After months of delay and much scepticism in some quarters that it would ever happen, the company that holds the marketing rights to the world chess championship will announce on Tuesday that the next title match – between the Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen and the Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin – will take place in New York in November.
The 12-game match will start on 11 November and be played over a three-week period at the newly refurbished Fulton Market building in central New York. “We are thrilled to hold the championship in such a fantastic venue,” said Ilya Merenzon, the chief executive of Agon, which holds the commercial rights to the world championship. “The location befits the status of chess as one of the world’s fastest growing sports both in terms of participation and commercial appeal.”
Agon had always hoped to stage the match in New York in an effort to broaden the sport’s appeal in the west, but its plans appeared to be stymied by the failure of two fancied US candidates, Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura, to make the final.
Karjakin, the player who came through the so-called candidates tournament played in Moscow in March, was seen as far less marketable to a US audience and sponsors. As a Ukrainian who switched his citizenship to Russia in 2009 and supported the annexation of Crimea in 2014, he could not be further from the all-American candidate the organisers had hoped for.
The chess world does now, however, have an east-west encounter that echoes the match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972. A geopolitical narrative has always been useful in winning chess the mainstream media coverage it craves.
The encounter will be transmitted live in various languages on an official website overseen by Agon, which hopes to come up with a solution to the copyright argument over other websites carrying moves, which marred the candidates tournament. There are suggestions that rival websites will be allowed to broadcast moves if they agree to show the names of Agon’s official sponsors.
Who those sponsors will be is the next critical question. The failure to attract big-name commercial backers has dogged chess for decades, and made the sport financially dependent on oligarchs in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, including emerging states such as Azerbaijan which have seen support for chess as a source of national prestige. This has led to criticism of cronyism of the World Chess Federation, and accusations that its accounting procedures are at best opaque.
The New York match will cost an estimated $6m (£4.6m) to stage, with the two players competing for a prize of more than €1m (£850,000). The winner of the match takes 60% of the prize fund, while the loser gets 40%.
A source close to Agon said an announcement on sponsorship would be made by the end of the month, but that two seven-figure sponsors were already on board. Getting big-name backers to commit in the long term will be crucial in putting chess on a par with other sports.
“This will be the youngest world championship match in terms of the combined age of the players,” said Agon’s spokesman Andrew Murray-Watson. “We are building up the championship for the smartphone generation that play and absorb chess through their tablets and laptops, and the backdrop of New York is all going to add to the sense that the sleeping giant of chess is slowly waking.”