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Does Chess Need an Audience?

Recently I came across an article asking whether chess has the power to draw in the audiences enjoyed by sports like golf or even…reality shows. Understanding that journalists are paid to ask these kinds of questions and to present a limited scope answer to justify their personal perspective on the topic, I was drawn to the article because of the increased focus on high stakes tournament chess in recent years. The crux of the article is the Millionaire Chess Open that just wrapped up at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. The high-stakes event is the brainchild of GM Maurice Ashley and promoter Amy Lee and it features a $1 million prize fund with $100,000 in payout going to the tournament’s overall winner. American GM Hikaru Nakamura won this year’s tournament in what some chess journalists have described as an anti-climactic experience.

In the article IM John Bartholomew provides an insightful analysis of the author’s interest in a future where high-stakes chess tournaments are a staple of ESPN programming. In essence, Bartholomew explains that poker on television reveals all of the cards to the audience and removes much of the deception and guesswork necessary to win the game. In chess it is not possible to display what a grandmaster is thinking with a television screen focused on a board. Without the benefit of some insight that can appeal to both players and non-players chess is going to struggle to find the same kind of audience that poker, golf, and cooking enjoys. Even if professional chess were able to find a way to present the thoughts and strategy of the players it still leaves one question to be asked:

Does chess need an audience?

If applied to poker and chess as a spectator sport then it is safe to say that neither activity needs an audience to survive. Poker in its current form has been around since the early 19th century and chess has been around much longer. Both of them have managed to survive and to provide countless hours of entertainment and life fulfillment for players and fans alike. Any assumption that chess will disappear from the earth if it cannot find corporate sponsors or a way to effectively market itself to the ESPN generation misses the point of the game entirely. Chess is a brain game in which the stakes are the same for players on both sides of the board. In sports such as baseball or football there are factors such as weather, genetics, or even social privilege. Chess players come from all walks of life and are not limited by social upbringing or even physical and mental disability. A blind person can play chess just as effectively as a chess player that can see.

When it comes to sports such as baseball and basketball there is a delicate balance that organizations maintain between love and business of the game. Teams know that fans love the game and players love participating in the game but a profit must be made for the business elements of the game to be successful. Professional chess players already face similar challenges because they become entrenched in the business aspect of the game through corporate sponsorships and obligations to international chess organizations like FIDE. Take Magnus Carlsen as a prime example. He was opposed to holding the 2014 World Chess Championship in Sochi, Russia but the power of FIDE and sponsors that had poured funds into the event in Sochi were no match for the reigning World Champion.

Events like the Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis and the Millionaire Chess Open have added a new vitality to chess and marketed it as a high-stakes tournament game and a spectator sport. These are new concepts because even though Bobby Fischer brought chess to the forefront of American drama even the defeat of the Soviet chess machine on the world stage was not enough to engrain chess into the fabric of American televised competition. Even an event like the Millionaire Chess Open does not really need an audience because entry fees, corporate sponsorships, and the intellectual effects of chess will continue to sustain it and other events for the foreseeable future.