Chess impresario hopes to bring back the Fischer v Spassky glory days

Andrew Paulson, who has won the world championship media and marketing rights for the next 10 years, has big plans

Stephen Moss, Thursday 12 July 2012 13.30 EDT

Most things in chess need to be seen through the prism of Reykjavík 1972, when American Bobby Fischer played against Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in a title match which gripped the world. It was front-page news for weeks, and the eccentric Fischer’s triumph produced a chess boom in the west that lasted for a decade.

Since then the world has generally been ungripped by chess. The title match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi in 1978 and the closely fought battles between Karpov and Garry Kasparov in the mid-1980s just about kept the game in the public eye, but interest waned with the end of the cold war, and since Kasparov retired in 2005 chess has struggled for attention. The world title match in Moscow in May between Vishy Anand and Boris Gelfand, which the holder Anand narrowly won, was largely ignored by the mainstream media.

Andrew Paulson, a 54-year-old American businessman who has spent most of the past 15 years in Russia, is committed to reversing this decline. In a remarkable financial coup, he has persuaded Fide, the international governing body of chess, to hand him the media and marketing rights to the world championship for the next 10 years.

Suddenly, this chess enthusiast who admits to being a “patzer” – a player of no great ability – has become the game’s potential king. “The characters in the chess world are fascinating,” he says at Simpson’s in the Strand, a famous chess coffee house in the 19th century and a possible venue for a new grand prix tournament to be staged in London next year. “When I first dove into the chess world, I felt incredibly comfortable with these people. It was like being back in college. These were passionate, eccentric, but deeply committed. They see themselves as the keepers of the holy grail.”

Paulson, who ran publishing businesses in Russia and remains a director of an internet company based in Moscow, did not set out to become a major player in the chess world. He met Fide’s controversial president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, by chance last September, and says he immediately realised chess had huge untapped commercial potential.

How did he convince Fide to let him take over marketing of the game? “Their fundamental error was that they were trying to get sponsors for [single] events. I said to them, ‘No. If you give me all of the events connected to the world championship, I can reconceive this as a whole.’ Then we’re not selling an event, we’re selling chess. We’re selling chess as an idea, as a symbol, as a metaphor.”

His company, Agon, is about to release the results of a YouGov poll on chess in the US which he says proves how extensive is the interest in the game. Fourteen per cent of adults play at least once a year; and the percentage is higher if you add the number of children playing regularly. Even more striking is the fact that two-thirds of American adults have played chess at some point in their lives.

Design group Pentagram is developing a new visual identity for the world championship, using the tagline “The best mind wins”, and Paulson has commissioned a short film drawing on footage from the Fischer-Spassky match and from movies which have featured chess, notably From Russia with Love. He wants chess to be seen not as some nerdy pastime, but as central to the culture of both east and west.

Paulson claims he will shortly be unveiling long-term sponsorship deals with half a dozen companies in different sectors. They will provide the €6m (£4.8m) a year it will cost to finance the new biennial world championship series, which will incorporate grand prix events in leading cities, a world cup, a candidates tournament between the top eight players emerging from those earlier competitions, and then an extended title match between the challenger and the holder.

In the past, big tournaments have been organised on a largely ad hoc basis and too often played at obscure locations in Siberia or the Caucasus. Moreover, there has been no regular schedule for world championship matches, which have been played when individual cities stumped up the millions needed to satisfy Fide and the two contenders.

Paulson is attempting to create a structure which is comprehensible to players, chess aficionados and casual onlookers alike. If he can achieve it – and it’s a very big if, not least as the powerful Russian Chess Federation already appears to be distancing itself from his efforts – he will have done chess a considerable service.

Paulson is allowed to choose one wildcard entry to the candidates tournament, and it is a testimony to the fact he intends to reintroduce some showmanship into chess that he has already sounded out Kasparov for what would be a sensational comeback. Kasparov, who will be 50 next year, has so far rejected the idea, but Paulson hopes he can be persuaded to change his mind.

As his play in exhibition matches shows, he remains a formidable opponent, and his return to competitive chess would generate widespread interest. “I see one of my goals as making chess a spectator sport,” says Paulson. “You can make it interactive now. There are so many resources that can be brought to bear to make the watching of a chess event fun for individuals and for groups.”

He also hopes to get chess back on television – The Master Game was highly successful when it ran on the BBC in the late 1970s, tapping into the Fischer boom and helping to create a generation of players who briefly propelled the UK to the top tier of world chess. Only if the mainstream media cover the game will a wider audience start to distinguish Carlsen from Caruana, Kamsky from Karjakin, Gelfand from Grischuk.

Every sport depends on having a narrative – a story non-experts can follow. That is what made the Fischer-Spassky match unforgettable – the personality of Fischer set against the backdrop of the cold war. Paulson can’t recreate the cold war, but he hopes to allow us to identify with the people behind the moves, and thus rescue the game from the obscurity in which it has languished in recent years. “We have a great product and a huge potential audience,” Paulson insists. Now he has to connect them.


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