World Chess Championship 2016:
The birth of a global sport?
A report from New York by Jérôme Bloch on the World Chess Championship between norvegian Magnus Carlsen - the world number one - and Sergey Karjakin, the russian prodigy.
New York - New York
Agon Limited, the company which holds the rights to the World Chess Championship and partner of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), doesn’t have an easy task. It’s invested heavily in the organisation of the world championship in New York, just by the Brooklyn Bridge, but is battling away on three separate fronts: firstly, FIDE and its controversial President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, which can be compared to FIFA during the Sepp Blatter era, only worse - which explains the competition’s lack of appeal when it comes to sponsors and the absence of superstars like Garry Kasparov in New York. Secondly, Agon has invented a new business model and has had to go to court in a bid to prevent popular sites like Chess24.com from broadcasting live moves and to ensure exclusive broadcasting of the event - without success: unlike football, games of chess can be commentated on without images of the players being shown and the legal system considers that “the moves of the pieces don’t belong to anybody!". Lastly, the sport presents major problems in terms of action. Players sometimes take 20 minutes to decide on their move; 10 out of 12 games ended in a draw; no-one made a decisive move before the end of the 12th game and the 12th game, which was expected to be the most dramatic, ended in a non-match which lasted just a few minutes. The organisers had to offer free tickets for the tiebreak which was held 2 days
later to visitors who had already paid several hundred dollars for tickets.
Carlsen - Karjakin
On paper, the match had everything going for it - and it was indeed a crowd-pleaser. Magnus Carlsen, the
undisputed champion over the last few years, is a
superstar who’s loved in his home country of Norway and around the world. Sergey Karjakin, the youngest
Grandmaster in history at the age of twelve, is open about his admiration for Vladimir Putin. It was a battle
reminiscent of the 1972 clash of the titans in the midst of the Cold War: Bobby Fischer against Boris Spassky. Plenty of people expected it to be a walk in the park for the Norwegian - but they were quite wrong. After seven draws against the Russian at the cost of an often heroic defence, Carlsen attacked too much during the 8th game and lost his first point after leaving his defence wide open. He succeeded in making it a draw after the 10th game and deliberately moved towards the tiebreak. Over the next 4 quick games, he came close to victory in the 2nd game but Karjakin managed to make it stalemate. All square.
Magnus seemed to shake off his nerves, winning the next two games! The mark of a great champion.
Ultimately, Agon shouldn’t blame itself. Its CEO, Ilya
Merenzon, has a very clear plan (see our interview, inset) but selling paid video subscriptions, merchandising and lucrative contracts with international brands takes time. Indeed, Peter Thiel, the entrepreneur behind PayPal, Facebook and Palantir, was invited to play the first move on the last day. An excellent player, he wrote a book with Kasparov and could become an incredible ambassador for the game in Silicon Valley or even an investor. This event could be the first in a series of events, allowing chess to catch up with other alternative sports like poker and video games. However, if this goal is to be achieved, two major
projects must first be undertaken:
1. The implementation of proper governance for FIDE to put an end to the current allegations of corruption. 2. A review of the championship’s format to make it more "predictable". The swarm of journalists in New York during the tiebreak showed that the press is keen to send a journalist to cover chess, if it can be sure of a great story.
A winner everyday
One of the key ideas for developing chess is to implement a format which creates a winner every day, to ensure that the press and the general public can enjoy a tournament with a gripping narrative. This format would make it possible to organise a tiebreaker after a draw with a quick game (25 minutes), then a ‘blitz’ game (5 minutes) and even a ‘bullet’ game (1 minute), if necessary. A classic victory would be worth more points than a quick win, and
the public and the championship’s sponsors would get their money's worth. Other Grandmasters have also suggested forcing players to use a wide range of opening moves during the tournament to avoid repetitive, identical games. The most creative players want to make the game more exciting by asking players to guess their opponent's next move, similar to poker, where the public can see players’ cards. The stakes are high: Magnus Carlsen has just won $660,000 whereas the latest winner of the World
Series of Poker in Las Vegas pocketed $8 million!