If you had any doubt that chess has gone big time in the era of current World Champion Magnus Carlsen, an announcement made last Friday at the Chess Club & Scholastic Center of St. Louis (CCSCSL) should change your mind.
Eight of the top grandmasters on the planet have committed to a three-tournament circuit, christened the "Grand Chess Tour." Total prize money? $1,050,000 – a fairly huge sum for top-level chess.
Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov was on hand in St. Louis to participate in the announcement, a fitting role as Kasparov was instrumental in making the tour happen.
"I've spent my professional life making chess more popular," the 52-year-old Kasparov told Business Insider, right after he had wrapped up a series of games against Grandmaster Nigel Short at the CCSCSL.
"I want to bring chess to education, something I've done with the Kasparov Chess Foundation. And I want to generate more publicity and create a network of tournaments that people can rely on. This has worked for many pro sports, and I've always wanted to have it in chess."
The three tournaments that will make up the tour are Norway Chess, the Sinquefield Cup (held at the club in St. Louis), and the London Chess Classic. These are premier invitational events that attract the world's best. For the 2015 cycle, the Grand Chess Tour has signed up Carlsen (Norway), Fabiano Caruana (Italy), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria), Viswanathan Anand (India), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Anish Giri (Netherlands), and Hikaru Nakamura (USA).
A player to be named later and a wildcard will fill out the 10-person field.
“The Grand Chess Tour was created with just one goal in mind: Demonstrating the highest level of organization for the world’s best players,” Tony Rich, Executive Director of the CCSCSL, said in a statement. “Featuring the world’s strongest chess professionals fighting for massive prize funds, along with a full spectator experience led by world-class commentary, this circuit sets forth an internationally coordinated effort that casts a shining spotlight on global chess competition.”
According to the organizers, "Each of the three 2015 Grand Chess Tour events will award individual prize funds of $300,000, with competitors also tallying points toward a tour prize fund of $150,000; the overall tour champion will receive an additional $75,000."
Kasparov stressed that the new tour will focus on cementing its status in 2015 – and then adding tournaments and attracting major sponsors, possibly as early as next year.
Anyone who has followed chess for the past few decades will recall that in the late 1980s, then-World Champion Kasparov tried to create a more coherent, better-packaged chess tour, featuring top players. The players would form what became called the Grandmasters Association, putting aside the traditional lone-wolf attitude of elite players.
Think of how tennis players got together in the early 1970s to form the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).
Ultimately, Kasparov and his challenger for the 1993 World Chess Championship – the same Nigel Short whom he was playing in an exhibition in St. Louis the weekend following the World Chess Tour announcement – would break away from the international ruling body of chess, FIDE, and start the Professional Chess Association to conduct a separate world championship match.
The organization collapsed by the mid 1990s, but for chess professionals and fans who resent the lock FIDE holds over both the Candidates Tournament that leads up to the World Championship and title match itself, Kasparov's efforts to make chess more like other pro sports remain admired, even if they came to a bad end.
In 2014, Kasparov made an unsuccessful run to unseat Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as FIDE president. FIDE is widely viewed by those who follow big time chess as a corrupt organization, closely allied with the Russian ruling class. Ever since his defeat, Kasparov has been showing up at the various tournaments that collectively represent the existing pro chess tour, and more importantly, he's been spending quality time in St. Louis.
Due the efforts of retired financier Rex Sinquefield, the city has become the center of a revival of American chess and can now challenge world capitals for prestige for the international game.
It wasn't surprising to see Kasparov front and center when the World Chess tour was unveiled.
The problem is that [the FIDE] leadership isn't doing a good job," he said. "It's anathema for sponsors, it's relying on political support, and it's not going to attract commercial sponsors or lasting commitment."
"I couldn't manage to take on FIDE or the Russian oligarchs," he said of his failed run for president of the organization. "But I'm doing the things that I can."
As the Internet has matured, it's become possible to watch a lot more major-league chess. The big tournaments are now often streamed live, with expert commentary. The CCSCSL has set a new standard with coverage of the Sinquefield Cup, now headed into its third year, and the US Chess Championship. If you've ever wondered what chess would look like if it were covered like poker or golf on ESPN, the CCSCSL will show you.
In fact, the 2014 Candidates Tournament came off as far less thrilling than last year's Sinquefield Cup, which was dominated by the young player many consider to be Carlsen's closest rival, Italy's Caruana. Vishy Anand found a late-career return to form and won the Candidates, then went on to lose to Carlsen in a rematch of their 2013 match, held in Sochi, Russia.
Kasparov said that the Candidates and the WCC still "deliver great excitement," but he added that final match has only two players, happens only every two years, and that the current World Champion should be compelled to prove his superiority on a regular basis.
However, in St. Louis after the Candidate had been decided, a stronger field of GMs fought it out, suggesting to many that the very best chess wasn't being played under FIDE's overt jurisdiction. Worse, during the tournament, there was serious speculation that Carlsen, who was playing, wouldn't be able to defend his WCC title, due to a dispute with FIDE.
The contrast was vivid: Carlsen welcomed in St. Louis and treated like a rock star, while at FIDE the most magnetic World Champion in decades – since Kasparov, really – was being treated like a weak pawn.
Carlsen has made chess about ten thousands times as popular as it was before he came along. Take nothing away from the previous generation, but the 24-year-old Norwegian has been electrifying for what had come to thought of as slow, boring game that computers played better than humans.
A cadre of new, young players is lining up to to test his talents (Kasparov thinks that Caruana is closest to Carlsen, but doesn't believe the younger player could outlast the World Champion in a multigame match). The ancient game is achieving a critical mass, with a deep-pocketed American, Sinquefield, determined to make it matter again.
For fans, this is all thrilling. For professional players, it means that chess may finally begin to deliver the financial rewards appropriate to a demanding type of competition that asks for a near-lifetime commitment. We all knew chess was having a moment. With the Grand Chess Tour set to kick off with its first event in just a few months, we now know it's far more than that.
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