Recently, I’ve been pretty obsessed with chess. What once started off as a seemingly innocent hobby appears to have turned into something that can be classified as a bit of an addiction. Admittedly, it’s not the worst addiction there is, but you’d be surprised to know how much time of your life can go down the drain playing this funny little game. At least, that’s what it is for me — a game. Should I have wanted to go into professional chess, then my chance would’ve been long gone; Grandmasters typically get into chess before they learn how to tie their shoelaces, and even though I first beat my dad before the tender age of 10, that tells you more about my dad’s ability than it does about mine. Nevertheless, I’ve recently started wondering what going into professional chess really entails; what does the life of a young chess prodigy look like, where does the money come from, and how good do you really have to be in order to make a proper living?
Not just a chess player
In order to tackle these questions, let’s take Magnus Carlsen, the reigning World Chess Champion, as a guideline for the rest of the article. Carlsen, a 24-year-old Norwegian at the time of writing, has been at the top of the chess world for many years, first securing his number one position at the start of 2010, and successfully holding on to it ever since. In fact, he’s the highest rated player in the history of chess, topping even the likes of Garry Kasparov, the Russian Grandmaster considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time. However, Carlsen isn’t ‘just’ the highest rated player ever; he’s also known for other things, such as his modeling work for the Dutch company G-Star RAW. Needless to say, this isn’t a very common source of income at all; only a handful of chess players manage to land sponsorships, and that makes perfect sense, since there’s little reason for companies to associate themselves with people that we only see very rarely. Instead, let’s turn to slightly more realistic sources of income, and let’s do this by running through Carlsen’s life.
Birth of a genius
Born in Tønsberg, Norway, on 30 November 1990, Magnus showed an aptitude for intellectual challenges at a young age. At two years, he could solve 50-piece jigsaw puzzles; at four, he enjoyed assembling Lego sets with instructions intended for children aged 10-14. Magnus’s father taught him how to play chess at the age of five, but he initially showed little interest in the game. When he finally did, Magnus developed his early chess skills by playing by himself for hours at a time — moving the pieces around the board, searching for combinations, and replaying games and positions shown to him by his father. His teachers emphasised Magnus’s extreme memory, claiming that he was able to recall the areas, capitals, flags, and population numbers of all the countries in the world by the age of five. Later, Magnus had memorised the areas and population numbers of “virtually all” Norwegian municipalities. Funnily enough, he only took interest in chess when he got the chance to beat his older sister. Magnus participated in his first tournament — the youngest division of the 1999 Norwegian Chess Championship — at the age of 8 years and 7 months, scoring 6,5/11. (In standard chess, a win gives you one point, whereas a draw gives both players half a point each. This means that little Magnus got a positive score.)
Carlsen gradually started playing more and more tournaments throughout his youth, and he even took a gap year after primary school in order to really focus on playing chess — not exactly the most usual moment to take a year off from school. But this is where the first finances must have started coming in, because the most obvious source of income for any chess player is prize money. However, even though Carlsen was generally doing very well in the tournaments that he participated in, he didn’t decide to become a professional chess player until he had finished high school. In the meantime, he once played Kasparov to a draw — preparing mostly by reading Donald Duck comics — and ‘finally’ became a Grandmaster at the age of just 13 years and 5 months, making him the youngest Grandmaster in history at the time, and still the third youngest to date.
Sources of income
Back to the question. Going into chess is generally not a very good idea; it’s an extremely competitive world that doesn’t get a lot of media attention, and therefore it’s a very bad way of making money very easily. Bright chess-playing students might occasionally get some special burses, but scholarships are still very uncommon, and chances are it’s only going to become more difficult to obtain one in the future. Members of national teams often also have a special wage. However, even in Russia, a country known for its great tradition in chess, the salary of an official member of the Russian Olympic team has been symbolic up to this point. The simple truth is that you have to be good — exceptionally good — to get your career going at all, and you shouldn’t expect to be self-financing until you start playing some of the really big tournaments. However, if you’re finally an established Grandmaster, there are actually some ways of making nice money.
So where might the money come from if you are a Grandmaster, but not quite as good as Carlsen? There are a number of different ways in which you can monetise your chess ability. First and foremost, you can play for a club. This is probably the main source of income for pre-elite Grandmasters, who are paid 5,000-20,000 euros for competing at a club event. However, since this is not always enough to live off, they usually do additional work. This could be a number of different things, such as coaching (Grandmasters typically charge 20 to 50 euros per hour), performances (e.g. simultaneous exhibition matches), and organisational work. One final resource could be writing chess literature, but you have to be very experienced in order to even get into that position, and if you consider how hard regular novelists already have to work to get somewhere… Forget about it.
I bet you that…
It should be clear to you by now that chess isn’t exactly flooded with money; even though Carlsen has — intentionally or unintentionally — raised the level of awareness of it, there’s no way that it’ll ever get televised on a large scale, and therefore there’s still very little reason for sponsors to associate themselves with chess players. So how could the chess world become more profitable? One way could be to make betting more prominent in chess. Needless to say, betting is a massive business in many sports, but it hasn’t taken off in chess at all. This is nicely illustrated by the fact that most online betting companies don’t even cover chess. An optimist might say that this points towards a gap in the market, while a pessimist would tell you that there’s probably a good reason for this. Unfortunately, I think that the pessimist is more than likely to be right in this case, because there seems to be little interest in chess. Now, let’s be honest here: that’s not exactly surprising. I say this as a chess enthusiast, but it makes little sense to watch chess games live anymore. The emergence of the internet has taken away the need to look at players pondering over their moves, for you can simply watch the game at a later time on one of the many YouTube channels dedicated to chess, complete with Grandmaster analysis and everything. Now isn’t that convenient?
…things won’t change
All in all, trying to make a living playing chess is far from recommended; even though Carlsen has managed to change the image of chess somewhat through his modelling work (among other things), there’s still very little money in chess, it continues to be dominated by players studying their socks off, and there’s no reason to believe either of these will change in the near future. The very best players are wealthy enough, but not a single one of them will ever tell you that they went into chess to earn big bags of money. Frankly, if that’s your motivation, you never will — better to restrict your chess activities to playing the odd game in a pub on a night out, in that case, or to avoid it altogether. However, for those of you who feel particularly ambitious: feel free to prove me wrong!