Checkmate: battles of the chess world

As the competition for the chess world title – and the US$2m purse – gets underway this month, considers the rising popularity of this often overlooked sport and highlights the players making a name for themselves

In a year of numerous high-profile sporting events such as the Olympics, other less mainstream tournaments are easily overlooked. But carry out a brief internet search for ‘chess’ and it quickly becomes apparent that the popularity of this unassuming sport reaches all across the world, and it’s growing fast.

Within the last month alone, chess tournaments have included the Asian Continental Championship 2012, the US Chess Championships, the Dubai Chess tournament and the big one, the Chess World Championship.

This year’s world-title match, which lasts three weeks and is underway in Russia between defending champion Viswanathan Anand (India) and opponent Boris Gelfand (Israel), has a prize fund of US$2.5m.

And if the abundance of international tournaments was not evidence enough of the sport’s popularity, the growing numbers of chess-enthusiasts logging on to watch matches over the internet speaks volumes. Organisers of the Chess World Championship are expecting the biggest audience yet thanks to advancements in internet streaming technology.

The match sponsor, Russian businessman Andrey Filatov, is keen to boost ratings and attract the media attention and corporate sponsors required to propel the sport onto the main stage. He asserts that the combination of chess and painting to be gained from holding the match at the State Tretyakov Gallery – a national museum – will promote the use of new tools to popularise chess and to attract the attention of a wider audience.

During the video relay on the internet, which is visited by hundreds of thousands of viewers every day, the commentators and guests of the match will also discuss the history of Russian culture. According to Filatov: “Museums are not only repositories of the masterpieces of human thought, but also complex economic institutions. Staging the world championship match in a museum is a great way to advertise the museum on a world scale.”

While the world title battle comes down to two players in a 12-match tournament, other events see teams being sent from all around the world with players keen for the honour of representing their country.

In April, the 14th Dubai Open saw a total of 160 players from 32 countries taking part in the tournament. China is a dominating force in the sport, with Ni Hua beating Yuriy Kuzubov of Ukraine to the title of Dubai Grandmaster. Most recently, the battle for Asian supremacy moved to Vietnam, though China narrowly lost out to arch-rival India at the Asian Continental Championship 2012.

Despite having the strongest contingency of any participating country, Dang Tat Thang, deputy chairman of the Viet Nam Chess Federation, views China as a major rival, adding: “China and India have been sending their top players to the tournament and they will be our main challengers."