Prize Money Details and Limitations

Prize Money Details and Limitations

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For those who want to understand more about how prize money works in chess, and how it used to, and the challenges involved in compiling prize money numbers, read on.

Appearance Fees

Prize money for their performance has never really been how most chess players have been compensated for all the time they spend playing chess. That great trio of world champions of the early 20th century—Emanuel Lasker, Jose Capablanca, and Alexander Alekhine—we can blame for the first of the alternatives to develop: the dreaded appearance fee. If you're a great player that any organizer would want at their tournament, why not command a base fee instead of risking a bad performance?

Capablanca Alekhine
Capablanca and Alekhine in 1914. Photo: Wikimedia.

Appearance fees have been a thing ever since and continue right through this day, albeit on a diminishing scale. GM Bobby Fischer routinely asked for exorbitant fees that organizers either could not or chose not to afford. The organizers of Havana 1965 agreed to have him for $3,000, which was the same as the first-place prize. Two years later, Fischer earned about $1,000 for winning at Monte Carlo while receiving an additional $2,000 fee. At the 1999 Wijk aan Zee (later Tata Steel) tournament, an event GM Garry Kasparov had never played before, he commanded and received NLG 100.000 (Dutch Guilders) to join, then won a mere 20.000 for his first place finish.

Tata Steel remains one of those tournaments played for fees and prestige much more so than prizes, and other than a few publicly available first-place prizes around the turn of the century, was excluded from this count.

Appearance fees, even when known, have been excluded from all tournaments of three players or more. Matches, including world championship matches, effectively give both players an appearance fee with a bonus to the winner (although there are historical exceptions to the latter part), and so both players' money earned from the match is included—even when Alekhine took all the money for himself before his 1935 World Championship with GM Max Euwe, despite ultimately losing. Turnabout is fair play, though: Euwe did the same to Alekhine in 1937.

Great Depression

The Great Depression didn't affect output of chess information too much, but the prize amounts predictably became quite meager. The London Rules for the world championship, requiring a purse of $10,000, were followed in 1927 and abandoned in 1929, the same year the U.S. stock market crashed in October. Most of the 1929 World Championship was played before the crash, but there was effectively no chance of a big prize fund coming back in the 1930s. For all of 1933, for example, all we've got is the 500 Marks ($150) that Bogoljubow won at Aachen.

Obviously World War II and its aftermath offered no respite from this. FIDE scrounged together a $12,500 prize fund for the five-player 1948 World Championship, which was only half of what Lasker and Capablanca raised nearly three decades earlier. The money didn't really return to chess until Bobby Fischer came around. Even then, a lot of the money in chess was secret, appearance fee, etc. instead of prizes. Outside of Fischer's matches against Spassky in 1972 and 1992, we only found $13,309 in prizes for him, half of which he got for defeating Petrosian in the 1971 Candidates.

But another thing happened that kept prize funds down.

Soviet Stipends

The Soviets changed professional chess. Their players, rather than relying on tournament prizes, were backed by a stipend from the government. That's why prize money for the intra-Soviet world championships from 1951 to '69 is either nonexistent or negligible. And once most of the best players in the world were Soviet, it became that much harder to attract significant prize money for an international tournament.

Western players whose governments did not pay them to play chess suffered most. Danish GM Bent Larsen wrote for Chess Life in 1969: "FIDE expects World Championship candidates to sacrifice a lot of time and energy…but it would like them to do it as amateurs." Larsen set his wrath on FIDE, which had little incentive to offer much more as long as Soviets dominated chess.

The Fischer-Spassky match, which raised $250,000 in prizes, ended meager world championship prizes. Karpov and the defector Korchnoi raised even more in 1978, and Kasparov and Karpov made a ton of money in their five matches from 1984-90. But tournament prize funds, with exceptions like Montreal 1979 and its $110,000 in cash prizes, took a bit longer to catch up.

Public Information

The main issue, however, is even when prize money was awarded, it can be very hard to find. Sometimes only a first-place prize is available, sometimes a total prize fund but no individual prizes.

Even when reviewing old archived electronic issues of the Vienna Chess Magazine (Wiener Schachzeitung!) sometimes you'll find a table showing who won first prize, who shared second and third prizes, etc., but not tell you how much money that actually was. Sometimes, they'll show the amounts won for brilliant games, but not for the overall results themselves!

This only really starts to become a problem after World War I, but then it never stops being one. A 1997 Robert Byrne column tells us, for example, that the three shared winners at Tilburg Fontys--Kasparov, Kramnik, and Svidler--each won $8,750. But there's no table giving the entire fund. In 2006, Levon Aronian won a pretty significant 100.000 Euros at Morelia/Linares, but good luck finding anyone else's prizes--and by 2007 even first place becomes a big secret, let alone any year 2005 or earlier. In 1993, Byrne admitted: "Kasparov's prize came to less than $10,000, a paltry amount for such an important event. But that does not tell all: the real money in Linares is in the appearance fees, and these are kept secret."

Right back at the beginning: secret appearance fees.

Among the best tournaments ever that have no available prize fund data: Botvinnik, Flohr, Lasker and Capablanca in the top four at Moscow 1935; Spassky and Fischer sharing 1st at Mar del Plata 1960; the legendary 1962 Candidates; and Karpov's dominant 11/13 at Linares 1994.