If poker can make it on telly, so can chess

Время публикации: 27.05.2012 10:33 | Последнее обновление: 27.05.2012 10:33

THE world held its breath 40 years ago as the cold war was fought out over a chessboard in Iceland. In the “match of the century” in 1972, the Soviet world champion, Boris Spassky, was humbled by the brilliant 29-year-old American, Bobby Fischer.

Now, a media mogul and former fashion photographer is hoping to put chess back on the world stage.

Andrew Paulson has bought the rights to the chess world championships and is convinced he can turn them into a television spectacle watched by millions.

In February, after several months talking to the world’s best players and the game’s organisers, he put down a $500,000 (£320,000) deposit to secure the rights.

Paulson, a business partner of Alexander Mamut, the Russian who owns Waterstones bookshops, also agreed to provide a €5.4m (£4.3m) prize fund until the end of next year.

Chess is popular but, apart from the Spassky-Fischer duel, it has struggled to attract big audiences. Still, Paulson thinks the numbers are on his side. There are, he says, more than 600m people worldwide who play. In America, more people play chess than golf or tennis.

More importantly, he says, 55% of American players are between 16 and 34, a prime target for sponsors and advertisers. Even better, chess fans tend to be educated, affluent and tech-savvy. Paulson suggests this makes a revamped world tournament a natural fit for potential business partners. “A significant number of brands want to associate themselves with intelligence,” he said. “There are few sports or events that lend themselves to that kind of association.”

Sports marketing experts think Paulson could be on to something. Steve Martin, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, described chess as a “sleeping giant” that carries little baggage from previous sponsorship or associations. “It’s rare to get something so untainted by previous branding,” he said.

Paulson hopes his company Agon, which owns the chess rights, can emulate the success Bernie Ecclestone has had with Formula One. There are precedents: poker, regarded as a minority interest, has made the transition from the casino backroom to television spectacle, while darts has been given a new lease of life by Barry Hearn, the promoter. A touch of glamour and celebrity combined with thoughtful marketing have made both commercial hits.

And Paulson certainly knows how to make money.

Born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1958, he moved to Russia in his mid-thirties after “getting tired” of photographing the world’s most beautiful people. Grounded in the media, he got into the magazine business, and in 1998 created Afisha, a publishing group he eventually sold for $30m. He then teamed up with Mamut to form SUP, an online media venture that has become one of the region’s largest, thanks to its blogging and social networking site, Live Journal.

Today, Paulson lives in central London, but it was on a trip to Russia last September that he was introduced to the head of FIDE, the world chess federation, who thought the media entrepreneur might have some ideas on how to reinvigorate the game.
After several months of quizzing those involved in chess, Paulson could see an opportunity to improve its fortunes — but only if he was handed control.

Chess’s newest king is at pains to point out he is not trying to reinvent the rules of the game, simply overhaul the way it is run and marketed.

For example, the finals are often held in Siberia — handy for the game’s overlords but hardly conducive to attracting big crowds or television money. In its new guise, the championships will be staged in western markets where they are more likely to garner the sort of exposure needed to attract money.

Next year, championship events will be hosted across Europe, in cities such as London, Paris, Berlin and Istanbul. Then the game will roll into north Africa and the Middle East, reaching India in 2015 before landing in the Americas in 2016. Farther out, they could be staged in China, before eventually returning to Europe to restart the geographic cycle.

Paulson said he had opened talks with broadcasters, with online and mobile phone deals likely to form a big element of any tie-up. In particular, he is talking to firms with a strong base in interactive technology.

But will it work on television? Chess hasn’t featured much in British schedules since the BBC’s The Master Game in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Paulson is adamant. “The audience is huge. There are so many chess websites,” he said. “Just because chess isn’t in the media, doesn’t mean it does not exist.”

He argues that the interactive element will be vital for those attending matches. One idea is to give all audience members iPads so they can track the players’ moves, test alternative outcomes — and discuss their ideas with other spectators. It is this element of chess that, Paulson argues, makes it ideally suited to the web and will help it take off.

“Unlike football, a good chess game is as interesting once it’s over as it is live.”

If he is right, it will be a long time before it is check mate.


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