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Action Replay: All Above Board

Let’s not argue about whether chess is a sport: it certainly contains plenty of rivalry, financial shenanigans and back-biting. It’s probably lost some of its public profile since the days of Bobby Fischer and the rivalry between American and Russian players that echoed the Cold War.

But the world championship has long been ensnared in rows about money. Players, usually with the help of private backers, used to provide a purse on a winner-take-all basis. Then Emanuel Lasker, who won the championship in 1894, demanded that the challenger provide the whole of the stake, which had the effect, if not the intention, of reducing the number of championship matches. There followed lots of controversies about how to organise the championships and how to handle the money.

It was only in 1946 that the World Chess Federation (FIDE) set up an official series of eliminators and standard formats for the final champion vs challenger play-off. In 1999, FIDE was recognised by the International Olympic Committee, and Olympic-style anti-drug rules were adopted (so it must be a sport, then).

Last year, FIDE awarded the commercial rights to the world championship to Andrew Paulson, an American capitalist with his finger in several Russian pies, who has grand ideas for the game. The elimination rounds will be played in glamorous venues in big cities, with lots of media coverage. TV viewers will see the players’ pulse rates and so on. ‘Spectators will be able to see with the eyes of a grandmaster and feel with the heart of a player’, claimed Paulson (Financial Times, 21 September 2012). Sponsors, it is envisaged, will cover the costs and the sizeable prize money.

The latest Candidates tournament was held in London in March. The Norwegian Magnus Carlsen won and will challenge current world champion Viswanathan Anand in November. Carlsen, who is only 22, is sponsored by the Oslo-based investment bank Arctic Securities, for whom he works as some kind of ambassador. As Carlsen says on the company’s blog, for both chess players and banks, ‘precision is of the essence and mistakes can be fatal.’ Mind you, chess players generally play no part in global financial meltdowns.