One pervasive narrative in the world of professional chess is the often puzzling task of bringing in a wide range of corporate sponsors. Without getting too into the weeds here, I’ll put it thusly: Historically, large sums of money in chess are hard to come by. There are a few reasons for this perennial lack of cash, some of which can be attributed to the nature of the game itself, whose complex strategies—nay, action—is not as easily discernible to the untrained eye as, say, top-flight soccer. Another (connected) reason is distribution and viewership. Despite the fact that millions of people love the game worldwide, chess isn’t exactly a ratings monster on sports channels around the world. Not everybody in the game is Magnus Carlsen, the flush world champion whose camp has marketed the star wisely (and largely apart from the chess powers that be), which means that even some of the world’s best players are vying for a corporate patron to grace them with a few shekels.
Changes, however, may be in motion. On Sunday, I received an interesting email from World Chess, an off-shoot of Agon, which is in charge of chess’s biggest, yearly, non-world-championship events, called the Grand Prix Series. It’s kind of like golf’s four majors, and, in the chess world, a very big deal. The announcement? For $20,000, “smaller companies” can now purchase a “top-level sports sponsorship contract…online with a credit card.” With a few keystrokes, a company could sponsor a player’s 2018 Grand Prix cycle. Agon’s CEO, Ilya Merenzon, has long been searching for innovative ways to market the game, and kudos to him for trying something so new and accessible. Chess ought to be a brand booster; at least I think so.
The players involved in this effort include world no. 5 Levon Aronian; American and world no. 7 Hikaru Nakamura; recent Sinquefield Cup winner Maxime Vachier-Lagrave; and Boris Gelfand, the 29th ranked player in the world who hails from Israel. If these names and accomplishments mean nothing to you, think about it like this: even if you’re a very good chess player, you probably wouldn’t last more than a few minutes playing any of them. Take Gelfand: At the age of 49, he is still world-class—he’s been a top-30 grandmaster for nearly 30 years—and last competed in a World Championship in 2012, ultimately losing in a tiebreak to Vishy Anand, another all-time great. In 2013, Gelfand, who resides in Rishon LeZion, reached a career-high ELO rating (2773), a metric by which players are ranked.
The man, I tell you, is a beautiful machine. The question now is, who is going to take the chance to sponsor his big matches in 2018? Bamba, I’m looking at you!
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.