Chess Is an Esport Now. Get Used to It.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The hit Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit,” combined with pandemic lockdowns and online play, has brought chess to new popularity. That’s put a twist on a world chess championship match that starts Friday, pitting incumbent Magnus Carlsen against a Russian challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi (Nepo, for short). The future of chess may be at stake.
Chess championship matches have often represented clashes of styles and cultures. Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky in 1972 was the brash, arrogant solo American beating back the Soviet chess empire and heralding Cold War victory. The Garry Kasparov vs. Anatoly Karpov matches of the 1980s and 1990 showed a heady young dissident overthrowing a loyal communist. More recently, the contests have been less political. In 2013, Carlsen beat Viswanathan Anand to capture the title when he was just 22 years old, a triumph of youth over experience.
Now Carlsen’s behavior is turning his match against Nepo into a referendum on heady flamboyance. Typically, a world chess champion would go into seclusion for months, studying his opponent’s games while working closely with secretive “seconds.” But Carlsen seems more inclined to taunt, and to remain in the public eye.
He recently opined that he is lucky to be facing Nepo rather than two other potential challengers, Fabio Caruana or Ding Liren. That’s the kind of trash talk most sports competitors frown upon for fear of motivating opponents.
Carlsen also has been engaging in online marathons of “bullet chess,” exactly the kind of attention-disrupting, energy-draining stunt contenders are supposed to avoid. In a bullet game, each player has only one minute for all the moves. The pace is so rapid the games are hard to watch, much less play. Carlsen also made a recent appearance in Dortmund, Germany, in part to pose for a photo with a Norwegian soccer player. Nepo, in contrast, claims to have done an “insane amount of work” for the event.
Will the fast thinking of bullet chess help Carlsen see more moves during the much slower time controls of the match with Nepo? (A championship game can easily last four hours or more.) Or maybe the bullet success will intimidate Nepo?
Carlsen also is making it clear that for him, chess is a business proposition. His parents set up a company in his name when he was 16, and the commercial empire since has expanded. Carlsen has worked as a fashion model, endorsed an online sports betting site, and worked with a Norwegian water company. He sponsors a leading chess app and has organized his own series of online chess tournaments, played with more rapid time controls, during the pandemic. Those events arguably have attracted more attention than any of the mainstream tournaments.
Carlsen is probably at the point where even a loss in the match would barely affect his income stream, and that is a dangerous motivational place to be.
Nepo is considered a super-talented but inconsistent player, one who does not bounce back well from adversity. But if he stays focused he could pose a formidable challenge. He was never expected to be a challenger in the first place, so he may feel he has little to lose and, in accord with his naturally aggressive style, he can take all the chances he wants. Carlsen is considered the superior player, perhaps the greatest ever, and remains a heavy favorite with the sports betting sites.
As for the future of chess, Carlsen has argued that the mainstream matches of classical chess are too slow and yield too many draws. He would prefer a time limit of around 25 minutes per game per player to become the default. Why shouldn’t the world of chess switch over to a system that spectators seem to prefer?
If Carlsen retains his title, he may well lead such a switch, and it would be hard for the chess establishment to resist. If Nepo wins the match, Carlsen might secede from the current system, causing the chess world to splinter.
What we are seeing in the lead-up to this match is this: A healthy chess world is going to be a more diversely organized chess world, with a lot of disagreement over which forms of chess are most important. Twitch streaming and YouTube already have joined the mix. Chess is likely to retain its recent popularity, but in doing so it will fully realize its destiny as the esport it has already become. The good news is that if you don’t like the outcome of the upcoming chess drama, you can find another one to watch the next day.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."
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