Hunched over chess boards in a cavernous hall a few blocks from the Kremlin, eight top players are currently participating in one of the year's most closely watched competitions. The winner of the World Chess Candidates Tournament, which ends on Wednesday, March 30, will earn the right to challenge world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway at the Chess World Championships in New York City in November.
This week's tournament has been shadowed by moves taking place off the chess board. The company hired by the World Chess Federation to organize and broadcast the ongoing tournament in Russia announced earlier this month that other websites would not be allowed to offer live coverage, as many had done in the past. A few chess sites refused to honor the ban, and now the company, Agon Limited, is suing them in a Moscow court. "We have had to take steps to protect our commercial rights from rogue websites that are seeking to profit from our significant investment in the game," Ilya Merenzon, Agon's Moscow-based chief executive, said in an interview.
Under Agon's new rules, other sites can't publish play-by-play accounts and commentary until after each game is over. Merenzov argues that live coverage by other chess websites, some of which solicit paid subscriptions or seek advertising revenue, undermines his company's efforts to build commercial sponsorship for World Chess Federation events, including the upcoming championship in New York.
True, a chess tournament may not be everyone's idea of a riveting sports event. Live coverage on most sites consists of a chess-board diagram, updated in real time to reflect players' moves, along with scrolling commentary by grandmasters and fans. But the websites chronicling live action in high-profile matches attract a passionate following among chess fans, and reaction on social media has been furious. "They are taking away something beautiful from potentially millions of people," wrote one of the more polite comments posted on the website chessdom.com, which scrapped its plans for live coverage in Moscow while vocally protesting Agon's actions. Fans on other sites are calling for a boycott of World Chess Federation events.
Chess lovers can still watch the Moscow tournament free of charge on Agon's site, worldchess.com, which carries a live video feed along with commentary and interviews. But Agon's coverage is only in English, while other sites offer multiple languages. Fans have also complained about the quality of commentary and occasional technical glitches.
The websites sued by Agon, Bulgaria-based chessbomb.com and an outfit called chess24.com that operates from Germany and Gibraltar, have said they will continue offering live coverage. "Our live broadcast is perfectly legal, based on our advice from counsel," said Macauley Peterson, a spokesman for Chess24. A statement on Chessbomb's website said it is evading the ban by having volunteers submit moves anonymously via a secure server. Anyone watching the tournament on Agon's website has to sign a so-called clickwrap agreement not to share the content, but Chessbomb's statement contends that such agreements aren't legally binding in all countries.
Agon is seeking 20 million rubles ($290,000) in damages from each of the two sites and is planning to sue at least one other site, according to spokesman Andrew Murray-Watson. The suits are being filed in Moscow's arbitration court, which has reciprocal agreements that would allow its ruling to be enforced in other countries, he said.
Merenzon said Agon is simply trying "to elevate the sport to a new and exciting level." Its website describes an effort to tap the commercial potential of a game that attracts a "large, affluent, diverse, and educated audience." Sponsors for the Moscow tournament include BMW of Russia, Samsung Electronics, and the Four Seasons Hotel in Moscow.
But Anton Mihailov, who runs Chessdom, says the move could backfire by alienating millions of chess enthusiasts. Chessdom, based in Bulgaria, has sites in English, Bulgarian, and Russian that attract some 15 million unique visits annually. Chess websites from around the world have more than 50 million users, Mihailov said, making the game "a truly global Internet entertainment." Agon, he added, is "putting a halt to an entire chess boom."