Chess is a centuries-old, tradition-laden game of intrigue, artistry, intellect and beauty. Chess has an international following and carries intellectual cache. Many people play chess for recreation and the intellectual challenge. A relatively small number of chess players compete in organized competitions and are officially ranked. An even smaller number of elite chess players make a living playing chess. The majority of professional chess players must also teach and write in order to make a living.
The average earnings of a professional chess player was $34,000, as of March 2011, according to SimplyHired.com. Past and present superstars such as Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Anand Viswanathan and Magnus Carlsen can often land six- or seven-figure endorsements. Top chess players like these who are famous can capture big purses playing in high profile tournaments and matches. However, the vast majority of chess players barely make a living from playing chess.
Fischer vs. Spasky
The World Chess Championship of 1972 has been called "The Match of the Century." This match was played during the height of the Cold War in Reykjavik, Iceland. It pitted Boris Spassky, the reigning champion from the Soviet Union, against Bobby Fischer, an eccentric American. This was a high stakes event that garned unprecedented media coverage. It was a political event of significance that overshadowed the chess match itself. Many viewers were not even chess players and did not understand chess. Fischer ultimately prevailed and was the first American chess world champion. This boosted the popularity of chess but did not result in the establishment of a viable professional chess tour. Even after this hyped event, only a handful of top players could make a living playing professional chess.
Garry Kasparov vs. Big Blue
Garry Kasparov is considered by many to be the best chess player of all time. He was recognized as a child prodigy at age 11. At 16, he was considered a future contender for a world championship. He won his first world title at age 22 by beating Karpov and held that title for 12 years. In 1997, he began a series of highly publicized matches against "Big Blue," an IBM computer. The publicity enhanced the profile of chess and made millions for Kasparov. However, that did not have a significant trickle down effect on the earnings of the average professional chess player.
Chess vs. Poker
There are some similarities between chess and poker. Both are individual competitive pursuits that involve thinking, strategy and intuition. Chess and poker require hours and years of dedication to achieve a high skill level. Professionals in both arenas can earn prize money by winning tournaments. However, poker has achieved far more popularity, both in terms of participation and spectator appeal. Poker prize money is much bigger. Many professional poker player make a decent living playing poker, not just the top few players.
The Future of Professional Chess
Revenue for any sport or game is based on viewership. Chess needs to increase its popularity and have a forum that is entertaining enough to draw an audience of critical mass. Only then will advertising, endorsements, sponsorships and revenue generation be sufficient to provide income for a larger pool of serious chess players.