As Magnus Carlsen successfully defends his title by winning tiebreakers at the World Chess Championship, chess as a sport has garnered a great deal of attention in the past few weeks. Viewership numbers on twitch and YouTube have indicated that the audience following the match is likely far greater than just regular consumers of chess-related content. The challenger, Fabiano Caruana, made history with Carlsen as the 12 games in classical time format ended without a single decisive result. Combining this with an uninitiated audience could reasonably lead viewers to question how interesting chess can truly be. In the same regard, how can chess players sustainably make a living off of chess if it is an uninteresting game with a small consumer base?
The professional chess circuit is based mainly on a series of large tournaments, with some team leagues popping up and gaining popularity. At the top level of these tournaments, these prize pools can be pretty large. The 2018 Candidates Tournament (which decided who would challenge Carlsen for the World Champion Title) had a prize pool of over $500,000. Although this is an impressive figure, the difference between first place and eighth place is quite significant; the winner received 95,000 euro, while eighth received a measly 17,000. The caliber of players at this event is only the best in the world (obviously excluding the World Champion). The main takeaway here is that Chess can certainly pay dividends, but only at the top level. Given there are about 1500 grandmasters in the world, and even fewer that can regularly attend and win at large tournaments, the pool of profitable chess players is relatively small.
Streaming chess live has become popular and relatively profitable for a number of players. On these streams, alternate time formats such as blitz and bullet are far more popular. The fast pace of play is much more effective for keeping an audience engaged. Likewise, rapid time format tournaments have also risen to popularity among top level grandmasters. Carlsen is also World Champion for blitz, which is part of the reason nobody is surprised he crushed Caruana in tiebreakers. Streaming chess is certainly less profitable in general than the majority of gaming on the site, but it is gaining popularity. Rapid chess in general is much more entertaining for the average viewer, in a way that chess hasn’t been since the early 1970s.
The most famous chess match of all time occurred in 1972 between the United States’ own Bobby Fischer and reigning World Champion Boris Spassky of the USSR. The nations of origin for these two players mounted a great deal of political pressure for each player. Bobby Fischer came into the match on a hot streak, having won 20 consecutive games at the Interzonal and Candidates tournaments. Fischer was supposedly paid a stipend of $1000 for each win, meaning Fischer rarely agreed to early draws. This shows a stark difference from the 2018 match, where 12 draws in a row showed both players to be hesitant in winning positions; Carlsen even offered an early draw in game 12 with a distinctly winning position. Perhaps the level of play was simply more optimal, or perhaps Carlsen is not as clearly dominant as Fischer. Either way, it is possible that the comfortable economy of chess for top players allows for more boring cautious play, which will be overall harmful to the chess scene.
Michael O’Malley is a Business Administration/Theatre Double major sophomore at USC. He enjoys long walks on the beach, screaming into the abyss, and dancing with friends. He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and does know how to read.
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