In this exclusive opinion piece Garry Kasparov gives his verdict on Magnus Carlsen's campaign to get the Norwegian Chess Federation to accept almost $6 million in sponsorship from a gambling company in return for lobbying for the breakup of Norway's state monopoly on gambling. On the same day Magnus triumphed in Zagreb the vote went 132:44 against him in Norway, but Garry describes himself as "compelled to speak out as a veteran of these conflicts".
by Garry Kasparov
World chess champion Magnus Carlsen is embroiled in a struggle with his national federation, a storyline I’m all too familiar with. I’m not here to tell Norwegians how to run their chess federation, their business, or their country, only to provide my perspective after conversations with various parties involved. I feel compelled to speak out as a veteran of these conflicts. The lines of battle are the usual ones between players and bureaucracies, and always come down to the issue of control. When it comes to sponsorship, who controls it is always more important to a federation than how much it is and who might benefit.
Carlsen wanted to see major chess sponsorship from the Kindred Group, an online gambling company based on Malta. The Norwegian federation rejected their proposal and are trying to portray this as a stance against tainted money. A federation vote went 132-44 against the Kindred deal, despite Carlsen trying to gain more votes for the proposal by launching a new chess club. To my understanding, this was within the rules and without a personal profit motive beyond growing the proverbial pie. I well remember spending years working constantly to bring in sponsors and organizers, often spending more time on it than chess, and still hearing accusations from players and bureaucrats that I was just out to make a buck.
It’s an ironic charge, considering that the world champion is often the only professional chessplayer who has dependable income! Changing that should be a goal, and to do that we need to grow the base of players while also providing a worthy living for those who dedicate their lives to chess—and corporate sponsorship is a key to that. Kindred’s potential investment of nearly six million dollars (50 million NOK) would have been a huge boon for Norwegian chess.
The irony of the federation’s position is that some Norwegian clubs get money from a Norwegian gambling company and the federation itself is hoping to get money from gambling—just not from the Kindred Group. They aspire to revenue from the Norwegian lottery, money that currently doesn’t go to chess. So, while hoping to benefit from the state monopoly on gambling, they portray sponsorship from private gambling enterprises as dirty or even illegal.
This hypocrisy serves the desire for bureaucratic control. They would rather get less money for chess, but from a source that speaks the same bureaucratic language, than much more from another source—especially if it’s connected to a willful, straightforward world champion. The federation also curries favor with the state, keeps outsiders out, and maintains a monopoly on how and where funds are invested. By the way, I do not hold the position that all money is the same. For example, sponsorship from alcohol and tobacco industries for a national sports federation catering to physical and mental performance, youth, and education wouldn’t be appropriate. But despite the federation’s allegations, there is no real “vice” argument being made about gambling in general, only one favoring one service provider over another. (And Kindred has already said it wouldn’t advertise gambling via this sponsorship. They want access to the closed Norwegian market—and affiliation with chess and its marketable young Norwegian champion.)
Online gambling companies are growing, threatening the old monopolies. The Romanian company SuperBet is sponsoring a Grand Chess Tour event this year and future relations looks bright. But, as with Uber and the ridesharing apps that bring new tech and new efficiencies to old markets, the old companies, regulators, and the bureaucracies that feed off them aren’t going quietly. The “reward” Norwegian chess will get for keeping Kindred out will be to get money, much less, from the state.
This skirmish in Norway is part of a larger, older battle. My own quest to bring corporate sponsorship into the chess world began nearly as early as my quest to become world chess champion—and had markedly worse results. Coming from the Soviet Union, where everything from vodka to chess was “state sponsored” and tournament prizes were awarded mostly in perks and prestige, the West looked like a treasure chest waiting to be opened with the right magic words. While chess wasn’t seen as a major sport in the West, the obsession with the game as a symbol of intelligence and strategic thinking was longstanding. From James Bond and Harry Potter movies to ads for banks, insurance companies, and luxury cars, chess imagery was, and is, everywhere.
But top chessplayers profited not at all from this tremendous marketing potential. Elite chess was largely beholden to wealthy and well-positioned individuals who loved the game, generous chess lovers like Luis Rentero, Bessel Kok, Joop van Oosterom, and William Wirth, among others to whom chess owes so much. This chess patronage tradition goes back to the sultans and kings of old, but these modern patrons all realized that their personal advocacy and sponsorship wasn’t a sustainable business model, and several of them spent decades with me trying to create one.
When the internet exploded during my championship reign, it looked like the final piece in the puzzle. Chess was never going to fill stadiums or draw millions of viewers on cable TV, but the low cost and global interactive reach of the web would bundle the world’s chess fans into a profitable demographic. Watching, playing, taking lessons—all at very high quality. Smartphones expanded the base once again; you could play anyone, anywhere, at any time and the interactive experience could rival major sports on the tiny screen, if not the big one at home.
This vision has largely come to pass, if decades later than it should have. The global chess federation, FIDE, spent twenty years trying to hold on to its monopoly while executives and bureaucrats tried to grab the pennies that came in while telling players they were lucky to get even those. Instead of bringing money into the game, FIDE and many national federations were focused on how to squeeze money out of chess, and chessplayers.
But if they were so greedy, why didn’t they do more to pursue major sponsors from the West? Corporate sponsors from the free world expect performance for their investment. They are used to a degree of transparency and predictability, with events and campaigns planned years in advance. This level of responsibility wasn’t what most federations were looking for, and they were terrified of change. They wanted easy money, even if it wasn’t much, with no oversight or results required. Their dream was government support, from Olympic committees and sports ministries and national lotteries.
Corporate sponsorship doesn’t guarantee transparency in a sports federation, as the recent FIFA corruption scandal demonstrated. This is hardly an argument against seeking investment and pursuing the professionalization and modernization of our ancient game. Controlling the players via monopolies and keeping them dependent on crumbs meted out by federations must end. Even if the world champion didn’t win this round, it’s a good fight and a necessary fight.
Meanwhile, does anyone know where I can place a bet on “Carlsen vs Norwegian Federation”?
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