Some thoughts on Keene's interview with Andrew Paulson

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Last week an interview appeared online with Andrew Paulson, the American businessman who signed a contract with FIDE to organize the next two World Championship cycles. The interview was conducted by English GM Raymond Keene and although many critical questions were asked, somehow many important aspects still remained unclear.

Andrew Paulson | Photo © Ester Dyson, New York

The name of Andrew Paulson first appeared here at ChessVibes on February 10th, when we did a first story on the Candidates Tournament being set for London in October-November, 2012. Almost a month later FIDE confirmed everything and the tournament will be held October 24-November 12 in Britain's capital. This was the result of an agreement between FIDE and Agon, a company recently founded by Andrew Paulson.

Paulson is a 53-year-old, successful American entrepreneur working in Russia. He founded several magazines, such as Afisha, an entertainment and listings magazine which became the cultural touchstone of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Bolshoi Gorod, a free bi-weekly lifestyle magazine and Afisha MIR, a monthly glossy travel and lifestyle magazine. He also co-founded the online media company SUP which now consists of huge websites such as LiveJournal, Championat and Gazeta.

In recent weeks we exchanged several emails with Mr Paulson but eventually he declined a Skype interview. There was, however, a conversation between him and GM Raymond Keene, who published the interview at his personal website. It will also be excerpted and spread over three parts in Keene's column in the Times, and on March 12th it could be read at Chessbase as well.

Although Keene asks a number of critical questions, somehow many important aspects still remained unclear. For example, asked about the nature of his agreement with FIDE, Paulson replied:

The €10-12 million that Mr. Ilyumzhinov was referring to is the approximate total production cost, including prize funds, for one two-year cycle. For this I have to provide a rolling Letter of Credit plus $500,000 in cash to FIDE. We need a little bit of seed money that I will provide to handle cash flow; beyond that, I assume we will be profitable.

Especially this answer was screaming for a follow-up question, don't you think? 

Paulson has a lot of experience, and is not scared of "thinking big". In talking about potential numbers that can be reached by chess, he says:

But, if you have those 300 live, plus 2,000,000 online, and soon another 10,000,000 on TV, with over 500,000,000 people playing chess at least from time to time, and another billion who generally regard chess as the epitome of intelligence, complexity and challenge, you can decouple the sponsorship from the finite audience of one event and offer a relationship with World Chess itself. Once again, we are not inventing anything new: simply looking at it from a different point of view, rigorously.

Two million online and, wait, ten million on TV? Ehm, haven't we failed for years to get chess on TV, for the simple reason that the general audience does not understand chess? We'd be happy to be proven wrong, but we remain sceptical about especially this part.

The 4-year schedule as presented by FIDE looks impressive. However, to make all this a success, they need sponsors, and good ones. Think Microsoft, think Coca-Cola. But these are exactly the brands who are reluctant to do anything with FIDE, as long as Mr Ilyumzhinov is in the saddle. We must admit that Mr Paulson's view on Ilyumzhinov (and his famous dwellings on aliens) is, in fact, quite brilliant:

I think that the idea that chess was brought to earth by aliens is a fascinating metaphor that bears deconstruction, and I think that Ilyumzhinov’s claim that he was actually taken into an alien spaceship to play chess with aliens is a grand fairy tale that has stimulated everyone’s imagination. Further, the episode created a remarkable amount of controversy and agitation which must demonstrate Ilyumzhinov’s special genius.

We really hope that Andrew Paulson's plans will be a success, and with someone with that much experience in business and online media, why not? The Keene interview wasn't really offering any insight in how exactly he will do it, but let's wait and see how things will be London, in seven months from now.

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