Can this man do for chess what Bernie Ecclestone did for Formula 1?
By Bill Borrows
PUBLISHED:17:00 EST, 10 November 2012
UPDATED: 17:00 EST, 10 November 2012
The ancient board game is suddenly being celebrated in art, fashion and film. But can it be turned into a sexy spectator sport? This American entrepreneur is betting millions that it can
It isn’t your usual chess crowd inside the Embankment Galleries beneath the vaulted arches of London’s Somerset House.
There are, of course, some awkward-looking gentlemen in high-street suits and nylon ties, but there’s also the clink of champagne glasses, the excited chatter of gossip columnists, flash photography and Gillian Anderson talking to Sophie Ellis-Bextor.
Griff Rhys Jones holds court in one corner as smiling staff serve canapés.
Elsewhere, Lily Cole is playing 37-year-old Bulgarian grandmaster and former World Chess Champion Veselin Topalov.
This is the launch event for the World Chess London Grand Prix, which begins the following day at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand.
A striking new logo and accompanying tag line (‘The best mind wins’) are discreet but ubiquitous and the talk in the room is of a new approach to the game.
A clutch of PR people shepherd the man behind this gambit from group to group.
Andrew Paulson is a 54-year-old Illinois-born entrepreneur who has just bought the rights – from FIDE, the World Chess Federation – to develop and market the World Chess Championship for the next 11 years.
He says he paid a $500,000 deposit and the contract is renewable.
The costs of running the events will run into millions, including substantial prize money.
Fortunately for the Yale French-literature graduate, chess is experiencing a ‘moment’: Will Smith, Bono and Usain Bolt all play, Prada has just used the game in an advert, and an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery last month (‘The Art of Chess’) featured sets designed by, among others, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
A new documentary, Brooklyn Castle, about a school chess team, is tipped for an Oscar next year.
Paulson has something of a track record in developing media opportunities that capture the zeitgeist.
He moved to Russia at a time when the country was opening up politically and financially, and developed a successful publishing and online empire.
Before that he was a fashion and commercial photographer. He plans to use those experiences to glamourise chess and make it attractive to a new demographic.
A recent YouGov poll commissioned by Agon, Paulson’s own company, revealed that over 600 million people worldwide play chess ‘regularly’ while another report calculated that 285 million play online.
‘It’s perfect for the internet,’ says Raymond Keene OBE, a grandmaster and chess columnist.
‘You can play someone in Beijing or Sao Paulo at any time of the day or night, just the two of you and a screen. What could be simpler?’
Adapting a sixth-century board game to embrace the demands of modern broadcast media might be less straightforward.
The basic rules are inviolable, but Paulson intends to achieve what many others have failed to do and turn chess into a real spectator sport.
There’ll be investment to fund a cable-TV magazine programme, introduce biometric technology and produce an app permitting free streamed coverage of over 100 events a year; more emphasis will be placed on time constraints; and then ‘by 2014-15, we’ll do what all major international competitions of this sort do: set up a product for tender and choose the top cities in the world to host major events’.
‘I realised that what’s missing in chess is the performer,’ says Paulson in the bar at Simpson’s a week later.
‘He’s the string quartet, the violinist, the pianist, the soloist, the interpreter… If you have the composer and the audience, what I can do is “build” the entertainment.’
This is the big idea underpinning his vision of the game in the future. Paulson calls it ‘ChessCasting’.
There are bold new designs in place for an arena – or ‘cockpit’ – that will see chess played in the round, with the players wired up to machines enabling the viewing public, and those watching on any device, to monitor their heart rates, blood pressure and perspiration levels, and track their eye movements across the board on a screen above their heads.
There’ll also be chess-engine analysis and, according to Paulson, ‘a genre of commentary as professional and as seductive as that for cricket’.
The idea is to put the spectator inside the body and mind of a grandmaster as he plays in real time.
Keene, 64, might be expected to shake his head at all the changes in store for a game he has played all his life. He doesn’t.
‘This is where Paulson is leading in his attempt to revolutionise chess,’ he says.
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