Magnus Carlsen’s hair is disheveled, his beard messy and his white shirt tucked out. But leaning forward on his gaming chair, he towers over the chess board, supremely confident.
In contrast, his challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi, looks despondent and resigned to defeat. He faces an almost insurmountable task in the World Chess Championship, and surveying the board one last time, smiles knowingly and stops the clock. He’s resigned the round, and title, to the now-five time world champion Carlsen.
The attritional games are being held in the Expo 2020 Dubai exhibition center, and crowds throng the main atrium to catch a glimpse of the players. In the hall itself, advertising hoardings are plastered around the soundproof box the players sit in.
Despite losing, the Russian grandmaster will take home $905,000 in prize money alone. That figure might seem high, but brands can pay millions for advertising packages that have their names on stage at events like this, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) tells CNN.
Mastercard and Unibet logos are emblazoned on Carlsen’s shirt, and on the back of his chair sits Coinbase, the cryptocurrency exchange platform.
Sponsors Kaspersky and Phosagro, Russian cybersecurity and chemicals companies respectively, have made sure their names are printed on the game table.
Advertisements for Algorand, the decentralized blockchain network where World Chess’ player profiles and ratings are recorded, are everywhere. They even intermittently punctuate the live stream of the event being shown on a football stadium-sized screen in the exhibition hall.
The millions around the world watching that feed in their homes see those names for hours every day across two weeks.
Chess is now marketable, and since its popularity boomed during the pandemic and following the release of the hit Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit,” the game is now turning over serious profits and sharing the wealth.
READ: Chess is sexy again. But for Magnus Carlsen, it’s business as usual
Putting on a show
Vishy Anand, a former world champion dethroned by Carlsen, and Anna Muzychuk, a top female player, are in a commentary box dissecting each move and possible variation.
The two mental gladiators enter the arena like boxers while being introduced by the booming voice of Jamaican-American grandmaster Maurice Ashley. A representative of a corporate sponsor ceremoniously makes the first move.
FIDE is keen to show just how popular chess has become and, more importantly, the commercial potential of the game of kings.
NBC Sports has aired daily 25-minute game recap programs. After Game Four, it was the most-watched sports segment on the channel that day, according to FIDE.
After the game, FIDE tells CNN that within a few minutes of the conclusion, there were 37,200 publications about the match already printed.
In a room above the auditorium, more representatives of the corporate sponsors mill about, enjoying wine and finger food. There to greet CNN is Hans Niemann, an 18-year-old grandmaster from New York, who is ranked just outside the top 100.
“In America, up and coming talent, I’m number one,” he tells CNN. “There is nobody who compares to my potential.”
The US junior champion is part of a generation that has found another way to generate revenue from playing chess – streaming.
“I actually turned down a huge sponsorship deal that offered me to just play chess online,” he says.
He has taken a step back from streaming for now, to focus on his over-the-board career, but at his peak, he estimates he was earning 6,000-10,000 dollars a month from donations and sponsorship on Twitch, the Amazon-owned livestreaming platform.
That’s peanuts compared to the most watched chess players on the site.
The Botez sisters, Alexandra and Andrea, have one million followers on Twitch, and told CNBC in February that they make six figures a year.
Playing the money game
Carlsen’s private sponsorship agreements with the aforementioned Mastercard and Unibet are but two of many. Simonsen Vogt Wiig, a Norwegian law firm, Isklar, a Norwegian water company, and Meltwater, a software company founded in Oslo, all appear on his jacket and shirt.
But Carlsen has mainly made his small fortune from the digital revolution. He co-founded PlayMagnus in 2013, a company that now functions as an e-learning site with book publishing and online playing arms.
It has over 60,000 monthly paying users and booked revenue of almost $10 million in the first half of 2021.
Trading publicly on the Euronext Growth Oslo stock exchange, its market capitalization is around $106 million and it has acquired subsidiaries such as Everyman Chess and New in Chess.
Magnus Chess AS, the company Carlsen founded as a teenager to handle his winnings and which he owns the majority of, owns 8.9% of Play Magnus.
“There are a huge amount of people who have discovered chess and they will continue to do so,” Carlsen’s father Henrik, tells CNN after his son’s victory Friday.
“Streaming is a very important part of the entertainment in chess,” Henrik, who sits on the board of Play Magnus, adds.
Other major shareholders, mostly banks, are winning too and some of his company’s employees are even beginning to act as de facto agents for younger players – including Niemann, who is a brand ambassador.
The partnership will involve Niemann playing in Carlsen’s Champions Chess Tour and producing courses under a Play Magnus subsidiary, Chessable, while he receives support to play.
“Old chess has lagged behind compared to other sports when it comes to commercialization and accessibility,” says Espen Agdestein, a former manager of Carlsen and a co-founder of Play Magnus.
“The internet provides chess with a huge opportunity because chess is exactly the same online, unlike other sports. Tennis isn’t the same when played online, for example.”
He predicts that this is only the beginning and sees chess growing next in the world of blockchain.
Fans can already buy an NFT version of The Champions Chess Tour (Play Magnus’s own competition) trophy and former world champion Garry Kasparov has launched his own NFT collection which includes old photographs and trophies won by the Russian grandmaster.
“Chess players are interested in engineering and finance, and they are looking for more audiences all the time. The blockchain companies have a lot of money,” says Agdestein.
“This is a great time for the sport, and every parent would like to see their kids play chess,” he concludes.
When this is the type of cash involved, who wouldn’t want their children aiming to reach the top of the money game?