Danny Gormally: Are chess players becoming too greedy?

Are chess players becoming too greedy?

Recently a row exploded on social media. Vidit Gurathi tweeted: “Is it fair to ask Players Sponsor to pay the organisers as well in order for the player to sport their logo?” and was backed up by his good friend and occasional chess training partner, Anish Giri.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it seems to me significant that he capitalised both “Players” and “Sponsor”, and yet failed to do so with “organisers”. Whether this was by chance I do not know, but the possibility surely exists that this was on purpose, and he was angry at the organisers, world chess, for the implication that they would take a cut of the players earnings. They quickly issued a denial that they had the intention to do so.

The professional chess players of today are a breed apart from their predecessors, who donned moth-eaten jackets and looked like they would be more at home loafing around university halls and libraries, than they would in the ferocious competitive arena of the chess world. Lacking basic social skills and a underlying desire to right the wrongs of the world, they therefore failed to have enough confidence to stand up for their privileges.

That all changed when Bobby Fischer came along. Although he shared and at times exceeded the narrow focus on chess of his colleagues, he combined his industrial work ethic with a sense of self-worth which meant he was determined to be rewarded for the long hours that he put into chess. Modern chess players have picked up the baton and can now be found in sharp suits while looking Instagram ready to take on their equally dazzling rivals. Magnus Carlsen, who is always at the forefront of every new development has even in the past become involved in modelling work. The evolution of chess can be compared to snooker, which was a sport which had a rather decrepit feel to it and was slumped in the doldrums, before the players started wearing logos and began looking substantially smarter.

It is fair enough to stand up for yourself, but is there a danger that this commercialization of chess will go too far? Or perhaps indeed, that it doesn’t go far enough?

One of the ways that chess players can make money now is through streaming on Twitch and filming videos for use on Youtube. This has also given rise to the “superstreamer”, a chess player like Hikaru Nakamura who can expect to make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year through these revenue sources. Hikaru it must be admitted is a class apart, often streaming for nine or ten hours a day while throwing out profound insights and awesome calculation skills to anyone who happens to be watching. Seemingly burned out by the normal chess scene, he has thrown himself into this new life with abandon. Because of the high-earnings available from streaming, it allows him to cherry pick the tournaments he wants to play, like competing in the world rapid and blitz championships in Warsaw (although eventually this was to turn into something of a personal disaster, when he tested positive for Covid and was forced to quarantine in a hotel room for ten days.)

There appears an obvious danger in this new reality. Players who quickly gain success in this sphere may no longer have the incentive to compete in chess tournaments at all, as the financial rewards from content production are more than enough. Imagine a situation where a younger player makes it big on Twitch, and then decides that as they are making so much money there is no need to bother with the grind of the chess circuit at all. The games of a potential chess genius are lost to us forever, lost to a life of puzzle rush and Pogchamps.

I already speak to those involved with video production and writing courses and other sources of chess income, who suffer from the same problem. They would like to go away to play more chess tournaments but feel chained to their job of churning out videos in order to cover the rent. They are continually pestered by others to continue with this hamster wheel of production.

All this means is that the definition of what it is to be a chess professional has changed forever. It is no longer about going away to playing tournaments, because they offer peanuts compared to what a player can expect to make from the comfort of their living room. For me this is a sad reality, because the whole romantic notion of being a chess player is about travelling to new places and ultimately, just playing chess. Competing against others and showing the world what we are capable of. This is what is most enjoyable, and what drew us to chess as a profession in the first place. The irony is that the more financial success you are likely to have as a chess player, the less likely you are to play chess at all.

What can solve this paradox? In my view one of the problems that chess players have in adapting to this new reality is their relationship with those outside of their normal circles of influence. It is very easy as a chess player to bunker down and only engage with those who they regard as an equal. Ultimately to achieve success and an environment where more chess players and not just those at the very top are rewarded, I believe it is up to us as chess players to engage more actively with organisers and sponsors. Start a debate about what the chess world will be like over the next few years, what new tournaments do we need to strive for? What improvements need to be made? If tournaments were made more inviting and exciting, then perhaps so many chess players wouldn’t feel the need to bury themselves away in front of their computer.

Professional chess players often have a very low opinion of organisers and of arbiters and we often believe that they exist only to serve our great selves. Ultimately that insular attitude needs to change if chess is to continue to prosper into the 21st century. We have it in our power to organise tournaments and attract sponsors and shouldn’t be dependent on the work of others. At the very least we should be grateful to those who work tirelessly behind the scenes to give us that platform to display our creativity.

The pandemic and the Queens gambit handed us a unique opportunity to mould the chess world into something much better than what we are used to. It would be a shame if that chance was wasted.