BREAKINGVIEWS-Chess: a 1,500-year-old startup that doesn't scale

by Reuters
Friday, 2 December 2016 16:22 GMT

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

By Kate Duguid

NEW YORK, Dec 2 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Chess is the 1,500-year-old venture that even some of the world's brightest minds have failed to scale. A fresh attempt to popularize the game using this year's championship between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin is destined to be checkmated.

Carlsen, the Norwegian, defended his title on his 26th birthday on Wednesday with a final queen move in front of venture capitalist Peter Thiel and other onlookers. Fans could watch from a $3,000 VIP seat, a live-stream or in virtual reality. These new options were available exclusively through Agon, the tournament's organizer that is behind the latest commercialization efforts by FIDE, the central governing body for a game thought to have originated in India around the sixth century. The rights holder boasted of 7 million visitors to its site this week, but its chief executive said only between 25,000 and 35,000 of them paid for access.

Agon's endeavors were impeded by a November U.S. court ruling that limited exclusivity. Other sites can show piece movements in real time. That reduces further the appeal of live footage. Chess is hardly an action sport. There's no obvious way to attract new watchers, as the strategy and pace make professional games hard for novices to follow.

Countries like Norway broadcast the championship on major networks, but it found no TV home in the United States. That may be one reason why sponsorship was limited to a pair of Russian companies, which covered about half the $6 million it cost to stage the event. Western sponsors also may be reticent because FIDE chief Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was sanctioned by the United States for his ties to Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

Previous initiatives involving Intel and IBM in the 1990s ended because they weren't seeing any returns. Even soccer eventually cracked the U.S. market, but the obstacles for the royal game are too many. Some 600 million adults play the game globally, according to YouGov polling, and seemingly as many use chess to describe business tactics and geopolitical maneuvers. That means its primary paths of growth will be as a hobby and a metaphor.

On Twitter https://twitter.com/kateduguid

CONTEXT NEWS

- Norwegian Magnus Carlsen defeated Russia's Sergey Karjakin on Nov. 30 to win the Chess World Championship. Of the four high-speed, tiebreaker matches played, the defending champion drew two and won two.

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(Editing by Jeffrey Goldfarb and Martin Langfield)

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