For many chess fans, this past fall’s World Chess Championship in New York City may have been their only chance to ever see the top players in the world play live. The question for many who attended, however, is: Is it what we expected?
Challenges for AGON, the company that owns the rights to the World Chess Championship, started right from the beginning. Initially, organizers struggled to find a suitable location in downtown New York City. In early August, the championship’s website announced that the venue would feature a 500-person viewing area with tickets, beginning at $50 each, going on sale in early September on Ticketmaster. After weeks of waiting, the memo on the “World Chess” website was changed to say “Ticket Sales Available Soon”. Impatient fans started messaging AGON via email and Facebook almost daily asking what “soon” meant. The biggest concern for many fans was the prospect of spending several hundred to $1,000 on travel arrangements before ticket sales and final details of the event were even announced.
Finally, on Oct. 6, the tickets were put on-sale via ticketfly.com with a starting price of $75 ($100 for the opening round). Although the $25 difference per ticket may not have made a difference to most fans and chess professionals, those who were interested in attending were not thrilled with the high prices to enter the venue. Nevertheless, many fans ponied up for the tickets Opening Day tickets were soon sold out. However, after about a week of tickets being “sold out,” organizers announced that more tickets were being made available for nearly double the price.
On Day 1 of the event, hundreds of fans waited in line to enter the grand-looking Fulton Market building. Posters and logos of the World Championship littered the building’s windows, and large sign in the courtyard offered fans a spot to enjoy a photo op. Russian and Norwegian reporters walked up and down the line of fans hoping to find an interesting story in their native languages. Chess friends seemed to be having reunions all over, with hugs and many conversations taking place about the hopes of that day’s events.
Walking into the venue, the security seemed sufficient, as personnel checked bags and scanned tickets before fans traveled up an elevator expecting an amazing experience. Fans had seen AGON’s rendering of the building with beautiful giant chess sets and nice seating areas.
The upstairs was modestly decorated with tables and chairs in the lounge area. The advertised chess store and chess café were nice enough, however the general atmosphere lacked the luster of a World Chess Championship. The majority of people there seemed to be special guests of one of a number of companies involved in the event. A few chess personalities wandered around and some blitz games were being played on the tables.
Chess coach Paul Swaney (and fellow chesssummit.com writer) traveled from Northern Virginia for the event. Said Swaney: “It was a great privilege to experience the fight for the crown in person. My only complaint is that the area for listening to commentary was not ideal. There was not enough seating, and the acoustics made it impossible to hear Judit (Polgar’s) commentary.”
Another spectator, New Yorker and International Master Kassa Korley, who attended several rounds of the event, said at the time: “The competing styles on display in this match have created enough interesting games to greatly outweigh the quality of AGON’s organizing, which at best leaves much to be desired.”
The “Spectator Lounge” was a large open area with rows of hard wooden benches culminating in a press conference table at the front of the room. Fans saw Judit Polgar, the event’s “live” commentator, behind a somewhat blurred glass wall in a TV-like studio room. The advertised live commentary was portrayed on TVs across the venue.
The main attraction for fans was the possibility of seeing or maybe even meeting World Champion Magnus Carlsen and his challenger Sergey Karjakin. Fans piled into a room with cave-like features. They were told to be quiet as the velvet rope in front of the glass was gradually pushed back, as fans were apparently pressing to close to the players. The one-way glass hindered fans’ view of the players, as did the media who piled in to the room in front of the spectators.
During the first round, fans were permitted to freely come and go from the Spectator Lounge. However, as more fans arrived on Saturday and beyond, fan viewing times were restricted to 15-minute windows throughout the day.
The much sought after VIP experience lived up to much of the hype. Adia Onyago, a Chess Expert and fan of the game said of the VIP experience: “The VIP lounge was the ultimate way to take in the World Championship. Inside there was a breathtaking view of the city, wooden chess boards to play out the games, plenty of comfortable leather furniture, large screen TVs everywhere, a continuous flow of hors d’oeuvres, and an open bar. The plethora of stimulating conversations with celebrities and chess lovers from all over the globe made it a ‘can’t miss’ experience.”
There were some important VIPs in the area including FIDE Vice President WIM Beatriz Marinello; top-level chess coach FM Sunil Weeramantry; GM Alexander Stipunsky; and famed Searching for Bobby Fischer writer Dr. Frank Brady. Celebrities spotted during the event have included movie star Woody Harrelson (who made the ceremonial first move the championship; HBO’s Entourage star Adrian Grenier; astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson; and HBO’s The Wire star Gbenga Akinnagbe. The promise, however by FIDE President Illumzhinov that billionaire Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg would attend has yet to occur at the time of this article’s publication.
As stated by Adia, the VIP lounge did feature an open vodka-only bar sponsored by Russian vodka company Beluga. However, when purchasing VIP tickets, a full open bar was insinuated. Passed hors d’oeuvres were apparently prepared by a Master Chef contestant ; however, there is no way to verify this. Comfortable furniture and a special viewing area of the players was in fact much nicer and less crowded than the one for normal spectators; however commentary was still incredibly difficult to hear.
The price tag for the VIP experience cost around $900 per person unless you were lucky enough to be on the invitation list. Most of those in the VIP area, however, seemed to be on that list via their sponsorship of the event. The majority of those in the room were Russian and Norwegian business executives seemingly invited by the organizers.
A Few Highlighted Promises vs. Reality:
- AGON advertised tickets offered starting at $50
Reality: $75-$100+ for any ticket offered
- AGON promised “Live Commentary”
Reality: A live video feed of Judit Polgar and the ability to view her behind tinted glass
- AGON promised a “Spectator’s Lounge”
Reality: Hard benches and café tables with a few televisions (maybe 5) for viewing the games and no ability to see the players live unless you go into the “viewing room” or hear the commentary (though they did raise the volume somewhat in later rounds)
- AGON promised live viewing of the players
Reality: A limited 15 minutes to see the players behind tinted glass that would not allow for clear pictures to be taken
- AGON promised blitz tournaments, autograph signings, and classes for children
Reality: Some events and autograph sessions were arranged starting about Round 3.
The World Championship is definitely an attraction for all ages and interests. Though not all parts of the event and venue may have lived up to the expected hype, it is worth the trip if you are a chess fan. For chess in the United States and around the world, events like this rely on fans and their support to keep them going.
Steve Abrahams is a National Expert from Florida, USA. He was the New Hampshire State High School Champion and the 2016 u2300 Southern Open Champion. Steve teaches chess full-time at Franklin Academy in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Steve is the Co-Manager of the Miami Champions PRO Chess Team and Co-Founder of Champions Chess LLC.
Bryan Tillis is a United States Chess Federation Life Master from Florida, USA. He was the State Champion of both Mississippi and Alabama and achieved the rank of original life master in 2016. Bryan teaches chess full-time at Franklin Academy in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Bryan is the Co-Manager of the Miami Champions PRO Chess Team and Co-Founder of Champions Chess LLC.