Friday, April 22, 2016

Why buy the cow...

  The Candidates tournament to determine who would challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world chess championship finished last month in Moscow. It was an exciting tournament with four of the eight players having at least a share of first place during the second half of the tournament. The final round was particularly interesting with the two leaders Sergei Karjakin and Fabiano Caruana meeting in the last round. A win by either player would clinch the tournament while a draw would have the tournament winner decided by the game between Anand and Peter Svidler. Thanks to the arcane tie break procedure a win by Anand would force a three way tie for first which would leave Caruana the winner on the first tie break of head to head match ups between the leaders as long as he could draw his game with Karjakin. A draw or loss by Anand would give Karjakin the tie break edge by virtue of more wins if he could draw his game with Caruana. Both players seemed to play in such a way that they could gamble for a win depending on the Anand-Svidler result. When Anand and Svidler agreed to a draw, Caruana was force to play risky moves because he needed to win the game to win the tournament. His risks didn’t pay off and Karjakin won the game, the tournament, and the right to play for the World Championship.

  This will be the 25 year old Carlsen’s second title defense and his first against a member of his generation of chess players (Karjakin is 26). The tournament will be held in New York City in November. Whoever bid to have the championship in America probably liked the chances of Americans Nakamura and Caruana to win the candidates. Caruana came close while Nakamura stumbled badly in the beginning and never threatened. Even with a youthful and charismatic European world champion there will be a lot less American mainstream media attention than if one of the two Americans been the challenger.

  The candidate’s tournament was run by the Agon company, who pays FIDE (the world chess federation) for the rights to run their headline events. Agon has done a creditable job running the last world championship as well as the previous candidates matches and World rapid and Blitz championships but ran afoul of the chess press when they insisted on exclusive broadcast rights to this years’ candidates tournaments.

  Most big chess tournaments are covered by all the major chess playing servers like,, the Internet chess Club, and Not only are the games broadcast but there is commentary provided by top players (who I assume are being paid). The broadcast times and commentators are advertised in advance. As part of their agreement with FIDE, Agon has the sole broadcast rights to the events and exercised that right for this year’s candidate tournaments, threatening lawsuits against sites that had transmitted the moves.

  The reaction from chess sites were predictably blistering. published an article and a segment in their weekly ‘Chess Center’ broadcast that explained the issue in some detail. Basically Agon is claiming their ownership of the exclusive broadcast rights to the chess tournament includes the actual moves of the games and in order to recoup their investment wants all viewers to see the games from their website. All the game moves were made available after a two hour delay.

  This is a very tricky issue. The NBA playoffs started last weekend. I could only watch the games live from ESPN, ABC, or TNT – the networks that owned the broadcast rights. If I didn’t need to see the games live I could follow their progress on any number of websites like Yahoo or any number of apps on my amazing iPod like the CBS Sportsline app. I can’t see Agon being able to block the game moves or current board position from being retransmitted but I can’t see how any other chess site would be legally allowed to broadcast commentary on those games without paying the owner of those rights.

  With the notable exception of the Internet Chess Club, most of the other web sites did not offer a live commentary of the candidates tournament but have rebounded nicely by having one or two hour recap shows after each round and advertising them as a time saving alternative to the tedious six hour live broadcast where not much is happening at any given time. That argument makes a lot of sense to me. I rarely have time to watch a six hour chess broadcast or a two and a half hour NBA game but I can watch a recap show and look in on the games progress using my computer or iPod.

  While it is more convenient to me personally to watch a broadcast of a tournament at the site of my choosing I see nothing wrong with Agon exerting their exclusive broadcast rights. Most of the chess sites that have their own broadcast only allow paid members to view them and if they are it is fairly hypocritical of them to complain about not having free access to a product they repackage and sell for profit. The Norwegian TV network NRK paid Agon for Norwegian broadcast rights to the World Championship matches until 2020. I’m sure other websites could pay Agon for similar rebroadcasting rights.

  What I think was missed in the discussion over chess broadcast rights is how financially healthy chess must be for this discussion to be had in the first place. If there was no interest or no money in chess this discussion wouldn’t have been held. The NFL has rights to the Super Bowl and non-official sponsors can’t even use that term which is why you may have noticed a lot of commercials calling it ‘The Big Game’. 50 years ago the first Super Bowl was broadcast of both NBC and CBS as a virtual giveaway game. The exclusive rights only became an issue as interest in the event peaked. When I first moved to Iowa, the collegiate Hawkeyes games were broadcast by at least 3 different radio networks who resold their broadcasts to smaller stations. When Learfield sports bought the exclusive rights to Hawkeye sports broadcasts in the late 1990’s the other three broadcasts disappeared but the money the University of Iowa received increased exponentially. If exclusive chess broadcasts have the same effect Agon and FIDE may see a similar increase in revenue.


Albert Bierstadt said...

it's more complicated than a nfl broadcast, the issue has been brought to courts before and the result was that chess moves on themself can not be someone's property (comparable to a gm copyrighting his opening), which is different from the live video broadcast - that they can own and charge for if they want

Hank Anzis said...

The moves are not owned but delaying transmission of the moves will enhance the value of the live broadcast. I think it is akin to the many sites where I can see the printed play by play of a sporting event without commentary or see live fantasy football stats. Ultimately Twitter tends to render all these points moot, don't you think?

Albert Bierstadt said...

Legally if the moves weren't owned during those 120min you couldn't be sued for publishing them. Ultimately the issue has already been brought to courts in 2009 and 2010, and decided that the moves, the printed account if you wish, does not belong to the broadcaster or anyone else. This is chess, not football