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Chess Impressario Andrew Paulson Wants to be the Don King of the Sport of Kings

Can reality-TV tricks make chess a ratings hit?

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

It’s an enduring frustration to chess fans and players alike that their favorite game is not, to put it mildly, a spectator sport. Apart from the rare, comet-like appearance of a figure like Bobby Fischer or the Mechanical Turk, the game has struggled to gain a lasting grip on the popular imagination. The crowds at matches are skimpy; chess columns in newspapers have mostly died off. World-championship matches make nary a blip on the mainstream media’s radar. As a public spectacle, chess now ranks well beneath poker, pool, and ping pong.

Does it have to stay there? In February of last year, an American entrepreneur named Andrew Paulson paid $500,000 to the international chess federation FIDE for rights to market and commercialize chess matches for the next decade, and has vowed to increase the royal game’s sex appeal. His vision is to make chess into a sort of Superbowl of the mind, with big sponsorships, audiences, and purses. Chess, Paulson believes, simply lacks the sort of savvy packaging that has enabled other lengthy, low-action contests—think golf, cycling, Formula One—to become massive media spectacles.

Paulson is driven less by some innate passion for the game than hard commercial instinct. A sometime fashion photographer, he made his fortune in media in Russia, building up a publishing and Internet empire in 1990s and early 2000s. His dream to become the Don King of chess was largely adventitious: Paulson met the eccentric, authoritarian Buddhist president of FIDE, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (former president of the Russian republic of Kalmykia) through a social connection. Paulson pitched him on several ideas to galvanize the sport, and a few months later, Paulson had secured the deal.

Of course, Paulson is not the first impresario to try to reinvent the royal game. Several years ago, the Russian-Israeli tycoon David Kaplan declared he would to invest up to $32 million of his money to “perform a revolution” in chess with the help of Madonna and the Dalai Lama. (The revolution never materialized.) Prior to that, in 2006, Dutch businessman Bessel Kok promised to inject millions of dollars to better market the game. (No dice.)

So why does Paulson think he can do any better? "Most important, I think, is that I’m not a chess player,” he said in an interview with me last month. “Chess players are fundamentally reductionist—they don’t care about the embellishment, the ceremony, the mystery. And I’m trying to bring it all back. It's the difference between watching a movie on a laptop and watching it on the giant Ziegfeld picture palace.”

All the same, Paulson is banking on convincing advertisers that chess bouts are less mass spectacle than something akin to the Aspen Ideas Festival or TED talks: smart, unabashedly elite forums for the educated and influential. “The real innovation I’m bringing is to organize the pinnacle of chess in a way which sponsors can wrap their minds around,” he says.  

Whether or not he succeeds, his decision to revamp chess’s image comes at an apt time in the media. Reality TV has shown that shrewd editing can make just about any subject (Storage Wars, Extreme Couponing) into watchable programming. And the runaway success of Texas Hold ‘Em has blazed a trail for parlor games to become fixtures on sports networks: Dominoes, darts, Scrabble, even rock-paper-scissors—not to mention spelling bees—have all been broadcast on ESPN. So why not chess?

In March in London, Paulson rolled out a prototype of his vision of how this could happen. His company, Agon, organized a match featuring eight of the world’s strongest players competing for the right to challenge the world champion, Viswanathan Anand of India, later this year. Aiming for as much publicity as possible, he booked a prime downtown location, the Institute of Engineering and Technology, and hired the design firm Pentagram to come up with a flashy logo and dramatic staging for the games.

Though the games themselves were indisputably exciting, the overall spectacle still fell a bit short of, say, Wimbledon. After a burst of initial interest, local reports said the daily paying crowd dwindled to between 70 and 100 people, most of them middle-aged and Russian. The lack of attention may have had something to do with some forbidding arena conditions: tickets cost $38, and the game hall was pitch-dark except for spotlights on the boards. The atmosphere seemed more SAT test session than boxing match.

But what made it different—and much more exciting—was the way the match was broadcast to viewers inside and outside the hall. They had talking heads to offer color commentary. They had post-game press conferences. They had thumping tribal transition music that sounded like a riff on Carmina Burana. It was as though chess, by aping all the clichés of mainstream sports coverage, was trying to prepare itself for primetime. 

The effect was entertaining, if a bit odd. The commentators were no Marv Alberts, but they nevertheless managed to liven up the games. Grandmaster Nigel Short and International Master Lawrence Trent had some particularly snappy badinage: “I think it’s matey-matey!”  “Ooh, that’s a bit ticklish.” “It’s smelly for black.” “Ahh, you Petrosian lover… That's a rubbish rook!”

While they used the algebraic terminology that typically turns off chess newbies (“rook C8, knight G5, F6…”), the talking heads proved that chess does, in fact, have something in common with big-time sports: for fans, it’s at least as much fun to talk about as it is to watch. I followed most of the games on the tournament’s custom-built app, ChessCasting, and was sucked in for hours by the debates among other users. During one game between tournament winner Magnus Carlsen and world number two Levon Aronian, some 7,750 people were on livechat.

It’s not a billion people watching the World Cup, but it's a start. According to market research conducted by YouGov, there are 605 million people around the globe who regularly play chess. Some 15 percent of Americans play regularly, and two-thirds have played chess at some point in their lives. Still, for chess to become a televisual spectacle, it’ll have to overcome some challenges that sit-on-your-duff games like competitive poker don’t face: It’s agonizingly slow. Good matches often end in a draw. And the visuals are unavoidably dull—the spectacle of frumpy men hovering silently over tables lacks even the modest fun that comes with trying to guess whether a gambler is bluffing.

Paulson thinks he can get around that by, essentially, enhancing reality. Future versions of the ChessCasting software, he has said, will allow spectators to examine the “biometric parameters” of players, including their pulse, eye movements, blood pressure, and “galvanic skin response.” There are plans to beef up the commenting options and allow viewers to play with databases of historic games. Already, users can test out their own moves in the app, and analyze the games using a computer engine. 

Courtesy of FIDE

"It’s about being able to see inside the player, to see his level of anxiety and stress," said Paulson. "Some players communicate a lot of what’s going on inside of them, but most don’t. The physical and emotional stress is enormous."

It may seem intrusive, but the time does seem ripe to give the chess world a jolt. The current world champion, Viswanathan Anand, is beginning to decline, and the retirement of Garry Kasparov in 2005 has left the game without one of its most recognizable figures. The best hope for a new poster boy is the current number-one ranked player, Magnus Carlsen of Norway. He possesses the right ingredients: handsome, heavy-browed, and 22 years old, Carlsen has the vibe of a high-school soccer star. He has modeled for Dutch denimwear company G-Star Raw. Director J.J. Abrams offered Carlsen a role in a future installment of Star Trek, which he (fortunately) declined.

What Carlsen lacks at the moment is a great rival. Kasparov had Karpov; Fischer had Spassky; Capablanca had Alekhine. World number two Levon Aronian, an Armenian with a poetic air, could potentially fit the bill: he’s young, and has an aggressive, tactical style that contrasts with Carlsen’s quiet, positional play. But unless Carlsen takes the world championship in November, he'll still be seen more as a star-on-the-rise than a compelling spokesman for the game.

The factor that works most in Paulson's favor is perhaps that chess, despite its image, really does not require much brainpower to enjoy. I should know: I'm not very good at it, but I've become bizarrely obsessed with watching video commentaries of classic games on YouTube. If you asked why, I guess I'd say I get a vicarious thrill, like a kid watching Lionel Messi highlights reels. I almost never play it myself. As it turns out, like any good sports fan, I'm happy to let the pros do the work for me. So the secret to chess’s success as a spectator sport may simply require proving that, for viewers at least, it's just a dumb game.