Why There's No Money in Chess
Having just read yet another comment (in Mig's chess blog) bemoaning the rather sad economic status of professional chess, and the low incomes and status which accrue to its practitioners, I was motivated to contribute my own thoughts on the matter.
It is not surprising at all to me that the time and place when the highest status was accorded to chess masters, relative to the rest of the population, was the heyday of the Soviet Union - a non-market, totalitarian, central command economy, where tyrants, not the choices of free people, determine value and status. Today, where freedom and markets are globally more widespread than in the darkest days of socialist tyranny, chess players have relatively low status.
Why should this be the case, you may wonder?
In a free society and a market economy, one's economic value is determined solely by one's ability, directly or indirectly, to please consumers, otherwise known as "the market." All of this was ably explained by Ludwig von Mises, among others, in such works as The Anti-Capitalist Mentality. I believe he used the example of the poet vs. the man of industry. The poet and his small circle of admirers may think his work beyond value, but since that market is quite small, the poet is limited in the reward he can receive, by appealing only to a small and select audience. The great mass of consumers in a market society are not interested in his work, and so are not made better off by it. But a man who creates a successful industrial process for manufacturing and distributing quality corrugated boxes at a great price, will directly improve the bottom line of merchandisers, and indirectly improve the lives of potentially millions of people who order packages from the merchandisers. So, the "boring" box magnate becomes rich, while the "brilliant" poet starves.
In tyrannical regimes, by contrast, "artists" who are able to catch the attention of the ruling regime are often rewarded by forced transfers of wealth from the oppressed populace to the artists (whether they be sculptors, painters, or chess masters). Even there, it's all relative. It was probably far more valuable to be a sculptor for the Medicis in renaissance Florence than it was to be a chess master (or "journalist") in the Soviet Union.
Freedom has many advantages over tyranny, I think you'll all agree. For most people, one of the clearest advantages is in the ability to spend the fruits of one's labors on the goods and services one chooses freely. For better or worse, the vast majority of consumers in our advanced industrialized societies aren't interested in chess. (Compare baseball or basketball.) For all of the interest we enthusiasts have in chess, we are relatively small in number, and there aren't any good mechanisms for monetizing that interest excepting for chess lessons and chess books. So, chess masters don't make a fantastic living. It's the reality of a market economy, where consumer preference reigns supreme.