Is There Good Money In Chess?

Is There Good Money In Chess?

| 34 | Misc

Money, war, politics. It's going to be a heavy edition of "in other news,"'s collection of all the stories tangentially related to the game. This may be the most contentious compilation yet, so get your typing hand ready for the comments.

Below you'll find two articles related to the concept of money and chess, and whether competency in one necessarily translates to the other. If history is more your game, then there's a couplet for you: two stories on chess and world wars.

There's also the usual intersection of chess and politics, and a past issue resurfacing. It seems women being banned for their dress is once again topical. You can be the judge of the supposed misgivings and resulting punishment.

After all this, we will close with something good being done through chess, courtesy of a young chess player,'s own GM Robert Hess, and many other grandmasters.

Can Chess Be A Lucrative Career?

Anyone old enough to remember dialup internet can probably reach their own conclusion to the question above. There's simply much more money in chess now than ever, the author of this article in "Forbes" concludes (full disclosure: he used to work for

For starters, top players in the U.S. get a yearly windfall at the U.S. championships, where even last place comes with free hotel, food, and more than first place at most American weekend Swisses. First place in the open tournament this year ($50,000 USD) was actually a touch higher than the current average annual U.S. wage ($48,099).

nullSeen here at the 2014 National Open, even five-time champion GM Gata Kamsky gives the occasional lecture. But the "chess hustle" pays better than it used to.

The world's elite are enjoying sponsorships like never before; somehow the private sector is ponying up for mental athletes even if they aren't always spending so judiciously on actual events.

What's also now possible are the careers created, or at least made more comfortable by the internet. GM Ben Finegold relates how not winning a sizable prize at a tournament used to cause him to worry about making rent. Nowadays, he has his own YouTube channel and has no trouble gaining access to private lessons. He's even taking a page out of his former employer's book and creating a chess center in Atlanta.


GM Maurice Ashley is quoted in the article explaining that he does many chess-related jobs outside of playing. That includes organizing, commentating, writing chess apps, and coaching Olympiad teams. Possibly he could also serve as the (chess-playing) Will Smith's stand-in for "Men in Black"? 

Even non-titled players are enjoying the openness of the net. There are more chess teachers than ever in America, thanks largely to the growing acceptance of the game as an educational tool. Even this author can thank the 21st century. The idea of a "full-time chess journalist" has been made much easier by the internet, something I could not have foreseen in J-school in the late 1990s!

Nakamura's Other Career 'Option'

What if there was not as much money at the top of the pyramid? For four-time U.S. champion GM Hikaru Nakamura, he'd likely be an options trader.

Options are the ability to purchase or sell at a future given price. The completely-illegal chess equivalent might be: paying $1 at the start of a game to be given a free knight in the event that you create an outpost in the first 10 moves.

Perhaps an even more analogous chess option is the ability to withdraw and re-enter in many American Swiss tournaments if you lose round one. The only difference is that you don't have to pay for this option ahead of time. There was actually a period more than a decade ago where U.S. players could pay a fee before one of several large open tournaments, and upon doing so became eligible to accept the "option" of playing in the U.S. championship if you scored high enough. But if you didn't pay for this "option" and won the tournament, you weren't given a spot -- a true "option" in chess.


When you are appearing on the jumbotron for your chess skills, you probably shouldn't quit your day job.

Back to Nakamura. He allowed that he makes a "good living" playing chess and doesn't have to teach to augment his income. What he does do in his spare time is analyze Wall Street.

"I've been fascinated by the markets in general," Nakamura told Bloomberg. "I've started doing more than equities. I've tried to look for patterns and strategies."


GM Hikaru Nakamura being interviewed about the crossover between chess and investing (screenshot from

He said that, like chess, there's risk management involved, especially when the position, or the market, turns bad. Nakamura stressed that "knowing when to cut your losses" is one of the fundamental strengths of stronger chess players. "It's a complete overlap -- it applies 100 percent to trading as well.

"In chess if you make the best decision, good things happen no matter what. With markets, obviously if something goes wrong, it goes wrong."

Postal Chess Banned

World War II created a lot of paranoia in the U.S. In this author's home state of North Carolina, residents of the Outer Banks taped their headlights to only allow a small beam to shine through, lest German U-boats expand their scourge of the U.S. waters onto the shore. The longest-running outdoor drama in the country, "The Lost Colony," went dark to avoid drawing attention to inhabited areas.

Even more fun was lost when in 1943 the U.S. Postal Service stopped allowing correspondence chess to be played across the Atlantic. German and American players could no longer engage in mock warfare as long as their countries were actually in battle.


A correspondence chess card, where notation is language agnostic and is instead done via numbers that correspond to squares (so 1. e4 becomes 5254 in ICCF numeric notation). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Authorities were worried that the postcards would contain secret coded messages, hidden inside the notation of the moves. The recent story is an add-on to a 1991 article in "Chess Life" by Joan DuBois and includes a mention of "Chestega" -- a cryptographic technique that combines algebraic notation and even the header information of a game.

The ingenious method relies on the translation of words to binary code, then to decimal notation, and finally to certain squares on the board. The moves of the game don't look anything like what even beginner might play, which is a fundamental weakness.

This game from the First World Correspondence Chess Championship in 1950 was thought to contain a secret message.

"For example, if we make a wrong move to hide data, this wrong move will be obvious to anyone and will count as noise," Chestega co-founder Abdelrahman Desoky said. "If they're able to detect noise, then they're able to detect the use of steganography and the purpose [of concealing data] will be defeated."

One Game Of Chess To Save Your Life

A well-known chess story got a bit of a refresher last month when another article explained the fantastic life of GM Ossip Bernstein. His tribulations actually spanned both world wars, but was most poignant right at the close of World War I. 


Ossip Bernstein circa 1902 (from Wikimedia Commons).

As czarist Russia was ending, those at odds with the Bolshevik Revolution were being persecuted. For Bernstein, that led all the way to the firing squad. But just before the order to shoot, a commanding officer recognized his name as that shared with a famous chess player.

In fact the men were one and the same. Before Bernstein's capitalistic practices nearly got him killed, he was essentially a chess professional in the aughts of the 20th century. He played and finished decently among the likes of Mikhail Chigorin, Carl Schlechter, and Akiba Rubinstein. He also played and lost two mini-matches to world champions:  Alexander Alekhine and Jose Capablanca, both 1.5-0.5.

In order to "prove" his identity the Cheka officer played a single game with Bernstein. In what may be the first true "Armageddon" game in history, Bernstein had to win to stay alive -- a draw or loss would send him back to the firing squad. Bernstein won, was let go, then eventually resettled his family in France. 


 Ossip Bernstein (who eventually became a GM) in 1961, one year before he died (from Jac. de Nijs, Dutch National Archives).

He was once again imprisoned in 1940 when Paris fell and he was caught escaping to Spain to avoid the Jewish persecution by the Nazis. Again he survived, this time with the help of his friends and not his chess skills.

Later in life, at the age of 68, FIDE granted him the GM title. Then at 72, he played first board board for France at the Olympiad, and at another event he famously beat an over-confident Miguel Najdorf.

Chess Players Argue Against Trump's Policies

For a sizable number of Americans, President Donald Trump's January ban on entering the U.S. for travelers from certain countries didn't sit well. The measure was halted by the courts, with the help of a chess player.

Bob Ferguson, the Washington state attorney general, once considered a career in chess. "We anticipated the move, so so speak, from the president," Ferguson said. 

"Often in chess, you have to make decisions where the position's complicated, but in order to win the game, you have to take a calculated risk," he added. "It required a calculated risk to file that lawsuit when, at that time, most legal experts thought we were going to lose. That was the conventional wisdom at that point."


Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose current U.S. Chess rating is 2146 but was over master level in 2001 (Photo from Ferguson's official web site).

Another chess player who will not be dining with Trump anytime soon is GM Garry Kasparov

"When I hear President Trump praising [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and [Filipino President Rodrigo] Duterte, it sounds a lot like envy," Kasparov said recently on CNN. He explained that he thinks Trump wishes he could continue his agenda without the "check[s] and balances" of the different institutions of the U.S. government.

Another Female Banned For Her Attire

Coming less than three months after IM Dorsa Derakshani's banishment from the Iranian Chess Federation for failing to wear a headscarf, another young woman was criticized for her outfit. This time, the punishment came in the middle of the tournament as the 12-year-old girl was removed from the Malaysian National Scholastic Championship.

The unnamed player was wearing a dress that covered the shoulders and fell to around the knee:


The dress that got the 12-year-old banned from the tournament.

The article states that the tournament director made the action; in a previous event, other parents complained about the same girl's attire and her mother thought this dress had been modest enough to avoid a future incident.

The girl's identity is being kept private but her coach wrote on Facebook that she felt "harassed and humiliated" as a result. A follow-up article casts some doubt on who exactly made the ruling at the tournament. The girl's mother tried to buy her a new outfit so she could continue to compete, but since all the shops were closed, the young player instead left the event.

Not long before the incident, the National Muslim Youth Association asked women not to use emoticons or to use perfume.

Several years ago, FIDE released rules governing attire for men and women at official FIDE events (which this was not). Rule 3c states that ladies can wear: Women’s suits, dresses. skirts, blouses, turtleneck, T-shirts or poloʼs, trousers, jeans or slacks, footwear (boots, flats, mid-heel or high-heel shoes, sneakers with sock), jacket, vest or sweater, a scarf, as well as jewelry (earrings, necklace, etc.) coordinated to the outfit may be worn. Team uniforms, national costumes clothing are also acceptable. 

Among the banned apparel in rule 3d includes the vague "revealing attire."

Hess And Others Headline Chess Charity Event To Fight Brain Cancer

With all the potentially contentious stories above, let's end on a positive note. GM Robert Hess and at least 13 other grandmasters will be donating their time at the Charity Chess Championship on May 21 in New York.

The young chess player Daniel Mero and his father came up with the idea. Cancer has hit close to home; 10-year-old Daniel's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.


The fourth-grader Daniel Mero and his family came up with the idea for a chess charity event. Besides quads, there will be grandmaster blitz and a silent auction with tons of offerings.

Proceeds will benefit Band of Parents, a group dedicated to finding new treatments for neuroblastoma. 

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