June 21, 2012 10:03

Andrew Paulson's big plans for chess

Andrew Paulson's big plans for chess

Andrew Paulson has big plans for chess. The American/Russian businessman, who bought the rights to organize the FIDE tournaments of two World Championship cycles, spent thousands of Euros on marketing research and hired design firm Pentagram to create a new look for chess events. He has appeared in several mainstream media already, but the chess world remains skeptical.

On May 27th, the Sunday Times published an article (only available behind a paywall) titled "If poker can make it on telly, so can chess". The Times spoke with Andrew Paulson, the man who is determined to make chess much, much bigger than it is right now.

According to Paulson, who has started by investing in market research (done by YouGov), there are more than 600 million people worldwide who play chess. In America, more people play chess than golf or tennis. The majority of chess players in America are between 16 and 34 and educated, affluent and tech-savvy, which makes them a prime target for sponsors and advertisers. The Times quotes Paulson:

A significant number of brands want to associate themselves with intelligence. There are few sports or events that lend themselves to that kind of association.

On June 20th Paulson was featured in an article by Adweek, where a few more statistics are given.

An estimated 44 million Americans are regular chess players. Some 60 percent are male, and the same percentage falls in the magic 18-35 demo. More than one-third have a masters or Ph.D., and 44 percent enjoy an average household income of $75,000 or higher.

If you read it this way, it's hard to believe that chess is still such a small sport which does not attract many upscale brands for sponsorship. But Andrew Paulson thinks he can do it.

In February, after several months talking to FIDE officials, tournament organizers and top players, he put down a $500,000 deposit to secure the rights. He also agreed to provide a €5.4m prize fund until the end of next year.

Paulson, who is a former fashion photographer, seems to be focusing on the way chess looks. For instance, he hired the U.K. office of design firm Pentagram to create a new look for the championships. Adweek gives details:

Pentagram has created a chessboard-themed logo and a tagline (“The Best Mind Wins”) that will appear in and around the games and on potential merchandise. They even designed a playing arena that resembles a boxing ring, allowing fans to watch play from all sides.

Adweek also quotes Pentagram senior partner John Rushworth:

It’s not about trivializing the game, but drama is the key marketing word. We’ll bring drama to it.

Having in mind what impression chess makes, Paulson spends a lot of time talking to journalists and reporters. Already before we met him in Moscow during the World Championship match, we exchanged several e-mails. He usually responds fast. So far, Paulson has been more accessible than any FIDE official ever before was.

Paulson also hired a big PR agency, Mission PR, which distributed a first press release on June 6th. Some more details were revealed of how exactly he plans to make chess bigger.

(...) Condensed highlights will be shown on living room television sets, supported by interactive broadcast on the internet, iPads and smartphones. (...)

Its broadcast strategy will exploit the interactive potential of the internet and mobile technology, allowing fans to post live match commentary, monitor players’ heartbeats, track their eye movements over the board, and predict the next move.

We do get the feeling that if Andrew Paulson (53) won't succeed, nobody will. Born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1958, he moved to Russia in his mid-thirties after “getting tired” of photographing the world’s most beautiful people. In 1998 he founded Afisha Publishing House which he eventually sold for $30m. He then teamed up with Alexander Mamut, the Russian who owns Waterstones bookshops, to form the $300m online media business SUP, known for its blogging and social networking site Live Journal.

So far, the chess world remains skeptical.* FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has made too many promises he couldn't keep, and struck "deals" with a number of businessmen over the years of which nothing came about. A general "seeing is believing" atmosphere is prevailing.

At the moment of writing, FIDE and Paulson are still in contact with a number of top players regarding the Grand Prix Series. As we reported recently, at first the contracts were to be signed before June 1st, 2012. This deadline was postponed by a week, and then "until the end of the Tal Memorial", to give a number of players more time to consider things. It's unclear when the complete list of GP participants will be published, but it should be any time soon.

FIDE will mostly be responsible for the first two Grand Prix tournaments, to be held in Chelyabinsk (September 19 – October 3) and Tashkent (November 21 – December 4). Paulson's first big one will be the Candidates Tournament in March 2013 in London, where he lives himself. The next four GP events are planned to be held in Lisbon, Madrid, Berlin and Paris.

* Update 13:33 CET: In the past few months we've spoken to many organizers, players and journalists and many of them share this opinion. On a more positive note, most of them also want to give Paulson the benefit of the doubt. In our recent interview, World Champion Vishy Anand put it this way: 

First of all I would say that anybody who is making a commitment like this to the cycle, I mean especially the Grand Prix, this is a very good development in general. (...) A lot of what he says sounds very good so right now the important thing is to see how the execution goes, to see if the tournaments actually happen they way he says they'll happen. But in theory a lot of his ideas are very good I think.

Peter Doggers's picture
Author: Peter Doggers


Goendi's picture

I've read these market researches, and they are very well done. It is my personal opinion that the chess world has nothing to loose by supporting this individual. The fact that he made a contract with FIDE is of no importance, for him that is just the tool to reach a goal. Being sceptical about the FIDE president and it's body's is one thing, however I don't see what this person has to see with that. Selling market research and being good at it is totally different from speaking to aliens.

Creemer's picture

Tracking eye-movements and recording heartbeats. Wow. I'm in. I can immediately see the drama. Should also be a good tool for improvement for the players themselves, because they get a lot of feedback (after the game I presume) on how they performed and they can learn to control their reactions better. I'm excited. I'll suspend my disbelief and hail the new King of Chess Organizers!

Thomas's picture

Interesting article based on good research, and overall objective and fair towards Paulson (IMHO unlike some earlier related Chessvibes reports). He is an interesting personality and appears as a "serious adventurer" - as a wild analogy: not someone who wants to reach the South Pole barefoot without proper preparation, but someone who plans such an expedition and realizes that wearing shoes is after all essential :) . Did Paulson's would-be predecessors spend months talking to FIDE officials, top players, tournament organizers and journalists? Did they spend a lot of money before they could even expect something in return? Not that I remember, hence Paulson seems to be MUCH more serious - and he was after all successful at earlier occasions. Hence I fully agree with Peter Doggers: "if Andrew Paulson (53) won't succeed, nobody will".

I am just puzzled about one, actually two sentences: "the chess world remains skeptical" at the beginning and towards the end of the article. Who is "the chess world"? Peter Doggers is part of the chess world, who else is skeptical and how many (at least 51% of the chess world?!). Even if some top players expressed skepticism (but don't want to have their names revealed in public), should this be quite prominently yet indirectly and cryptically mentioned at a major chess site?

The main argument seems to be "FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has made too many promises he couldn't keep" but - cf. above - this seems rather irrelevant and pretty unfair to Paulson. Not for the first time I would suggest to rephrase the skeptical "seeing is believing" to the cautiously optimistic "let's give Paulson the benefit of doubt".

Peter Doggers's picture

Point taken – see the update.

Thomas's picture

Thanks - it's still rather vague, I infer and understand (all meanings of that word) that you cannot reveal your sources. In particular, existing/established organizers may be inherently skeptical towards a new one that doesn't yet have a track record? Also in other fields, ambitious plans may initially receive skepticism - e.g. scientific research that could still receive a Nobel prize later on ... .

litmus's picture

I belong to the target group of Americans "with a Ph.D. and over $75K household income" (but sadly not in the "18-35" demographic any longer), and I am skeptical that Paulson's schemes (at least as reported in the media) will succeed. I don't believe that 44 million Americans are "regular chessplayers" in the same sense as, say, readers of ChessVibes. (As a reality check, the number of active tournament players in the US is just a little over 50,000.) It may be more accurate to say that 44 million Americans vaguely remember the rules of chess--perhaps some of them even play chess about once a year at a family gathering. I can't imagine what fraction of this "44 million" will be among the captive audience for a TV program about chess--my guess is that the Nielsen rating would be negligible. So, yes--"seeing is believing" and "skeptical" are a pretty accurate summary of my reaction.

Anonymous's picture

@ litmus, I don't know if Paulson's figures are correct but I don't know how the number of "active tournament players in the US" has any bearing on "regular chessplayers". The sell of chess sets of all kinds would give a better idea.

Anonymous's picture

litmus has a point. The type of people who would follow the games on TV would not simply be those who buy chess sets, but those who play regularly and follow the games of the elite - i.e. "active tournament players".

litmus's picture

I think it all comes down to the definition of a "regular chessplayer". If such a creature is one who plays at least a couple of serious games a month then I would expect the number of "regular" chessplayers in the US to be strongly correlated with the number of active tournament players; I would expect that "regular" chessplayers to be no more than 10 times the number of active tournament players. The estimate of 44 million "regular" players implies that the multiplication factor is nearly a thousand; this claim alone makes my BS-meter spin like crazy.

Ashish's picture

"Chess sets of all kinds" are purchased by grandmothers for grandkids, to be set up with a dark square on the bottom right, or perhaps never to be used at all.

Thomas's picture

Some chess sets may be bought as presents or for other purposes than actually being used (decoration, collectors' items, ...) but I would assume that's just not the majority of total sales.

Regarding 44 million in the USA, more than 600 million worldwide (and other data on education and household income), most probably these aren't numbers made up by Paulson himself - after all, he doesn't or didn't have a chess background himself. These are presumably results of his market research - and while I have no insights on "industry standards and practices", I would assume that YouGov didn't merely provide ridiculously high numbers but also justified them one way or another.

Anyway, 50,000 tournament players in the USA would be the _potential_ audience of Internet chess sites (free like Chessvibes, paid like ICC) or print media such as NewinChess. The potential TV audience may well be larger, as is the case for other sports. I can only speak for myself: I do watch football on TV while I last played on a team in my youth more than 20 years ago. Sometimes I watch tennis, but I never held a racket and merely know the rules of the game. On the other hand, I do not watch darts or snooker - even if I practice every now and then in a pub. So the TV potential of chess should be at least comparable to these sports?

"Regular chess player" might mean the same as regular church visitor, including all those attending church once every year for Christmas?

guitarspider's picture

Don't forget that FIDE excluded successful organizers before (WC between Kramnik and Anand comes to mind, the organizers were not allowed to continue afterwards). Even if Paulson succeeds, FIDE might just decide they have different plans.

Thomas's picture

It seems that the content of the Sunday Times article is available for free here:
At least this was also (already) published on May 27th, and the Hyperlink "The Original" at the bottom leads to the Sunday Times login page. The content is similar to the Chessvibes story (same sources!?) but the tone is rather optimistic or enthusiastic.

The most remarkable part may be this:
"Next year, championship events will be hosted across Europe, in cities such as London, Paris, Berlin and Istanbul [huh? Istanbul wasn't mentioned before - unless they mean the Olympiad held this year??]. Then the game will roll into north Africa and the Middle East [huh? mixed feelings and 'seeing is believing' given the political situation across the entire region], reaching India in 2015 before landing in the Americas in 2016. Farther out, they could be staged in China, before eventually returning to Europe to restart the geographic cycle."

P.S.: Credit to Olaf Steffens for giving the above link on a German chess blog http://www.schach-welt.de/BLOG/Blog/MehrRandsportfüralle - as part of a 'column' on a wide range of topics

Martin's picture

I haven't read the article yet, but my first reaction is that this geographic spreading would be a shame. Spreading the tournaments over the different continents would actually be nice, but why all tournaments of one year on one continent?

I kind of like the model used in tennis, each part of world has its tournaments and also the majors are fairly spread over the world. A comparable situation goes with Formula One, albeit differently.

Martin's picture

Oh, and I'd like to add to this that the situation that major tournaments are in shady locations (e.g. Elista) should stop ASAP.

Anonymous's picture

I agree with the tennis or golf model....also in the USA the spelling B is on TV,....with some creativity chess could be on TV one half hour per week, especially with chess ramping up in the schools.

mishanp's picture

Copying and pasting full articles and adding an "original" link at the bottom is by far the worst feature of that chess site - their doing the same for an article behind a pay wall really "takes the biscuit". Unless of course they have permission, although that seems rather unlikely - people with permission usually mention it.

Anyway, that's by the by :) The geographical ambitions have also been mentioned elsewhere e.g. at the end of this ChessVibes article: http://www.chessvibes.com/node/6665 Istanbul does seem to be a new one, though!

Thomas's picture

The focus on _northern_ Africa also seems to be new? I could still imagine events in, say, South Africa or Kenya (but not Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Congo, ...). On the other hand, "Middle East" rather than "Arab countries" opens the door for an event in Israel, where chess recently received quite some mass media coverage!?
Holding a series of events in one geographic region might go along with regional PR campaigns, and the most interested (amateur) chess fans could attend several events in one year. Particularly if there will also be side events e.g. Swiss Opens - which is already the case for some private supertournaments, at least Wijk aan Zee, Dortmund and London.

noyb's picture

It is encouraging to read of Mr. Paulson's efforts. Sounds like he's finally doing what many people have only talked about for decades. I liked the tag line "The Best Mind Wins".

Here's wishing Mr. Paulson much success.

Ed Dean's picture

My first thought was that the tagline should instead be "May the best mind win," in parallel with the usual "may the best man win" idiom. Nobody asked me though.

Anonymous's picture

+1 good point and it should be heard imo. probably the suggestion wasn't meant to be final oth.

Anonymous's picture

I very much agree. His plans look sound, well thought out and promising. At least, as long as Mr. Paulson is involved in the process of decision making with FIDE, finally hope is back for more professionalism, communication and common sense in global chess.

Casaubon's picture

"An estimated 44 million Americans are regular chess players .... More than one-third have a masters or Ph.D"

Are Ph.D's really that easy to come by these days? And to think some people like to equate earning a Ph.D with earning a GM title. I also suspect Mr.Paulsen may need to recalibrate his definition of the word 'regular'.

Niima's picture

Excellent point Casaubon. "regular" is vague.

KL's picture

using data from the 2006 census, this means that more than 78% of all americans with a masters or higher degree are regular chess players!

RealityCheck's picture

Paulson must keep a tight grip on Kirsans' balls. And, keep the rabble rousers Kasparov & Short at arms length. If he accomplishes this he"ll succeed.

Casaubon's picture

There's little doubt Paulson will succeed, it just remains to be seen what his goal really is.

Al's picture

The stats are fantastic brings new life to chess and a new selling point to the sport - 600 million players - that's incredible. And I doubt I'm included in that!!

I wish all the best for Andrew and lets hope we get to see more tournaments with "a new look", and even some chess on TV. Unbelievable really.

I'm excited to see what this guy can do.

bob's picture

"Its broadcast strategy will exploit the interactive potential of the internet and mobile technology, allowing fans to post live match commentary, monitor players’ heartbeats, track their eye movements over the board, and predict the next move."

I'd have thought that in-body surveillance of the players would raise privacy issues for many people. It would for me anyway.

bxmhgoq's picture


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