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A Media Mogul's Daring Move to Make Chess Big

Andrew Paulson says championship chess deserves major play

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An estimated 44 million Americans are regular chess players. Some 60 percent are male, and the same percentage falls in the magic 18-35 demo. More than one-third have a masters or Ph.D., and 44 percent enjoy an average household income of $75,000 or higher. Given stats like those, you might assume that when the World Chess Championships roll around every two years, upscale brands would be tripping over themselves to sponsor them.

And you would be wrong.

Despite chess’ 605 million global fans, its championship matches enjoy a profile that is somewhere between roller derby and camel wrestling. Championship chess is essentially ignored by mainstream media, lacks a big-name sponsor and struggles to cough up the $1.4 million in prize money that goes to the winner.

Surprised? So was Andrew Paulson.

Paulson, 54, made his fortune with online media giant SUP in Russia, where the American-born entrepreneur learned not only how passionate people can be about chess, but also how much help the World Chess Federation needed transforming chess into a profit center. “I realized if you created a brand structure around it,” he said, “chess can be big.”

Or so he hopes. Turning the world’s consummate brain game into a major commercial event won’t be easy. But Paulson has put a comprehensive branding and media strategy into place, fueled by a $500,000 investment of his own capital.

Championship games are now slated for a 50-city circuit. Paulson is negotiating with global television channels to carry the games, working on real-time interactive apps, and making six corporate sponsorship slots available to brands interested in reaching young, affluent consumers. (He won’t name names but said, “We’re in wide-ranging discussions.”)

Paulson has also hired the U.K. office of design firm Pentagram to create a new look for the championships.

Pentagram senior partner John Rushworth said that ever since Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War in 1972, chess has lacked the kind of innate tension and excitement required to cut through today’s media clutter. Those are the elements his firm has sought to restore.

Pentagram has created a chessboard-themed logo and a tagline (“The Best Mind Wins”) that will appear in and around the games and on potential merchandise.

Rushworth’s team has even designed a playing arena that resembles a boxing ring, allowing fans to watch play from all sides.

“It’s not about trivializing the game,” Rushworth said. “But drama is the key marketing word. We’ll bring drama to it.”