthusiasts!”

From the World Chess web site, worldchess.com

Chess faces a major challenge in seeking wider popularity among American sports fans. For starters, it’s not very visual. As Nakamura acknowledges, “It's not the way that basketball is, where you can see Blake Griffin dunking the ball, and you instantly get it. When you watch chess, you don't see the four hours that the player spends preparing for a match ahead of time. It's not so visible.” Then there’s the obstacle of convincing sponsors that it can be exciting. To have bigger purses (the World Chess Championship will pay out just $2 million to its winner; compare that to the $35 million guaranteed purse the boxer Floyd Mayweather was commanding for last few final fights), the tournaments need to generate more money, and to generate more money, they need to bring in on big-name corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola and other big consumer brands. That’s a tall order. “It’s not easy because the big sponsors we want don’t all believe people will watch chess,” says Ashley.

There are a few silver linings that could help.

The games have been sped up recently, so that they don’t take as long, and they are live-streamed for free with live commentary, so that people understand what they’re watching. That can help with the accessibility problem, and the attention-span problem. In addition, with new technology like computers playing humans, and a slew of chess mobile apps, it’s become more of an exciting space.

There’s also been a boom in talent. When Ashley became an international grandmaster in 1999, there were only about 500 of them. There has been an explosion since, and there are now 1,400. In addition, the U.S. has more representation in the world’s top players than ever before: Three of the world’s top 10 players are American, more than any other country has in the top 10.

Finally, there’s Carlsen. He has been in advertisements for the clothing line G-Star Raw, and a television spot for Porsche (with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Maria Sharapova). The Syndey Morning Herald called him "the male model captivating the chess world." Mashable wrote that he "shatters nerdy stereotypes." The New Yorker crowned him, "The new king of chess." His celebrity helps the game and could attract new fans.

Magnus Carlsen ad for G-Star Raw

“He’s got the looks, he’s got the swag,” Ashley says. “He’s been very good for the game.” There is a way he could be better, though: He could be more of an accessible ambassador for the sport. “The thing he doesn’t have, I think, is a sense of humor in front of the camera,” Ashley says, “where he looks like he’s having a good time. He’s more Joe Cool. The problem with being the world champion is you are expected to do quite a lot of press, you are going to be in the limelight and you need to bring it. Answer questions and be positive. I don’t know that Magnus is ever going to get there.”

Nakamura puts it differently. Carlsen’s bad boy image is a positive, as he sees it, because it’s better than the alternative some folks have in their heads of a strange nerd. “The image that everyone has of a chess player is not necessarily positive,” Nakamura says. “I think it's partly due to Bobby Fischer—his rise to fame and then his descent into madness. That left a lot of people with negative stereotypes, of nerds who aren’t interesting. So when you have people like Magnus who don't fit the stereotype, it's definitely a benefit to chess.” He also defends Carlsen’s prickly manner with the press: “I mean, we play chess. We aren't exactly born and bred to be popular with media and fans.”

Nakamura has faced Carlsen 30 times in classical competition and never beat him: he lost 12 times and had 18 draws. Ashley has played Carlsen just casually, and says, “He murdered me. He is very good.”

Nakamura is one of the few players besides Carlsen who has an endorsement deal from a mainstream brand; he is sponsored by Red Bull and brings a Red Bull can to every game, which has become a trademark quirk. But if you need any starker reminder of how niche chess still is, look no further than the fact that Nakamura, No. 6 in the world, sponsored by Red Bull, doesn’t currently have an agent.

But even if grandmasters still face difficulty with achieving fame and wealth, their fierce talent is clear. For a fun demonstration, see this Yahoo Finance Facebook video, in which Ashley destroys me, your humble (pathetic) reporter, in just five moves.

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Yahoo Finance Sportsbook is our new video series on the business of sports. Join the conversation on social media with hashtag #yfsportsbook.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.  

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