Why The World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship Was a Big Disappointment

Spectators all around the top boards, but could they see what was happening on the boards?Spectators all around the top boards, but could they see what was happening on the boards?

Was this really good enough?

by Tarjei J. Svensen

It has been a couple of days since the World Rapid & Chess Championship finished in Berlin. I attended the event from the start until the final round of the Blitz and had a great time with Norwegian journalists and chess friends. Chess-wise it was a fantastic event with entertainment all the way.

But now it’s time for the review. How did the events really go?

FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov speaking to VG's Nora Thorp Bjørnstad. Photo: Yerazik Khachatourian

FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov speaking to VG’s Nora Thorp Bjørnstad. Photo: Yerazik Khachatourian

I can’t speak for the players. Those I spoke to, thought it was a pretty good event. But as a spectator and a journalist, I have a lot to say. Many things were simply not up to the standard I’d expect for a World Championship. That doesn’t mean there weren’t also positive things that deserves praise. I’ll get to that first.

The events were organized by AGON, the company that bought the the rights for the World Championships from FIDE, in collaboration with the German Chess Federation. Despite making the blunder to schedule the events during one of the World’s biggest open tournament, the Millionaire Chess Open in Las Vegas, the WC attracted almost every top player in the world.

Crowded behind Russian players Daniil Dubov and Alexander Grischuk. Photo: Yerazik Khachatourian

Crowded behind Russian players Daniil Dubov and Alexander Grischuk. Photo: Yerazik Khachatourian

Most importantly the triple World Champion himself, Magnus Carlsen, but also players such as Alexander Grischuk, Viswanathan Anand, Vassily Ivanchuk, Levon Aronian, Vladimir Kramnik, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and many others made it to be a lot of fun for the fans.

The conditions for the top players were quite good, and the prize fund reached an acceptable level with 30,000 Euro for the winner. And most importantly:

NRK's coverage from Norway, with IM Torstein Bae as the expert. Photo: NRK

NRK’s coverage from Norway, with IM Torstein Bae as the expert. Photo: NRK

For the first time a World Rapid & Blitz chess event had live TV coverage. That is something almost unheard of since the Carlsen era.

Norway’s state broadcaster NRK, in collaboration with the country’s biggest online newspaper VG, bought the rights to cover the events. And they did well, showing up to seven hours of chess on TV and online. Both stations had reporters on the stage interviewing players inbetween games and a camera crew filming other games in its final moments.

Ivanchuk interviewed by VG's Nora Thorp Bjørnstad. Photo: Yerazik Khachatourian

Ivanchuk interviewed by VG’s Nora Thorp Bjørnstad. Photo: Yerazik Khachatourian

And once again, they took chess coverage to a new level: A couple of episodes were actually shown in slow-motion!

Agon had also secured sponsorship from Unibet (a Nordic betting company based in Malta), the 2014 sponsor of Norway Chess, and Isklar, a Norwegian brand of still and sparkling water.

The playing hall located quite central in Berlin was spacious and beautiful. It was about time that a big FIDE event was hosted in a major European city. Because this was probably the most crowded chess event I’ve ever visited with literally thousands of people paying 9 Euro just to get in.

Spectators all around the top boards, but could they see what was happening on the boards?

Spectators all around the top boards, but could they see what was happening on the boards?

And it turned out to be so popular, that on the first day the security crew had to make some of the paying spectators wait outside. The hall was just too crowded!

Now this is where my praise ends.

Can’t see anything!

Nice playing hall, but no screens! Photo: Tarjei J. Svensen

Nice playing hall, but no screens! Photo: Tarjei J. Svensen

With so many chess fans buying tickets to get a glimpse of the best players in the world, you would expect them to be treated well and shown some chess games as well.

Well, the problem is: They were not.

«If The King Falls And Noone Sees It», renowned chess journalist and grandmaster Ian Rogers wrote in his piece for the US Chess Federation. He certainly has a point.

In the playing hall, there was actually not a single screen showing chess games. Unless you were standing really close, it’s unlikely that you would actually get to follow a game in full. Especially for the top boards on the podium, this was particularly hard with cameras and a lot of spectators (and arbiters) blocking the view. The only way would be to bring your own cell phone, tablet or computer to pull up the games on the screen. But then why show up at all?

It is hard to understand why Agon did not borrow a couple of big monitors showing games for the spectators, something that is even done in events at a much smaller scale. I can’t rule out that money is an issue here, but it is surely something that should have been of high priority.

Jan Gustafsson kommenterer på spillestedet og den offisielle sendingen. Foto: Tarjei J. Svensen

Jan Gustafsson in the commentary room next to the playing hall.

The only screen available for the audience, was the coverage next to the playing hall done by the official commentator, Grandmaster Jan Gustafsson. The German was doing excellent commentary on the official site and at the event.

Gustafsson is an entertaining and popular commentator in the chess world. He knows his stuff, but for such an event, he should have had a co-commentator and more guests inbetween games.

Five Agon blunders

While I feel Agon in many ways are going in the right direction and doing a much better job than FIDE in marketing chess and communicating with the press, there is still a long way to go.

Here are some examples:

  • The actual players list was released on the official website only three days before the start of the event.
  • There was no response to e-mails to the official «Media Contact» of the event.
  • More than 29 hours after it actually began, Agon sent out a press release «FIDE World Championship Opens …». That is at least 20 hours too late.
  • Out of the blue, Agon decided to change official websites and put most content on worldchess.com.
  • Announce two different Twitter hashtags on big posters (#worldchess and #berlinchess2015), and then use a completely different hashtag (#chessberlin) during the actual coverage.

Unacceptable conditions for the press

TV 2's Kaja Marie Snare with her camera man in the very small press room. Photo: Yerazik Khachatourian

TV 2’s Kaja Marie Snare with her camera man in the very small press room. Photo: Yerazik Khachatourian

And what about the conditions for the people who actually cover the event? Unfortunately, the conditions for the press was a big disappointment. The internet connection was so bad, that one journalist was seen leaving the venue returning back to his hotel to cover the event from there. On the last day I was unable to connect to the WiFi at all, meaning I had to use my expensive phone connection in order to get online.

The worst part was probably that within 10 to 15 minutes after the last game, all journalists were forced to leave as the security people were closing the playing arena. You can imagine that the Norwegian journalists were not particularly pleased.

And I am not done. There was absolutely nothing to eat or drink (except for bottled water by Norwegian sponsor Isklar) for the press or the spectators, something quite unbelieveable considering that games would go on for up to 7 hours. The only solution was to head for the streets of Berlin inbetween the games.

Guess who the Norwegian press are chasing. Photo: Yerazik Khachatourian

Guess who the Norwegian press are chasing. Photo: Yerazik Khachatourian

While the Norwegian press from NRK and VG were treated well and had access to all areas, including the player’s lobby, it was a whole different story for other photographers and journalists from the general media.

I observed one professional photographer who angrily left the playing hall as he was not allowed to take decent photos in front of the spectators. The security people were inconsistent in how the general press were treated.

While some of them let anyone with a «Press» badge back of the ropes, one security guard (apparently Russian) told us «If you want good photos, you can buy them on the official site».

Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi interviewed by Ilya Merenzon on the press conference after the World Rapid Championship. Photo: Tarjei J. Svensen

Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi interviewed by Ilya Merenzon on the press conference after the World Rapid Championship. Photo: Tarjei J. Svensen

I have great respect for Ilya Merenzon, the CEO in charge who bought Agon for $1 from the previous owner Andrew Paulson in 2014. He and a very small crew organized an almost perfect World Championshop Match in Sochi. His intention to hold the biggest events in major cities is an idea I am supporting as a chess lover and journalist. I am convinced that the Candidates and the World Championship Match next year will take place in USA, a great move if the chess interest is to expand.

But in my opinion, this was a missed chance to prove that chess can be a great spectator sport.