For readers of Susan’s blog, I’d like to briefly introduce myself. My name is Dana Mackenzie, and I have written “dana blogs chess” (www.danamackenzie.com/blog) for ten years. I’m a National Master and Life Master in the United States, two-time champion of North Carolina, and a past contributor to ChessLecture (www.chesslecture.com). I make a living as a writer about mathematics and science, but I write my chess blog strictly for the fun of it!
I was delighted to receive Susan’s invitation to start contributing to www.DailyChessNews.com, and even more deligh ted to hear that her site is now partnered with www.theMaven.net. To me this is another sign that corporate America is starting to take chess seriously, and Susan deserves enormous credit for making this happen.
And that brings me to the subject of my first post: a plea to other companies to wake up and see the benefits of sponsoring or promoting chess.
We are at a crucial time in the history of chess, when the center of gravity of the chess world is shifting. For a very long time, the chess world was dominated by Russians and players from Eastern Europe. I know that it was hard for American companies to see the value in promoting a sport where the stars mostly came from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
But that world has changed completely. The stars now come from America, Asia, and western Europe, just as much as eastern Europe. Three Americans are in the top ten of the world rating list; in addition, the top ten includes players from Norway (the current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen), France, and India. In the most recent World Chess Olympiad (held in 2016, the same year as the “regular” Olympics), the U.S. team finished first, in a thrilling, neck-and-neck battle with Ukraine. If only Americans had been as aware of this “brain” Olympics as they were aware of the “brawn” Olympics!
This is also a time of revolutionary growth in scholastic chess in the United States. The “super-national” championships this year drew more than 5000 players (and their parents). I can attest personally to the astonishing growth in strength and numbers of scholastic players in my own part of the country, the San Francisco Bay area. These things don’t happen by accident. In my area, a small non-profit called Bay Area Chess organizes dozens of events every year. I would like to see this kind of effort reproduced in other places, but to scale it up to the level of a whole country takes more than dedicated volunteers; it takes corporate sponsorship.
Even though scholastic chess in the U.S. is wildly successful in terms of numbers, I personally see it as a ladder without a top. We have built the infrastructure for thousands of kids to play the game, enjoy it and improve, but we have not given them a reason to stick to it after their high-school years! The most brilliant young players may achieve an International Master or Grandmaster title as teenagers, and what do they find? They discover that, practically speaking, there is no way to make a living as a chess player. Of course, some of them find other ways. Some go to Europe. (This was what Fabiano Caruana, the 2016 U.S. champion, did; from 2005 to 2015 he lived in Spain and played for Italy.) Some might be able to put together an income through chess teaching and writing. But without doubt, there is a huge “brain drain” of American chess talent as these players reach their twenties.
Here are some of the past champions who have had to give up chess: Ken Rogoff, chess grandmaster and Harvard economist, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. Patrick Wolff, two-time U.S. chess champion and manager of several hedge funds. Tal Shaked, former world junior chess champion and now a software engineer at Google. I cite their post-chess accomplishments to show how much these people have to offer the world; but all of them dreamed of being chess players first, until the dream became untenable.
Now I come to my sales pitch. I hope I have already convinced you that there is a huge opportunity. Chess is a more international game than ever before, and a company that associates itself with chess will be respected everywhere. Chess is no longer perceived as “just for nerds.” Advertising that features chess nearly always does so in a positive way. It is a way for a company to position itself as trend-setting, sophisticated, intelligent. An American company that promotes chess at the grandmaster level can associate itself with proven winners like Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, and Wesley So. Likewise, a company that promotes scholastic chess will give our youngsters a new generation of winners to look up to: young stars like Jeffery Xiong and Sam Sevian (both of whom just played in the World Cup at age 16!).
Even for players who never become stars, chess still brings clear benefits. It teaches them logical thinking, concentration, patience… and, yes, strategy and cunning (two skills that are, I believe, still important in the business world). Chess could be a potent attractor of youth into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies. Though chess is not a STEM subject per se, it demands many of the same mental abilities. Plus, it has a “cool” factor. To be blunt, you can win at chess, and kids relate to that. Once we establish an ecosystem where brains are respected, and where chess winners are celebrated, we make it possible for studies such as STEM to flourish.
That is what my proposal is about: creating a chess ecosystem. It begins with a strong scholastic program, which we have in many places in America, but not everywhere. It continues with strong support for a transition to chess as a career. Companies should sponsor young chess players in their twenties (maybe even late teens), just as they sponsor golf players and race-car drivers. Finally, at the top of the ecosystem, companies should support major international chess events—ideally, million-dollar events—here in the U.S. And we should vigorously pursue the dream of getting chess on television, because that is the route toward mainstream acceptance in our society.
Does this sound like a dream your business can get behind? If so, tell us. Tell Susan. Contact the United States Chess Federation. There will never be a better time than now.