Magnus Carlsen drew strong reactions in Norway today by creating a new chess club that offers free membership to the first 1,000 members, with Carlsen paying the federation fees himself.
Carlsen said the club was made to help new players and strengthen Norwegian chess. Critics, however, said the club is designed solely to influence an upcoming vote on a contentious sponsorship deal in the Norwegian chess federation.
Carlsen also clarified his stance that he may not play the 2020 world championship match if Norway is the host site, angering some Norwegian chess fans.
Background: Kindred Group deal.
In early June, the board of the Norwegian Chess Federation shocked many chess fans when it announced a possible $5.9 million deal with Malta-based gambling giant Kindred Group, known for brands such as Unibet and Maria Casino.
Any promotion of foreign gambling companies is illegal in Norway. Instead, Kindred Group is offering a five-year deal to secure the chess federation's help in lobbying for a change of the current law, in which government-owned Norsk Tipping is the only licensed gambling company.
The Norwegian gambling regulator Lottstift issued a warning to the chess federation to "consider the consequences" of working with a company it believes is operating illegally in the country.
While chess interest in Norway is booming largely thanks to Carlsen and wide national television coverage, its national chess federation's budget is tight, having failed to bring in sponsorship. Supporters see the deal as an opportunity to increase the number of members in the federation and support players who wants to become "the next Magnus Carlsen."
Critics think the chess federation should not be influenced by such a controversial company, and that it should remain apolitical.
Carlsen hints he might not play the 2020 world championship in Norway.
The controversial deal has caused an uproar in Stavanger, where the organizers of the Altibox Norway Chess tournament are trying to secure funding to host Carlsen's next world championship match in 2020.
Leading politicians in the city made demands that the chess federation say no to the Kindred Group offer. If not, they would withdraw their support of NOK 5 million ($580,000) for the official bid.
The chess federation responded promptly by pulling out as a formal organizer. But Carlsen's response was shocking to many chess fans.
In a Facebook post, Carlsen hinted that he is prepared to pull out of the world championship cycle if Stavanger wins the bidding process.
"The Kindred deal does not affect the chance for a world championship in Stavanger 2020 with me," Carlsen wrote in the post, translated from Norwegian. "It can be organized nicely without me as well," Carlsen wrote.
Carlsen has long been against Stavanger as a host of his next match, a view he has expressed both to the organizers and his federation. So far he hasn't explained why, and the Carlsen team declined to comment to Chess.com.
"I respect Stavanger's decision to continue the process, and I have nothing bad to say about the organizers," said Carlsen, "However, I believe the federation's choice to ignore my signals and commit to Stavanger anyway was very strange. I obviously know I do not decide who will organize the world championship or other tournaments, and I understand there are many opinions and feelings about this, but I have the right to decide whether I would play or not," Carlsen wrote.
Carlsen continued, making it clear he is very much in favor of the deal.
"My conclusion is that if this deal is legal, I would absolutely recommend voting yes," Carlsen said. He added it would be "totally crazy" if he or anyone on his team received any of this money.
Carlsen's new chess club draws criticism.
It was Carlsen's latest move on Tuesday that caused the strongest reactions. Carlsen decided to start a new chess club, Offerspill (Sacrificial Play), offering free memberships for the first 1,000 members, which would cost Carlsen up to $60,000 in federation fees.
"Magnus Carlsen will accept this expense as a direct support to the Norwegian chess federation," Carlsen's father, Henrik Carlsen, told VG.
Carlsen posted a video of himself on his newly-formed club's official site, where he said he wants to give everyone an opportunity to play chess, regardless of financial status or background.
It only took a few hours before the club announced it had already reached 1,000 members, which would allow the club to send 40 delegates to the congress on July 7, likely tipping voting on the Kindred Group deal in favor of yes.
The move has been met with anger and was seen by critics as a transparent ploy to influence the upcoming vote.
"A cynical declaration of war," was the verdict of Leif Welhaven, a sports commentator for VG.
Esten O. Saether, a writer for Dagbladet, called the decision to create the club "an ugly blunder."
Carlsen's manager, Espen Agdestein, issued a statement to NRK defending the world champion's decision to start the club:
"He just wants to facilitate for those who want to become serious players behind him," said Agdestein in a statement translated from Norwegian. "He thinks there is a great potential in Norwegian chess, and there are many young players behind him, but it is impossible for them to get anywhere with the budgets we are dealing with in Norwegian chess."
Whether the Kindred Group deal is legal, or whether Carlsen's club will be allowed to vote, remains to be seen. The Norwegian Chess Federation has been called upon to perform another legal analysis of the deal, and on Tuesday its president Morten L. Madsen said it will also investigate whether Carlsen's new club is within the law.