Hunched over chess boards in a cavernous hall a few blocks from the Kremlin, eight top players are currently participating in one of the year's most closely watched competitions. The winner of the World Chess Candidates Tournament, which ends on Wednesday, will earn the right to challenge world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway at the Chess World Championships in New York City in November.
This week's tournament has been shadowed by moves taking place off the chess board. The company hired by the World Chess Federation to organize and broadcast the ongoing tournament in Russia announced earlier this month that other websites would not be allowed to offer live coverage, as many had done in the past. A few chess sites refused to honor the ban, and now the company, Agon Limited, is suing them in a Moscow court. "We have had to take steps to protect our commercial rights from rogue websites that are seeking to profit from our significant investment in the game," Ilya Merenzon, Agon's Moscow-based chief executive, said in an interview.
Under Agon's new rules, other sites can't publish play-by-play accounts and commentary until after each game is over. Merenzov argues that live coverage by other chess websites, some which solicit paid subscriptions or seek advertising revenue, undermines his company's efforts to build commercial sponsorship for World Chess Federation events, including the upcoming championship in New York.
True, a chess tournament may not be everyone's idea of a riveting sports event. Live coverage on most sites consists of a chess-board diagram, updated in real time to reflect players' moves, along with scrolling commentary by grandmasters and fans. But the websites chronicling live action in high-profile matches attract a passionate following among chess fans, and reaction on social media has been furious. "They are taking away something beautiful from potentially millions of people," wrote one of the more polite comments posted on the website chessdom.com, which scrapped its plans for live coverage in Moscow while vocally protesting Agon's actions. Fans on other sites are calling for a boycott of World Chess Federation events.