World's chess fans await next move in battle over tournament broadcasts
The tournament to determine who will play the reigning world chess champion, , for his title later this year is under way in Moscow. For the eight grandmasters doing battle, this biennial contest – called the candidates tournament – can be career defining. But this year the on-board struggles are being overshadowed by an even more hotly contested off-the-board fight over the right to broadcast the moves in the games being played.
Usually when a tournament of this importance is played, the moves of the games – which can take up to seven hours to complete – are carried in real time by a dozen or so websites, operating from a variety of different countries and broadcasting in different languages to audiences numbering tens of millions. But a few days before this year’s tournament began, Agon, the company which organises the world championship cycle, announced that as the holder of the rights to the event it also claimed exclusive rights to the moves and would sue any other website that carried them.
The legal threat has been met with an angry reaction from chess sites that routinely carry the moves as they happen. “This is a huge blunder,” , CEO of the Bulgarian-based website which styles itself “the global chess news site”, in response. “The moves [are] the very essence of the game itself. It is an element loaded with historical right of freedom, public domain value and global availability ... Clearly unaware of the global mechanics in chess journalism and largely ignoring the desire of the chess community, Agon has put the whole world chess championship cycle in jeopardy.”
Chessdom’s position received wide support on social media from chess lovers who preferred to follow the games on their favourite websites and do not want to be compelled to follow games on the Agon-owned . : “I think Agon have pissed off a lot of chess fans”, to which one fan responded: “Interesting marketing strategy. Protect the sponsors but kill the audience”. Another fan said simply: “They are killing chess.”
The former British champion and leading tournament organiser : “However you look at it, pretty clear that start of Candidates has been a PR disaster for organisers.”
Agon, however, has not given way in the face of such widespread criticism. Indeed, in a statement issued on Sunday, it announced that it was launching legal action against four websites for “blatantly flouting restrictions on the live broadcasting of the games and moves”. It named the four as Chess24, InternetChessClub, Chessgames and Chessbomb, and said it would pursue them in the countries in which they were based: and in the US, in Bulgaria and in Gibraltar.
Agon went on to claim that in the first round of the candidates tournament on Friday it had “suffered major denial-of-services attacks designed to crash the [official] website”. “Throughout the day,” it said, “as these attacks were ongoing, the rogue websites that are now subject to legal action from Agon took to social media to promote their live coverage of the candidates.”
“We saw a concerted effort to prevent genuine chess fans around the world from viewing the first round of the candidates,” said Agon’s chief executive, Ilya Merenzon. “We don’t know where the attacks originated yet. Could it have been orchestrated by those with a commercial reason to damage our coverage of the candidates? We simply don’t know. However, we hope that the websites that are profiteering from our investment in chess and damaging the commercial future of our entire sport will comply with their legal obligations and cease their live broadcasting of the candidates.”
The anti-Agon faction mocked the claims, suggesting that the “attacks” were better known in the business as “traffic”. In the past, the official chess websites linked to Fide, the sport’s world governing body, have been notorious for their unreliability.
Merenzon argues that chess will not be able to develop unless the world governing body of the sport is able to monetise the rights to major tournaments – and to the world championship match itself, which will be played in New York in November.
“If we are to continue to grow the global appeal of chess for the benefit of all fans of the sport, we need to attract and retain further commercial sponsors,” he said. “In order to do that we need to control how the world chess championship cycle is broadcast globally.
“This is simply a way to protect commercial value. It takes enormous money and effort to hold major chess events, and live transmission is a product of that effort. Chess fans will be able to follow the action for free from the candidates tournament at , but they will have to agree to terms and conditions that include not retransmitting the moves elsewhere.”
In the past, Fide has provided other websites with a live feed for games, but it is not doing so in Moscow. The four sites now being sued by Agon are circumventing the restrictions by picking up the moves from the official site, or from members of the audience at the tournament venue, the Central Telegraph building close to Red Square.
Agon has received backing from the former world champion Vladimir Kramnik. In an interview to appear on on Monday, he said: “If you want to make chess professional, if you want to help chess to grow, you have to understand very clearly that the organiser of any chess tournament has full transmission rights. Because the organiser has invested a lot of money and effort to organise the tournament, morally and legally they have full rights over the live transmission.”
Its critics accuse Agon of trying to establish a monopoly of live chess coverage, and doubt whether it will be able to enforce its restrictions on the real-time relay of games in the courts. that in the US in the 1990s the National Basketball Association tried and failed to stop Motorola distributing real-time statistical information from basketball games, losing its case on the grounds of the “hot news doctrine” – the legal right to disseminate current news.
In the US alone, this is a case that could take years to resolve, though it may be that Agon is hoping to at least scare off its rivals and keep the big prize – coverage of the Carlsen match – to itself.
“Ultimately, the courts will need to decide who is right,” said Agon spokesman Andrew Murray-Watson. “But it is manifestly obvious that control over broadcast has to be achieved if we are to elevate chess to where it belongs as a sport. Commercial rights holders have to have the ability to control how it’s broadcast, both online and on TV, if we want to increase the sponsorship of chess, the prize money available to players and ultimately the size of the global audience.”
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