When Chess Becomes Sexy

Originally written 11/29/16

The general lounge at the 2016 World Chess Championship buzzes with energy, both human and electric. Overhead, the industrial fluorescent lights hum. At ground level, spectators mill around the space, quietly talking with each other as they stare at flat-screen televisions or try to see through the frosted glass separating the commentator desk in the corner from the rest of the room. The crowd is mostly older, mostly white, and mostly male. They have two choices of what they can watch: a live feed of the ongoing match between chess legends Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin, or a digital rendering of the board that shows the moves made.

The competition is being hosted in New York from November 11–30, in the historic Seaport District’s Fulton Market building. The venue boasts a café, a gift shop, and a VIP lounge. The industrial theme continues throughout the space: everything is in shades of gray and black, with occasional pops of navy. The general lounge is packed with utilitarian benches. The sound from the commentators’ microphones is garbled, and the room is stuffy from the rain outside. The overall effect is claustrophobic.

“The acoustic quality is very bad for a world championship. I could watch online and hear everything. Why would I pay $75 for this?” asks Uli Dirr. Dirr, 54, who has traveled from Munich to see the championship, is referring to the high ticket prices. General entry tickets are $75 each, and VIP tickets are $500 each. Opening day tickets went up to as much as $2000.

But then, Dirr answers his own question: “I want to see them live.”

At the end of the lounge hall is a pair of thick black curtains. Stepping through reveals the spectator deck, a room so dark and hushed that it feels like one’s ears are packed with cotton. The rules of entry are clear: no loud talking, no flash photography. Guests are allowed in a few at a time, to walk up to the tinted glass window at the end of the room. There, they can stare into the fishbowl of the actual chess arena.

Inside are the two young men, who see nothing other than the chessboard between them. Magnus Carlsen, 25, is the reigning world champion from Norway. He is defending his title from Sergey Karjakin, 26, of Russia. Both men wear business casual attire, but Carlsen’s blazer is stiff with sponsor logo patches, like armor plating. Some of his sponsors are Arctic Securities, an investment banking and security firm, and Simonsen Vogt Wiig, his legal representatives. He sits with his back angled to the glass, cut off from the fans that have come to support him.

“I respect [Magnus’s] chess skills, but I’m not so drawn to his social aspect,” said Pierre Garon, 60, who traveled from Montreal to watch Carlsen play. “They’re a very strange bunch, the chess world. When Karjakin speaks, he stutters. [Magnus is] just on the edge of being antisocial.”

Garon has a point. Magnus has been a guest on The Colbert Report and the YouTube show Soul Pancake. In both cases, he was quiet and pleasant, but unable to verbally joust with the hosts. He’s hard to reach for interviews, and articles about him either don’t feature many quotes from him or primarily quote him on chess techniques.

But there’s something about Magnus that makes his introversion matter less. Even in three-quarter profile, he appears brooding and mysterious. In 2013, a photo of the self-called “Pyjama Girls” went viral. Four high school-age girls in Norway decided to show their support for Carlsen during that year’s world championship by posting a photo online. In the picture, the girls stand with their backs to the camera, holding up a Norwegian flag. They’re wearing pajama bottoms and no shirts, with “CARLSEN” written across their backs. It’s a fan response typical for a pop star, not a chess grandmaster.

Magnus has done the unthinkable: he’s made chess sexy. And his reclusive personality might actually work in his favor, as it makes him an ideal (and literal) poster child.

He currently holds advertising contracts with Porsche and Omega Watches, in addition to two modeling campaigns with G-Star Raw, one in 2010 and another in 2014. He was one of Cosmopolitan’s “Sexiest Men of 2013,” as well as one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” that same year.

Not to mention his chess prowess. By 2010, Carlsen was ranked at the top of the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (the World Chess Federation, often referred to as FIDE). He continued to rise quickly, breaking records that were previously considered unbeatable, such as his chess rating. A chess player’s rating is an estimate of the strength of the player, based on his or her performance in games. The FIDE calculates a rating for each tournament by taking the difference of a player’s wins and losses, multiplying the number by 400, adding the total of the opponent’s rating, and then dividing the result by the number of games played.

The previous record holder was Garry Kasparov in 1999, arguably one of the last globally recognized chess champions. Kasparov’s last rating was 2851. By the end of 2011, Carlsen rated at 2861. And in 2014, Carlsen became the first person to hold all three main FIDE titles: Standard, Rapid, and Blitz Champion.

“Chess is the ultimate game of strategy. You have to be sharp; you have to be focused,” said Daniel Etna, an account executive with Leverage Agency, a sports marketing agency in New York. Leverage’s biggest clients are Thoroughbred racehorses, a sport that is arguably as niche as chess. “At the same time, [chess is] different and unique. There has to be some element of spectacle, something that’s kind of sexy that will draw eyeballs to it. I don’t think Magnus needs to be on first-name recognition. For him, just given the fact that he’s a good-looking guy, that probably helps [his] case because it helps [brands] sell that dream to different demographics.”

Magnus has found a way to play the marketing game just as cleverly as he plays chess. In 2013, he launched his own media company called Play Magnus AS. The company’s first product was a gaming app that allows users to “play” chess against Magnus at various stages in his career. The game also includes tips from Magnus and training sessions with him. The app is what Etna refers to as Over The Top (OTT) content: “another avenue for fans to connect and engage.”

“[OTT content] just brings more people together,” said Etna. While most of the people actually attending the chess matches are older, most of the people engaging through social media are most likely millennials. It is hugely important to a brand’s success to be able to capture millennial attention. A gaming app that lets millennials “interact” directly with Magnus is more likely to do so than actually watching a chess match. Chess games can run for up to six hours. And since chess is so strategy heavy, those hours move slowly. In contrast, the app engages users directly. They become actively challenged participants, so even if the game goes long, the time doesn’t seem to drag.

Magnus may keep his personal distance from his fans, but his personal branding draws them in. Smart marketing has made him, and therefore, chess, pop culturally attractive.

Update: Magnus Carlsen defeated Sergey Karjakin at 6:45pm on November 30, after a final rapid-fire playoff.

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