Here's a little concern I have with chess. The so-called Game of Kings has been around for hundreds of years, yet it really has much to learn about connecting with the masses.
Now, don't get me wrong. On my best day, I'm a mediocre beginning chess player. And I haven't played poker since college. But take poker, for example. In a relatively short time, poker has become INSANELY trendy and popular, not to mention profitable. It's chic, it's sexy. It's supported by celebrity patrons. It's something lots of regular people seem to be talking about--and doing.
Which is exactly what you CAN'T really say about chess, for the most part.
Tell people you play chess and they look at you funny or mistakenly assume you're a penciled-neck geek. I don't get the same reaction when I say I enjoy Scrabble or Checkers or making homemade hooch. With these, the response is something like, "Oh how fun! I used to do that when I was a kid." With chess, it's something like, "Oh, I could NEVER play that. It takes too much brains. You must be smart or something!" I actually fall into the "something" category, but maintain my silence so as to appear "smart."
Online poker, alone, is a $2.4 billion industry and growing (click here for mind-numbing numbers). How do I know this? I googled "poker industry stats."
How's that for a worldwide receding economy?
When I googled "chess industry stats," on the other hand, the results were not so neat and clean: I found a fascinating LinkedIn profile on a company named Chess, as well as a bunch of predictable sites on chess openings and game statistics. When I tried to see what "professional chess players" earn...well, the results were equally uninspiring. Click here and here for examples.)
Poker, as a card game, evolved in the early to mid-1800s in the American South near the Mississippi River region. This is the same geographic area that brings us The Adventures of Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. It's also the same U.S. state that brings us an incredibly stupid law that says a man may not seduce a woman by falsely promising to marry her. In comparison, Chess has been around for about 1,000 years! That makes it only slightly older than Lindsay Lohan looks in this picture.
Most top-shelf chess players, it seems, really make most of their money through related spin-off ventures, chief among them being endorsements (Magnus Carlsen's G-star Raw), writing and publishing, and higher-tech training aids, like videos, blogs, websites, and affiliate marketing collaborations.
Even chess-queen-of-self-promotion Alexandra Kosteniuk and Carmen Kass, along with pouty-pretty-boy Magnus, make some side dough modeling. These are hugely skillful leading players. In Kass's case, modeling is her primary career and a few assignments for Victoria's Secret probably pays far more of her bills than chess ever has or will. She was even the elected president of the Estonian National Chess League!
It's kinda sad.
But when it comes right down to it, for me, I guess it's really NOT just about the money. It's about the social capital...the relationship (or, rather, lack thereof) between brainy games, like chess, and the mainstream. Money only indicates where people's interests are. I think the bigger issue is the general lack of connection chess has to the mainstream.
Less forgivable is the general lack of ability chess seems to have in remedying this. In fact, it often seems to me that too many chessplayers take a sort of intellectually snobbish pride in distancing themselves from the masses and do little to nothing to debunk the game's own restricting stereotypes. I know I'm not the only one who's talked about this before. Chess.com, a popular commercial chess site, has an interesting message thread on this very same idea. Click here to read it.
Meanwhile, back to the adventures of Tom and Huck on the Mississippi. That is to say, back to poker.
A number of accomplished chess players are finding warm (and probably more profitable) welcomes in the poker world. Almira Skripchenko and Dinara Khaziyeva, two chess mistresses I'd like to mate, have just become finalists in the World Poker Tour Celebrity Invitational in Los Angeles, California, USA, as of today. They are among the last six players heading into the grande finale, having beaten out a 482-player field for a shot at a $100,000 grand prize, three-quarters of it in cash.
Good luck, ladies. I'd love to mate you both. But please don't call my bluff. At least I promise not to make you any false proposals of marriage--certainly not in Mississippi.