By JONATHAN CLEGG
In an age when niche sports such as darts and poker have managed to attract a mainstream following, chess fans are wondering why there has been so little attention devoted to the London Chess Classic, which begins today and has been billed as the strongest tournament in the U.K. in 25 years.
Sellout crowds are expected across the five days at the Kensington Olympia, while more than a million enthusiasts will follow the tournament online, with six-figure audiences expected to follow for the much-anticipated showdown between former world champion Vladimir Kramnik and newly crowned world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen, a 19-year-old Norweigan whose prodigious talents have seen him hailed as the Mozart of chess.
The meeting of a giant of the sport’s past and its leading light of the future has generated serious buzz in online forums world-wide, but it has so far failed to generate big money.
English Grand Master chess players Luke McShane, right, and Nigel Short take part in a blindfolded game of chess in a London Eye capsule.
Although a group of private investors has agreed to sponsor the London Chess Classic, the purse of €100,000 ($148,520)—a record for a British tournament—is indicative of the sport’s struggle to translate its popularity into cash.
Corporate sponsorship has proved elusive, while lucrative endorsement deals are rare, even for the sport’s leading stars. Last year, Mr. Carlsen spent 200 days on the road playing and earned roughly $250,000 after expenses, his father says.
Those earnings will increase following his rise to the top of the rankings, but even for the world’s leading player, it is clear chess can’t compete with the riches on offer in mainstream sports. Even more galling for chess organizers, it now fails to generate the revenues of other “mind sports.”
While the winner of this month’s World Chess Cup will receive $120,000 in prize money, this year’s World Series of Poker champion pocketed about $8.5 million.
“Chess has simply failed to tap into its enormous potential: We have too many people shooting ourselves in the foot, or in the head if you like, and we’re not enough progressive enough as a sport,” says Nigel Short, a former world championship challenger and current British No. 1.
He blames the International Chess Federation, known by its French acronym FIDE, for failing to leverage the sport’s enormous global reach. With 158 member nations, FIDE is the second largest world-wide sporting organization after FIFA, the governing body of world football.
“At the grassroots level, chess is huge but on the top level it doesn’t translate into anything,” Mr. Short says. “There are hundreds of millions of chess players around the world, so the money’s there, but FIDE has failed to put chess in the mainstream.”
Indeed, many of FIDE’s attempts to increase the game’s commercial appeal have appeared puzzling. Hopes of generating mainstream media coverage were raised when the organization announced the launch of a new Grand Prix series in 2007. Yet high expectations were swiftly dashed by poor execution.
Originally envisioned as “a series of six tournaments held over two years in leading world cities,” according to the FIDE Web site, only five tournaments in two years have taken place, the past three of which were held in Elista and Nalchik in Russia and Jermuk in Armenia after plans for more exotic venues were derailed by the collapse of sponsorship agreements.
“Who wants to sponsor a match in a place they’ve never heard of or a place they’d rather not go to?” asks Malcolm Pein, organizer of the London Chess Classic.
Yet FIDE has also been hampered in its attempts to attract sponsors and sell chess to a wider audience by a lack of mainstream broadcast opportunities. The London Chess Classic won’t be televised by a single TV network and Mr. Pein says efforts to air the tournament were doomed because of a lack of interest on the part of broadcasters.
“Chess hasn’t been broadcast in Britain properly since 1993, and there’s been very little coverage in Western Europe or the U.S. generally,” he says. “It’s not an issue of cost, the broadcasters just don’t think it would command any interest.”
This is the problem for chess. Without TV coverage, the sport can’t hope to attract the lucrative sponsorship deals and commercial partners that swell the coffers of other second-tier sports. Despite concerted efforts to sell television audiences on shorter versions, including rapid chess (timed games taking less than two hours) and blitz chess (three to five minutes per move), the game has yet to devise a format that captures the imagination of the people that matter: TV executives.
“If it’s not a good sport for television, it will struggle to generate major revenues, because that’s where the huge audience of media comes from,” says Nigel Currie, a director at London-based sponsorship consultancy BrandRapport. “Poker works because they’ve found a way for you to see the cards so you can assess what’s going on, but in chess it’s just in two people’s minds really.”
While attempts to increase revenues at the top level have stalled, other signs point to a renaissance. Grassroots participation has rocketed over the past few years as reports citing the educational benefits of chess have led to a resurgence in scholastic chess.
More than 70,000 children now take part in the annual British Land U.K. Chess Challenge, while First Move—a program run by the America’s Foundation for Chess to teach second- and third-grade teachers how to use chess as a learning tool—now serves about 50,000 kids in 26 states.
The globalization of the game has also raised interest levels across the world as the Internet allows fans to follow a match through online forums.
If the London Chess Classic goes well, Mr. Pein hopes to bring the world championship to Britain in 2012, a prospect that would allow a sport played by an estimated 300 million people to move a step closer to fulfilling its vast potential.
“I’m hopeful that having a tournament with a Western European as world No. 1 in a Western European city will bring chess back into the public eye.”