Ashley, who brings ESPN-style commentary to matches, says the upper echelons of chess are stuck in a purist model—trying to avoid spectacle. He thinks chess should somehow condense matches, which may take 4 to 6 hours, for broadcast purposes. Poker rounds can last 12 hours, he pointed out, but poker broadcasts shorten the rounds to a watchable length. He knows that popular interest in chess will translate to dollars, which will translate to more opportunities for young chess players.
“Chess now needs to change,” acknowledged Ilya Merenzon, the CEO of Agon, which owns the chess championship brand in partnership with FIDE. “It’s a little bit like going to church. Traditions are thousands of years old. Changes have to be gradual.” But the championship’s organizers sometimes hurt efforts to popularize the game: They even forbade commentators from sharing chess moves in real time to preserve FIDE’s own brand and commentary.
Just before the championship began, a New York judge heard the championship organizers’ $4.5 million suit against Chess24, a site that provides some of the most entertaining live commentary on chess games. Agon wanted to block Chess24 from a live broadcast of the championship—it considers the real-time chess moves to be its intellectual property. The judge tossed the case, but organizers are continuing to pursue such litigation elsewhere.
Liberated by the court, Chess24’s two announcers covering the match, chess grandmasters Jan Gustafsson and Peter Svidler, managed to banter for hours as Carlsen and Karjakin plotted moves. They gulped energy drinks on camera, had arguments about whether Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy was better, and told Norm Macdonald jokes.
“I’ve got a feeling he’s going to play h5,” Gustafsson said at one point.
“He’s already played h5,” said Svidler.
“That only reinforces my feeling,” Gustafsson instantly returned.
A total of 10,000 people attended the 13 matches in person (a paltry number as far as professional sports events go) but FIDE this year sold $15 passes to watch the tournament online. Ashley says that digital strategy has made the games more accessible, and the Carlsen versus Karjakin match provided the kind of thrilling championship that makes new fans.
The many draws sound boring, but they weren’t. Carlsen several times watched victory slip from his fingers as Karjakin played flawless defense into a draw. Spectators could follow the match alongside computer analysis that shows the best moves—when a player made a mistake, the computer knew and the whole room gasped.
After Carlsen lost the devastating eighth game, he got a draw in the ninth game and then beat Karjakin in the 10th. They drew again in the 11th game, then Carlsen played for a quick draw in the 12th game—opting to rely on his rapid-playing skills for a tiebreaker round. Some of the Norwegian press, after watching chess all day for three weeks, acquired vodka cocktails in martini glasses. The championship has only gone to a tiebreaker round three times. Under older rules, the tie would go to the reigning champion.