Reports | March 22, 2013 18:21

Andrew Paulson: "We need to engage the audience more"

Together with FIDE, Agon is the organizer of the FIDE Candidates' Tournament that's currently under way in London. The head of Agon is Andrew Paulson, a 54-year-old American entrepreneur who bought the rights from FIDE to organize the events that are part of the next two World Championship cycles. On Wednesday, March 20th, before the start of the fifth round, we spoke with Paulson in the Lecture Theatre of the IET, the playing hall of the tournament. 

Andrew Paulson | Photos by Anastasiya Karlovich & Ray Morris-Hill 

In the interview we discussed three main topics: the YouGov research that was done last year, the Candidates' Tournament, and the upcoming events.

YouGov research

How did you come up with the number of 605 million people playing chess worldwide? That still seems like very high to me, and recently it received serious criticism.

I didn’t. That’s the number FIDE came up with. They submitted this number when they wanted to get some kind of accreditation with the IOC, three or four years ago. When I saw this number I asked the FIDE people where this number came from. They didn’t know. So I said: this seems like a ridiculous number, you put down 605, you use it everywhere but you have no idea, is it adults, is it children, in what countries, what’s the methodology, and so on. So I decided that I would then hire what is generally recognized to be the most quantitatively sophisticated polling organization in the world… I’ll even go back a step earlier. An earlier research by Havas had given me the impression that the numbers would be much higher than we thought. Then we let YouGov do a serious research. Initially we just did the UK and once again the numbers in the UK were surprisingly good I felt, 12% is a good number. We were also able to find out more about how people feel about chess, whether they’re playing or not, the men/women ratio…

The reason I ask about it is that you used the 605 million in your press release of August 8th, 2012 but you used exactly the same figure before the YouGov research was finished? How is that possible?

Basically it’s very difficult to extrapolate from one country. I think we may not have actually reaffirmed this 605 million figure until after we had also done the United States, Germany, Russia and India. But the point is that we asked YouGov to extrapolate from the data they had and to see what number would be appropriate for the world number, and they came up with a number of about 640 million.

But YouGov had never mentioned the 605 million themselves. They said they never received the press release first, to check it, before you sent it out to the world?

We went back and forth with YouGov a great deal on that press release and we continued to use that number of 605 million because it was significantly below the number that they extrapolated from the figures that they got.

You extrapolated from four countries only, more or less all western. How can you extrapolate to worldwide like that?

Well, first of all I think we completely discounted China because we weren’t including Chinese chess. Second of all, I think that in choosing the UK, the US, Germany, Russia and India this was a reasonable sample from which to come up with a cross-section of world chess playing.

But three of those are rich countries and for India you only had a sample group of online people?

We specifically said that in the poll results that it was based only on the top 120 million people in India economically, because obviously even though there may be vast numbers of people in India who play chess, if they’re not consumers of media and or of other things, they wouldn't have been terribly interesting for our sponsors. Back to the 605 million: we were rounding down from the 640 million more or less, taking into account that there are lots of differences, specifically in India and China. In a way I used the 605 million number because it’s a ridiculous number. It’s impossible to know how many people play chess, and there are so many different ways that people play chess. Does the fact that you know the rules and that you can sit down and watch people play chess and understand what’s going on, is it the same thing as playing four, five times a week? No, of course not. What was important here was to come up with a number that was indicative, that was based on some sort of research and, most interestingly, that more or less, within say plus or minus 10%, confirmed what FIDE had announced.

What was important here was to come up with a number that was indicative, that was based on some sort of research.

Candidates’ Tournament​

OK, let’s move on to the Candidates’ Tournament here in London. How do you think it’s been going so far, after four rounds of play. Is it what you had in mind?

[Long pause.] I was very worried on Sunday evening when our ChessCasting internet went down. We experienced a strange spike in traffic at 5.30. When we checked with other providers of broadcast of the games, namely Chess.com and Chessbase, they confirmed they had not experienced this spike at this moment. I was very very worried when this happened, that it was perhaps our fault and I was equally worried that it was someone else’s fault. On Monday, during the rest day, we did a good deal of investigation and we took measures to protect the experience in the hall with the Samsung tablets and in the commentary room and in the press room so that there could not be any interference from the outside. We also took precautions for the broadcast on the internet. Yesterday, which was the first day of play since then, we saw a delay between the movement on the board and the movement on the screen in the auditorium of no more than three seconds and a delay on the internet of three but occasionally five seconds.

I think the audience has been great, I think the commentary has been great. I think there are some ways in which we have not been able to develop some of the dramatic aspects of ChessCasting that I wanted. To start, I think the way we did the press conferences and the way we did the post-game analysis at Simpson's in London was more interesting. I think the formal press conference format we’re using now is fundamentally unsatisfactory.

I think the formal press conference format we’re using now is fundamentally unsatisfactory.

I think that we need to work with our commentators, we need to engage the audience more and bring in some of the great chess players and historical figures who are stopping by, to liven up and make it more diverse… not that there’s any problem with the quality of what they’re doing now but I’m sure everyone would like to hear more than just two people during the course of five or six hours.

There are also a couple of features in ChessCasting that I was hoping would be ready by this tournament, but now they’ll be ready for the next tournament. We have so many things that we’re rolling out, event after event. There was no reason to risk bringing out something that wasn’t fully formed.

I am very happy with the reception of the chess pieces. This was something very important and obviously controversial. The moment the players saw them they immediately criticized them but they seem to have developed a fondness for them now. The only thing is that there was a small white dot on the side of the white pieces and the players insisted that this would completely destroy their concentration, so we’ve taken that in hand.

So for me there was the launch of the chess pieces, the launch of ChessCasting, there was the “bringing in” of the chess public, because as you recall in Simpson's we did more or less the same thing but with no public, there was the addition of the tablets in the hall, all of this has gone off flawlessly, I think that the audience is appreciative, and large and growing. We’re not yet sold out but the audience had been growing steadily since the opening and I expect that because the play is so exciting, because of the development of the tension inside the tournament as such.

I’m pleased with the fact that we’ll have our closing ceremony at 11 Downing Street. I think that that will be a wonderful climax to the event. I don't know whether we’ll succeed but I hope it’ll bring all of the great chess loving cabinet members and lords and members of parliament to join us in celebrating this moment which could be transformational. We’ll see if it’s a transformational moment in November.

I hope it’ll bring all of the great chess loving cabinet members and lords and members of parliament to join us in celebrating this moment which could be transformational.

You mentioned the audience. I’ve been counting and in every round there were about 80 seats occupied while there are about 250 available. Isn’t that disappointing for such an important event?

I think that the marketing and the advertising we did for this was very minimal. We worked very closely with the English Chess Federation, with the Chess&Bridge shop and we worked through the Telegraph and the Times to offer small discounts for their readers but we did no exceptional… unlike at Simpson's where we had huge press, a huge budget for marketing and so on. Here I didn't want to… I think it’s much more comfortable to have eighty people than to have any more.

But why was there no marketing? This event is much more important than the one in September?

I didn't want to have a situation where it was too crowded, where we couldn’t control the public.

I didn't want to have a situation where it was too crowded, where we couldn’t control the public.

I knew that we only had 100-120 tablets, I didn’t want people to be disappointed there. I sensed that in the commentary room it was packed and if there would be any more people in the commentary room it would be unpleasant…

But why do you have only 120 tablets then?

This was the number of tablets that Samsung could provide us with. Samsung is our partner in this and they gave us these tablets.

At the moment I think there are only about 40 available so of these 80 people, almost all of them have to share a tablet.

I don't know why that is actually. I have to talk about this. I understood that for the first day we only put out 50 but we have plenty more.

Another thing is the design of the board and pieces of ChessCasting: white and red on grey. Did you test this, did you ask a bunch of chess players what they think of this? Because from the reactions I’ve heard so far it’s universally disliked.

Of course we tested with chess players. The general feeling is that as long as they’re big enough they're very clear. I think that it is true that for people with slightly imperfect vision red distorts more than other colors but on the pads, on computers which are higher resolution screens they’re absolutely discernible and discriminable. When you have four boards up on the screen up there, if you have a problem with distant vision then they're going to blur a bit. There’s also a slight problem with a few people who are color blind and we will put a new option in ChessCasting to change the color to green or blue or orange or whatever color they want. The problem is legibility and legibility has to do with how big the pieces are and what the resolution of the screen is.

On to something more important: in a recent tweet Malcolm Pein mentioned there have been serious budget problems. ChessCasting still seems to be in a beta stage, while you have been planning this event since the summer. How is it possible that things are not ready yet?

We first started coding for ChessCasting in December.

Why so late?

Because we weren’t ready with the product design. We started earlier, in September we were bringing in lots of people and we started talking about what ChessCasting should be, what its goals would be and so on. It takes very long to develop a new product. I think that your question is takes out of context the incredibly short amount of time that we’ve had to do it. We first started talking about it in September, I hired a team to begin working on the conceptual ideas, the timeline, the boiler room, the chess tree which you have not seen yet but we’ve talked about.

Actually this was shown to me in December when I was at your office. It looked very nice and I was wondering why it was not there.

They just didn’t have time. I don’t want to go into details but we had some unexpected problems with external partners which took about a month to solve.

I’m so pleased with Thoughtworks [the IT team behind ChessCasting – CV] and the reason I chose them is that… they understood that there was the deadline of the 15th March for a functioning, workable product that more or less was comparable to all other products that are on the market but with a few of our additional functions in it. And they did that. I think it’s remarkable. My experience in my whole life with computer programmers has been a disaster. The only positive experience I had was with Thoughtworks. They didn’t get around to doing the chess tree but that’s OK. The next Grand Prix begins in four weeks and it will be absolutely ready by then.

A number of things you were planning to do have not been realized yet, for example the biometric measurements. Why didn’t you manage to get it ready for this event?

Three of the players categorically refused. I sympathize with them for the Candidates, I think that the players need a very stable and predictable environment and because we didn’t have time for example to go around and visit each one of the player individually and show the technology and so on, they were understandably nervous. I absolutely don’t blame them. I can say that some of the players were very enthusiastic about them and one of the first things that they asked when they arrived was: why aren’t we doing the biometrics? I hope that during the Grand Prix cycle we'll slowly be able to introduce these. As you see we already have four parameters coming from Komodo [the chess engine used for ChessCasting – CV] in the boiler room and these are going to be augmented step by step by blood pressure, pulse, skin resistivity. We have a program that will ultimately be able to do eye movements, where the players are looking, we're probably going to have thermometers in the seats… There are all sorts of fun things that we can do. I want to change the dynamic of the relationship between organizers and players of the past, which was confrontational. I have nothing but admiration and affection for the players. They may not believe it at the moment and perhaps I have to prove it to them over the course of time, but that is certainly one of my tasks, to convey to them that I’m their friend, not their enemy.

I have nothing but admiration and affection for the players. They may not believe it at the moment and perhaps I have to prove it to them over the course of time, but that is certainly one of my tasks, to convey to them that I’m their friend, not their enemy.

So when they ask for something stupid I give in and when they ask for something smart give in as well, but I won’t always give in. It’s a matter of slowly developing a trusting relationship. The incredibly long and complicated history of negotiating the contract for this event with the players is testimony to years and years of paranoia combined with the fact that chess players are fundamentally lawyers.

Future Grand Prix tournaments

Let’s talk about the future, and the Grand Prix tournaments. One of the main issues is corporate sponsorship. So far we haven't heard anything concrete about that, except for for a friendly deal with Samsung at the moment. As I understand, SOCAR has been more than a main sponsor for you; without them this event wouldn’t have existed. If you haven’t been able to find a corporate sponsor for a tournament that has the world’s top three playing, how can you ever find a sponsor for tournaments where Carlsen, Kramnik and Aronian are not playing?

First of all, I don’t believe that all the sponsors are interested in the players per se.

I don’t believe that all the sponsors are interested in the players per se.

I think that if sponsors were interested in players, they would do what Magnus, Vishy and Karjakin have achieved and have funny little patches on their blazers. I don't know who else has this… obviously there’s some state sponsorship going on but that’s different. My position from the beginning has been sponsors are not interested in sponsoring players or events; they’re interested in sponsoring chess. They’re interested in the idea. And also, sponsor is a very old-fashioned word now. No one uses the word sponsor anymore because it seems like charity and in fact that’s exactly what’s been the problem with chess in the past, that there’s never really been a logical, rational reason, since Intel and IBM, to sponsor chess. What I’m saying now is not at all different from what I’ve said a year ago when I started. Companies are interested into partnerships where the values that chess represents, the attributes, the qualities, all seem to align with and enrich the brand values that the company already stands for. That can’t be done with a person… it can to some extent, but Tiger Woods and the Tour de France have put a damper on that. Although Magnus has wonderful sponsors, they’re not the same kind of sponsors that we’re running after.

So how much progress have you made in the past year?

Well, the contract with FIDE was ratified in September. I spent a lot of time before September planning to make sure that sponsors were going to be interested, making sure that my ideas were correct. I spent a lot of time on polling and research. Then starting in September we’ve been speaking intensely with sponsors ever since and we’re expecting a lot of those sponsors to come here. During the course of this we event we have about 25-30 potential sponsors coming and visiting.

During the course of this we event we have about 25-30 potential sponsors coming and visiting.

They’ve never seen a chess event. We could talk until we were blue in the face about how wonderful and fabulous and magnificent what we’re going to do was, but in general these guys like to sponsor things that already exist.

Then, the next Grand Prixs. Two weeks ago the Portuguese Chess Federation announced that the tournament scheduled for April 17-May 1 is not going to take place in Lisbon.

Our obligation under our contract with FIDE is to respect the dates to the extent we can. If we need to change the dates of any event because of small logistic issues we simply need to contact the players and make sure it’s OK with them. To some extent this is something you can talk about with FIDE. The Grand Prixs will be held, and they will be held in Europe and they will be held on the dates that were announced.

But why is it not taking place in Lisbon?

I could talk for hours about that but let’s put it this way: we found a sponsor who is interested in sponsoring the next Grand Prix on the 17th of April, in a new city. I don’t know if FIDE has already officially announced it…

No, but Ilyumzhinov has mentioned Zug, Switzerland in an interview.*

I know.

What does that mean, that you cannot announce it and that  Ilyumzhinov mentions the city. What does that say about the relationship between you and FIDE?

It has to do more with Kirsan’s enthusiasm often to make announcements before they’re actually signed. The signature, as far as I know, is taking place today and FIDE as an organization is going to announce together with us the signature. I think it is imprudent to make announcements before contracts are signed.

In general it seems that since a few weeks, FIDE has been responsible for a number of things, and not Agon. For example, the official website of the Candidates’ Tournament is FIDE’s tournament website instead of your WorldChess.com. At the moment it’s FIDE's CEO Geoffrey Borg who seems to be taking care of making sure that the next Grand Prix is taking place.

Geoffrey has been an employee advisor of Agon since January 2012.** The Grand Prixs are a collaboration. Geoffrey has huge experience, he has done this for years. But I would say that the important distinction is that what Geoffrey means by organizing is slightly different from what we mean by organizing.

What Geoffrey means by organizing is making sure that in some context the players get to a place, they play the games, there are arbiters and so on, there’s a transmission of the moves and there’s a press conference. That’s it. As far as FIDE is concerned this is their obligation to the world. This is what organizing means. At an absolute minimum that’s exactly correct, but nobody is going to be interested in sponsoring that. Our collaboration with FIDE has been since the beginning to try embellish and build on that and that’s why we need Geoffrey. He’s perfect at what he does. He’s a great asset, a great ally and our relation with FIDE is… it's been rocky in terms of negotiations and certain things in the past but at the moment our relationship with FIDE is perfect.

Our relation with FIDE is… it's been rocky in terms of negotiations and certain things in the past but at the moment our relationship with FIDE is perfect.

To finish, what is your reaction to Hikaru Nakamura’s open letter?

First of all, I don't understand quite why Nakamura didn’t call me, or call FIDE. I don’t understand why he publishes an open letter and I’ve not read it, so I don't know what it says.

It says he wants confirmation of dates, venues et cetera no later than March 26th.

FIDE’s obligation is to provide me with players. That’s my response to Nakamura because I think it’s silly that he doesn’t ask me or FIDE. We’ve been in touch with a number of players directly. It baffles me.

But he does seem to have a point  in that the players of the next Grand Prix are not pro-actively informed about changes like the venue. They don’t even receive an email saying: guys, you're actually not going to Lisbon. How can you deal with the players like that?

I don’t think it’s ideal. If we had had an answer we would have announced it and when we have an answer, we will announce it. But there’s been a bit of uncertainty and there’s nothing formal to announce. If the players contact us one on one directly we have a one on one communication with them and they’ve all kept it confidential. No one has spoken out in public because we explained to them exactly what’s going on and that as soon as we have information we’ll give it to them. For a player to unilaterally make a declaration is counter-productive. If what he’s really concerned about is certainty, he should just call and ask.

* Meanwhile, we’ve learnt that the participants have been informed about the change of venues. The tournament will be held on the same dates in Zug, Switzerland. The sponsor is Renova Group.


** Update March 23rd, 2013, 13:33 CET: Mr Paulson has informed us that calling Mr Borg an "employee" was a misstatement: "Mr Borg has been working closely with Agon since January 2012."

Peter Doggers's picture
Author: Peter Doggers

Founder and editor-in-chief of ChessVibes.com, Peter is responsible for most of the chess news and tournament reports. Often visiting top events, he also provides photos and videos for the site. He's a 1.e4 player himself, likes Thai food and the Stones.

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