The post-pandemic world is one of unimagined realities and digital acceleration, and chess fits snugly into this new space. A 'Global Chess League' by Tech Mahindra announced to take place this year -- an eight-team affair, a mix of women, men and juniors, players and teams being drawn from different parts of the world and competing through a 6-8 week window in 'phygital' form, a hybrid of physical and digital if you like, is the newest barrier breaker.
"If we had this conversation a year ago, I wouldn't have even thought of it," laughs Viswanathan Anand. He is advisor-mentor-facilitator-in-chief all rolled in one for the league being floated by Indian industrialist Anand Mahindra. The five-time world champion is drawing up possible formats, tweaking scoring systems and sifting through the melee of chess events that have taken place since the lockdown and non-chess leagues that have been in existence, looking for concepts and innovations to borrow and adapt.
"The idea of eight teams across the world representing different geographies coming together makes it a global event," Anand tells ESPN. "Some stages of the league will be over-the-board but we don't have a clear breakup yet. I've already started work on the format, it's going to be robin-robin and a final elimination but we're also trying to experiment with ideas. The key is to engage all kinds of audiences without watering down the sport. We might make a provision for fans to participate with their teams, be a part in some of the decision making and maybe even qualify for one spot. It's also important that we have a fantasy element. We're also looking at leagues in other sports for aspects we can perhaps use. I still haven't taken a call on whether I'll be playing the league. It will depend on how much time it takes to set up this project."
The idea for this league began to form around the time India, along with Russia, finished with gold medals at the Online Chess Olympiad in August last year. It had followed months of pandemic-induced lockdown and ennui and a live sport-famished Indian audience trooped in huge numbers to follow the dramatic final, gatecrashed by a global outage of the Cloudflare web infrastructure service, which led to joint winners being declared.
The revelation was simple yet startling -- the existence of a huge, untapped audience for chess. It got Mahindra and Anand chatting about the possibility of a league and six months since, it's assumed some sort of concrete shape.
"Chess lends itself automatically to the idea that post-COVID, the world is not just changing in terms of usage of technology for work but also usage of technology for sports," says Jagdish Mitra, chief strategy officer and head of growth at Tech Mahindra. "We think no other sport offers the opportunity for physical and digital like chess and we imagine taking it forward in subsequent editions through 5G, AI and VR to an environment where you can perhaps have a floating chess board and two players on either side. Through chess, the world can be an interesting place to visualise."
"Chess seems to be everywhere today. Not only has the sport benefitted from it but people too are getting to experience the technology that chess has been talking about for a while now." Viswanathan Anand
With sports leagues, there's also the small matter of sustainability. "We have to look at what brings fans to the game," adds Mitra. "It's what drives any revenue model. In most cases, it's broadcast. The world is moving to OTT broadcast which is right there on your phone and chess naturally then takes a unique model for revenue and can engage fans not just during a slotted period but throughout the day. Our intent is really global, and it's a one-of-a-kind league that isn't restricted to being staged in a region, country or continent. If run well, whether it's getting the timing right in terms of the event window and the players we bring in and the kind of fan engagement we're able to create, we should be able to sustain ourselves for the long term."
Over the last year, established practices have been debunked, and led to the mushrooming of new forms of engagement. Anand points to the number, magnitude and success of chess events since the pandemic and the unexpected business models they've brought along. This league, he believes, stands to gain from the windfall. "This is an interesting moment for chess," says Anand. "It seems to be everywhere today. Not only has the sport benefitted from it but people too are getting to experience the technology that chess has been talking about for a while now. The doors are opening very fast for chess."