Whatever happened to chess? Remember Bobby Fischer versus Boris Spassky? The 1972 “Match of the Century”? It had the world transfixed as the Cold War was distilled into a world championship as intense as the Cuban missile crisis. Or how about the angry young man Garry Kasparov versus the apparatchik Anatoly Karpov in 1985, a confrontation that seemed to encapsulate the great drama of perestroika: when Kasparov won, you knew the Soviet Empire would fall. The 20th century was the chess century. Vladimir Nabokov and Stefan Zweig wrote novels about geniuses calculating infinite combinations until they toppled into madness. Sigmund Freud saw it as an oedipal conflict (kill the king!). Vladimir Lenin learned politics from it; ABBA wrote Chess, The Musical, and Man faced down Death over a chess match in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. So much more than a game, chess was an expression of politics, a definition of genius and a metaphor for the human experience. In 1997 the chess century reached its climax with Kasparov taking on the IBM computer Deep Blue, the ultimate duel of man and machine. The machine won, and, as grand master Boris Gelfand puts it: “It was as if the mystique went out of chess.” Rather than an expression of human genius, chess turned out to be just another computer program. With the end of the Cold War, the political edge went, too.
At the start of the 21st century, chess went AWOL from the larger culture. The non-chess aficionado might dimly hear about fights in the World Chess Federation (FIDE), something about the world title splitting into two, funding crises. During this period, the president of FIDE became Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, until recently the governor of the distant, dusty and poor Russian region of Kalmykia, and who claims to have communicated with aliens (they took him to their ship, he played chess with them, and the aliens informed him they originally brought chess to earth). Ilyumzhinov is accused by Russian journalists of ruling Kalmykia as his personal fiefdom, and he took chess on a surreal peregrination, from plans to create a Disney-esque 'Chess City' in his capital Elista, through holding the 2004 World Chess Championship in Libya to make chums with Muammar Ghaddafi (some of the world's top players are Israeli and weren't allowed to attend). Ilyumzhinov continues to use chess as a useful calling card to hang out with interesting heads of state: just the other week, he was in Damascus to meet Bashar al-Assad, the official agenda being to promote chess in Syrian schools. Many in the chess world are grateful for Ilyumzhinov’s cash and organizational skills in bringing order to the game, but gradually chess has become ever more marginal, of interest to readers of chess columns or in countries where there is so little successful sport the public has to make heroes out of its grand masters.
But that may be about to change.
Last month marked the inflection point in the history of chess, as American entrepreneur Andrew Paulson announced at the Sept. 20 opening party for his utopian project to transform chess into a spectator sport, the new golf. “Guess how many people play chess in the world?” asked Paulson. “Six hundred million. But chess has lost its theater, its allure, now I want to bring it back.” The Yale-educated Paulson was introduced to Ilyumzhinov as the man who can make chess great again. An aesthete and adventurer, Paulson was a theater impresario in New York (producing Jodie Foster’s first play) and a fashion photographer in Paris before revolutionizing publishing in Russia by creating its most important glossy magazines and edgy Internet companies. He has persuaded Fide to give him full control of all rights to the World Chess Championship. He basically now owns the future of the sport.
The opening party was a statement of intent. Set in the suave halls of London’s Somerset House, it felt like a movie premiere. The London Russian rich were out in force with their bored, stunning satellites—theater types and people seen on the telly. Supermodel Lily Cole played a blitz game with the world No. 13, Veselin Topalov (“She’s pretty good in defense,” said the grand master, oblivious to Miss Cole’s looks.) TV producers busied themselves doing interviews with top players: part of Paulson’s plan is to create a TV format that will make chess exciting. Sunset and Vine, the company responsible for sexing up cricket and poker shows, has been put in charge. Instead of dull hotel conference rooms, championship matches will now be set in intriguing locations (a March Grand Prix will be held in a Portuguese monastery). The players will be shot in close-up to catch every whisker of tension. There will be graphs and gizmos indicating their chances of success, and commentators who will inform and amuse. The players will be fitted with biometric devices to measure heartbeat and sweat patterns to give clues as to what they’re thinking. The aim is to make the players into stars, build up their profiles, and foment conflict. It might seem tricky at first—many chess players appear largely detached from reality—but behind the slightly autistic stares, there’s fierce ambition. “The objective is to crush the opponent’s mind,” Fischer once said. But it’s social media that’s the most promising part of Paulson’s new dawn: the Internet and chess seem to have been made for each other. Online communities will be able to discuss and break down every move, you’ll be able to place bets on possible variations, have moves tweeted to your cellphone.
All this is exciting for chess fans, but will it make chess important again? Paulson’s business model is built around appealing to corporate sponsors who want to be associated with a cultural signifier, not just a numbers game.
“No one thinks computers are rivals to humans anymore,” insists grandmaster Raymond Keen. “We’ve returned to the idea that chess is the touchstone of human intellect. New studies show playing chess helps fight off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The game is back.”
Daniel Weil of Pentagram, the agency tasked with branding the championship, believes social changes could make chess relevant: “Chess became a phenomenon in the first wave of globalization, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when educated salon culture needed a universal marker of intelligence, of sophistication, that could cross over languages and borders. Now, in this new and much bigger globalization, chess can again play that role.”