How many people would be interested in watching two men spend hours moving figures around on a checkered board? Apparently quite a few.
Since the World Chess Championship duel between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin started, interest has been growing by the day - particularly online. Official figures are not yet available, but it is already clear that by the time the match is over, the exclusive live stream from the tournament venue in New York's banking district will have been accessed millions of times, and websites transmitting the chess moves will have drawn record numbers of clicks.
At the same time, the exchanges between the charismatic part-time model from Norway and the friendly, but uncompromising Russian have made for lively discussion on Facebook and Twitter. However, things didn't get off to a great start two weeks ago: much to the consternation of the fans, the live stream was breaking up and there were technical problems with the website.
Commentary in the studio, questions on Facebook
In the meantime, the organizers at the world governing body of chess, FIDE and the company it hired to provide the coverage, Agon, have ironed out the problems. For a fee of $15 (14.10 euros), the chess fan can watch a live television broadcast with three cameras. If you want to spend more, you can watch a 3D presentation.
Even more important for the chess fan on the Internet is the commentary on the matches from the TV studio. Judit Polgar, the best woman chess player of all time, provides the analysis. The Hungarian explains exactly what the two grand masters are up to on the chessboard, fielding questions and comments via Twitter and Facebook.
The World Championship is easy to follow, even for non-experts. In fact, fans watching on the Internet have more information about the game than the grand masters on the board.
Prior to the World Championship the broadcasting rights were a matter of dispute in the chess community. The organizers had hoped to control all live reporting, not only of the video transmission, but also reporting about the individual moves the players make by other websites. Agon argued that it had the exclusive rights to reporting on the moves live.
The issue landed in the courts, but in the end, the judges in both Moscow and New York ruled against Agon. The dispute was all about trying to earn money broadcasting and reporting on chess live on the Internet.
The computer shapes the playing styles of the pros
This is an issue of importance for reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen. The chess superstar from Norway already earns a lot through advertising all over the world, but the world's top chess player still earns much less than athletes in other sports. That is why Carlsen is marketing his own app, "Play Magnus" and hopes that the current chess boom on the Internet continues. The Internet and computer support have long been an important aspect of the game for the players, and they have shaped their styles of play. Thanks to the computing power of the chess computers, the pros know that even unusual moves, which human players tend not to take into consideration, sometimes work very well. This is particularly true when it comes to defense - it is no coincidence that challenger Sergey Karjakin's specialty is successfully defending what on first sight appear to be bad positions.
The influence of computers is also evident in the openings the players use. All of the openings have been have been analyzed and saved in databases, so surprises have become increasingly rare. Carlsen counters this by always taking a sidetrack from his openings, in order to avoid being too predictable. The Hamburg-based company Chessbase is a major player in the digitalization of the chess scene and had developed related software. It has more than eight million games listed in its databases.
A new problem
The omnipresence of computers has introduced a new problem to professional chess. Before Carlsen and Karjakin sit down to start a game, they are checked for unauthorized electronics. This is because these days, there are smart phone apps capable of beating the world champion, so the possibility of electronic fraud has to be excluded.
In recent years, there has been a series of fraud scandals, which have raised concerns about the danger of players using such devices to gain an unfair advantage. In the meantime, though, experts have devised methods to uncover fraudsters by using statistics. In short, the principle is that if you have played too well, you couldn't have done it without help.
It is fitting that during the tug-of-war between Carlsen and Karjakin it has been their mistakes that have really made things interesting. Probably this is also the reason for the great interest in the World Chess Championship on the Internet. It is all well and good for computers to play flawlessly, but it is much more fascinating to watch two highly skilled people as they make mistakes.