Figures and pawns. Money and politics. And chess

After "The Queen’s Gambit" TV series, Poles went mad. Chess sets sales on the Allegro shopping app increased by 127 percent. People rushed to the Internet to learn the rules of the game. Today there are 65,000 registered players and 390 clubs in the country.

The match for the title of world chess champion is currently taking place in Astana, Kazakhstan. It will end on May 1. It is fought between a Russian and a Chinese: current number two Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren, challenger and grandmaster.

The reigning champion and foremost player of the last decade, Norway's Magnus Carlsen, refused to defend the title he has won four times in the last nine years -- in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2021. But his refusal was not because of Nepomniachtchi's Russian nationality. Carlsen had already played against him and won, defeating him when winning the title in 2021. Carlsen's refusal, plainly stated, was simply a matter of exhaustion.

Rich as Croesus, the Norwegian is recognized as a genius of the royal game. At the age of 13, he was already a grandmaster. For a single victory over Nepomniachtchi he received 550,000 euros. His income has long been calculated in millions of dollars.

Chess is one of the most popular board games on the planet. A lot of people are fascinated by it, but no one knows exactly how many? The Interational Chess Federation (FIDE) estimates that there are between 600 and 200 million players. One might say, ironically, "with a painful precision.”

Contrary to appearances, the game is neither boring nor emotionally sterile, as non-players sometimes complain. Chess is a bit like Forrest Gump's famed box of chocolates: you never know what, or rather who, you're going to encounter. Accumulated experience or having had an outstanding career does not guarantee success.

Magnus Carlsen found this out for himself. After a 125-game winning streak, a total of 802 days (i.e. two years and two months) as the undefeated champion, he hit a wall and fell to earth, a mere mortal. It happened on October 10, 2020, in a match played in his own country.

His nemisis turned out to be a 22-year-old Polish player, Jan Krzysztof Duda, who, after a grueling duel, defeated the then three-time world champion. Such shock surprises are the most exciting -- the kind any and all champions fear the most.

Duda, the Polish chess discovery and, like Carlsen, another prodigy of the board, was only five years old when he started playing. By the time he was 15, he was already a grandmaster. He ranks 21st in the FIDE ranking. Experts believe that he has a great career ahead of him. The victory over Carlsen shows that he is on the right track.

Royal game

Everything has a beginning and so does chess. It started some 1,500 years ago in India with a game called chaturanga. What exactly it consisted of is difficult to determine today, although attempts are being made. What is known is that the name comes from Indian battle formations.

The ancient Indian battle formation system was then based on four divisions (chaturanga in translation means "having four limbs or parts "): infantry, cavalry, elephantry and chariotry. One of the figures on the chaturanga once plain, uncheckered playing board was an elephant.

The Indian board had exactly the same parameters as a modern chessboard with its 64 equal squares (8x8). Unlike the game of checkers, chaturanga allowed game pieces to be moved in different directions.

The game spread naturally along trade routes. Traders traveling from India took chaturanga boards with them. The game found its way along the Silk Road to Persia, where its rules were modified and began evolving to those we are familiar with today.

A further adjustment to the rules of the game was made by the Chinese, when they limited the number of pieces to 16, as is now the case. When the game eventually arrived in Europe, its popularity accelerated. The first tournaments and the first chess masters made an appearance. Royal courts acted as patrons.

On the old continent, chess was considered a game that raised social status, most likely because of the intellectual demands it places on players. So it became associated with a kind of test for intelligence and creative thinking, one that called for a command of strategic skills.

This combination proved fascinating to the point where many European monarchs suffered from chess fever. After all, the qualities that had to be demonstrated at the chessboard corresponded to those any sovereign required should they wish to rule.

The list of chess players wearing royal crowns is extensive. Passionate players inlcuded the kings of England: Henry I, Henry II and Richard I the Lionheart; King Philip II of Spain, King Alfonso X the Wise of Castile and Grand Duke of Moscow Ivan IV the Terrible.

So it was that chess became known as the Royal Game. For the rulers, the chessboard also served as a kind of training ground before they ventured onto the battlefields. The art of war is also a kind of game. The choice of strategy, tactical solutions, lulling the opponent's vigilance, setting traps for him -- all these manouvers can be practiced on the chessboard.
Europe gave chess a certain elan and elitism. This, by no means limited its range. In fact, it had the opposite effect. It popularized the game around the world, stirring human curiosity and probably ambitions too. While not everyone can be a king, thanks to the game, many were inspired to try and be a better chess player than a king.

Political clash of giants

Millions of people play chess, but only outstanding players go down in history. They capture the public's attention, and the duels of the chess giants regulate the phases of popularity of this undulating game. The second half of the 20th century was a period of growth, a time of big names and memorable tournaments.

  Not all of them boiled down to just sports competition. The whole world was fascinated by the 1985 world championship match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. It wasn't just a chess match. It was a clash of value systems: communism and democracy.

Karpov was the favorite of the Kremlin, the favorite of Leonid Brezhnev. Kasparov a rebel and an enemy of the Soviet regime. They also had extremely different personalities, a contrast that manifested in their behavior and in the course of the game they played.

Karpov was quiet, restrained in his statements, very careful in his tactics. Kasparov confident, radical in judgment, extremely offensive. There were 1,500 spectators inside the Pyotr Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow intent on the game while outside, thousands of ardent fans in Mayakovsky Square followed this rivalry.

The match was considered an all-time chess event. This was determined more by the context and circumstances in which it unfolded than by the course of the duel that dragged on like pasta. Karpov played his game and Kasparov -- his. It all started innocuously.

The game Karpov played turned out to be more efficient because he played prudently and quickly had his opponent up against the wall. Kasparov was attacking all out and losing recklessly. Then he switched to a defensive style which brought on a new phase in the form of a series of seemingly interminable draws.

First there were 17 drawn games, then another 14. This lasted for months. What had been billed as the clash of the Titans now resembled a soap opera that was boring the viewers and the press to death. There was even talk of "anti-chess". Finally, there was a refreshing solstice.

With the match score 5:3 for Kasparov, FIDE canceled the competition "due to the health condition of the players". It was evident that Karpov was indeed psychologically exhausted but he insisted he wanted to keep on playing. The public and media sensed a Kremlin swindle -- Dear Uncle Leonid’s posthumous silent intervention...

The suspended championship resumed after a few months. As a result, Kasparov took the title from his rival. Karpov lost in the first time in 10 years. Either way, this match between the giants of the chessboard captured the world's attention like never before or since.

It was caused by the added elements that made the difference. The unfolding plot was like a Hollywood drama with a happy ending, in line with the mood of the world at the time. The Cold War was still going on. The two chess players were perceived as representatives of the two hostile sides.

Kasparov was seen as the good guy, an ally of the free world. Karpov was cast as the bad guy, the acolyte of the dictatorship. The fact that both were gifted with chess genius no longer mattered. Chess players say that chess is war. Thus, as a result of this proxy war, evil was defeated. And that was all that mattered.

The Queen’s Gambit

The cinematic potential of The Royal Game has been appreciated and creatively used in the 21st century as exemplified by Scott Frank's and Alan Scott's seven-episode miniseries based on Walter Tevis's novel, "The Queen's Gambit". On its release, the madness unleashed.

In just the first month, the series was watched by 62 million viewers. The story of a girl from an orphanage, traumatized and struggling with addictions, who is a chess genius and wants to be a world champion became a massive hit.

Although chess is only a pretext for a plot based on psychological, social and moral threads, the promotion of the game itself surpassed all marketing efforts undertaken by FIDE and national federations. Chess sales on the Allegro shopping app increased by 127 percent.

People rushed to the Internet to study the rules and learn more about professional terms such as the eponymous Queen's Gambit. In short they wanted to start playing.

Among the newly interested there were, of course, Poles. According to PZSzach [The Polish Chess Federation] statistics, we have 65,000 registered players and 390 clubs in the country. It is more difficult to estimate the number of people who have simply mastered this skill. The number oscillates between two and four million.

Knowing how to play and being able to play exceptionally well are very different when it comes to mastery of the intricacies and skills of this artful game, which is far from easy. Assuming there are 600 million people playing chess worldwide, it is worth knowing that the number of grandmasters is only 1,500.

To join this group, you must meet the exacting standards. In the GM Chess Ranking, this means achieving a score of more than 2,600 points in three rated tournaments. And in the ELO ranking -- a minimum of 2,500 points is required for entry.

The abbreviations GM and ELO are scientific ways of counting scores, including but not limited to the game strength of a chessplayer. The ELO rating, developed by Arpad Elo, an American scientist of Hungarian origin, is also used in football.

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The status of a grandmaster opens the door to a professional career and the possibility of earning money and making a living out of chess. However, income levels vary according to the player's current position in the rankings.

Better than processors?

The world's top three players earn up to $1 million a year (not bad, although the top tennis players earn 100 times that). The top 10 can count on $200,000. And the top 50 makes roughly $100,000 a head. The largest sum won in a single tournament was in 1972 when the legendary Bobby Fischer took home $3.5 million. Current prizemoney rates do not exceed EUR 1.5 million.

Apart from official tournaments, there are a large number of closed events, to which only the world's top players are invited. Prizes are determined by the organizers but invariably they are tempting. Even finishing last in such a tournament offers a pay-off of several thousand euros.

Magnus Carlsen remains the richest chessplayer in the world today. Back in 2012, he was already earning 1 million euros a year. A lot has changed since then -- both in his bank account and in his life. His current market value is estimated at an unconfirmed 8 million euros a year.

The Norwegian is not looking for sponsors. Rather, it is they who run after him. Deals with Microsoft and the G-Star Raw clothing brand are said to cover his operating budget with 2 million per season. Add to that the 400,000 euros he reputedly earns for promoting the online betting firm Unibet. However, all this must be taken on faith since such contract details are classified.

Carlsen also has a knack for business. He establishes software companies. He is adept at flexibly reacting to changing reality. During the pandemic, he earned over half a million on the Chess24 virtual platform, the highest earnings of any e-chess players. His brain works well not only on the chessboard.

And the human brain is the key to this game. Muscle strength doesn't matter. General physical condition is useful (e.g. Jan-Krzysztof Duda has a coach to supervise this aspect as he trains by swimming, playing tennis and running). However, the decisive factor is mental fitness and mental toughness. For this reason, it was many years before chess was considered to be a sport.

The controversy continues to this day, even though the IOC did come up with a solution by recognizing chess as a sport discipline. Nonetheless, it declined to accept chess into the Olympic family. Chess players are not allowed to participate in the Olympic Games but they do have their own biennial Chess Olympiads in its stead.

Yes, examined logically, the game meets at least two basic conditions of sport: competition and a competitive formula. Two rivals and an extreme effort to win are the hallmarks of any sport discipline. The fact that chess is mind-related, that it involves a clash of human intellects and professional efforts, marks the specificity of the discipline.

The conventional wisdom is that a chess player's brain works like a computer -- programmed in a narrow scope, used to recreate learned patterns. In this sense, the game is not as creative as the players claim, and their status as geniuses is questionable. Gary Kasparov decided to prove otherwise -- that the human brain is superior to the best processors. So he sat down to a match against the computer. This time as a representative of all humanity. It proved to be a spectacular duel between human and artificial intelligence.

Trade setup

In 1989, IBM launched a new product. The then pride of the corporation was the "Deep Thought" computer. In the first encounter of a series, Gary quickly disposed of the machine, much to the dismay of those who had developed it.

IBM decided to improve its work, a process that took seven years. They built a fancy beauty called "Deep Blue", complete with 32 processors capable of analyzing 200 million combinations per second. Compar that to Kasparov's brain, which could come up with no more than an estimated three moves in a similar time span.

Their second match was played in 1996 and this time the computer won the first game. Yet the whole match, which lasted six rounds, was won by Kasparov 4:2. The giant corporation was not willing to give up. This was a fight for good publicity and profits, and, as they say, no pain no gain.

A year later, television showed the final round of the series, but not the game finale. After further adjustments and corrections, the computer, now tentatively named "Deeper Blue", defeated the all-time chess champion player. Gary conceded the match in what was the fifth game.

IBM, buzzing with its achievement, issued triumphant statements, prematurely, it turned out. In the fifth hour of that fifth game, an event occurred that changed the image of the match. In considering what might be its decisive move, the computer spent the next 10 hours analyzing the situation on the board. 

But this time the grandmaster's staff were insistent about not letting go. Human intervention was suspected -- and, as it turned out, rightly so. Someone was controlling the machine and making decisions. When the computer was supposedly "thinking", the software was being modified, data from previous games was being added.

The army of technicians who built this computer and the army of analysts who controlled it were supposed to certify the superiority of artificial intelligence over human? Well, no way! Karpov wasn't defeated by a computer, but by squadrons of helpers, so it had all been a commercial stunt.

The cash must add up

As you can see, chess arouses hidden passions. Although the game seems so quiet and peaceful, those passions surge at times because of politics and sometimes they are stirred, yes, by business. It will be no different this time in Kazakhstan. Allowing a Russian to fight for the title is clearly a scandal.

It is not for the first time and it won't be the last. Arkady Dvorkovich, Russia’s former deputy prime minister and current FIDE president, has no problem with it. Neither does IOC president Thomas Bach. Sanctions are one thing but the money must come our way. This is a show, they think.

They are playing their chess. And meanwhile the war and the massacres in Ukraine show just how strongly dehumanized their battle for the chess crown is. Some people, it appears,  are capable of operating in the mode of hoaxes while exchanging platitudes about equal opportunities and peaceful brotherhood of nations. Unfortunately, the world of sport allows it. So nothing will change.

– Marek Jozwik

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: Thirty-two-year-old Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen (middle) declined to defend his title as the world's best chess player, having decided, after four consecutive victories that it was no longer a challenge worthy of him. Pictured during the Tatata Steel tournament in India in January 2023. Photo: EPA/OLAF KRAAK Supplier: PAP/EPA
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