Magnus Carlsen parlays chess success into hot tech start-up
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Sochi, Russia: No champion in the history of chess has till now endorsed packaged spring water. Not many have turned out in bespoke suits specially produced by a designer clothing company for a world title match.
Then, the world has never witnessed a phenomenon like Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, whose profile far transcends the world of chess. Leveraging it he is now seeking a seat for himself among the Mark Zuckerbergs of Silicon Valley.
Carlsen has launched a firm in Norway—Play Magnus AS—with his own and investors’ money to develop software applications to hone mental faculty. He owns 60% in the company, which has as stakeholders US and Norwegian investors, besides Espen Agdestein, his manager, who owns 15%.
And if early reviews are anything to go by, the company’s eponymous first offering—an application that allows you to play chess at 19 different levels which correspond with Carlsen’s own strength at various ages—is a runaway success.
Launched in June, Play Magnus is currently available only on the Mac platform. The application, created jointly by Norwegian and Polish software developers, has already been downloaded in 203 countries and has around 200,000 active users.
At least $1 million in fresh funding is on the way from US investors as the company looks to expand beyond chess and launch Play Magnus for Android users, says Agdestein.
“We have put our resources into this venture,” says Agdestein. “From early response, it appears to be an awesome concept. We are very keen that it grows rapidly.” India and the US are among the potential big markets. The launch of the Android variant will give Play Magnus, the application, a fillip in markets such as India.
Because many more applications are in the pipeline, including one to improve human memory, the company is raising money, albeit “in a small way, for now”, according to Agdestein. And no better time to do that: Carlsen’s “brand equity is rising in the US” as he is getting a lot of attention from Silicon Valley czars such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.
In the past year, Carlsen has had dinner with Facebook Inc. co-founder Zuckerberg twice, says Agdestein. Immediately after he became the world champion last year, he was invited to play chess with Microsoft Corp.’s Bill Gates. “He is no longer seen as just a chess champion...It’s about his cerebral power and that’s what technology companies want to associate with,” he says.
Stalwarts before Carlsen such as Bobby Fischer and Gary Kasparov have in their times sparred with the bosses at the world chess federation for better marketing of the sport, but no chess achiever has till now been able to build a profile for himself like this 23-year-old Norwegian, who has modelled alongside actor Liv Tyler for a clothing line and been rated among the 100 most influential people in the world by the Time magazine—that, too, even before he became the world champion.
After he secured the world title in November last year, beating India’s Viswanathan Anand, almost every Norwegian enterprise wanted a slice of Carlsen, recalls Henrik H. Kvissel, an executive at United Bakeries Norway AS.
Earlier this year, United Bakeries, which has traditionally associated itself only with endurance sports such as mountain biking and cross-country skiing, signed up Carlsen to endorse its brand of packaged spring water, Isklar.
This is one of the latest additions to Carlsen’s long list of sponsors, which includes diverse enterprises—from a Norwegian law firm (Simonsen Vogt Wiig) to a transnational chip maker (Nordic Semiconductor).
Another key sponsor is Scandinavian media group VG, which derives its name from the newspaper it runs, Verderns Gang.
Coinciding with the start of the ongoing world chess title match in Sochi, VG launched on Saturday its 24-hour news channel with the live telecast of the first game between Carlsen and Anand.
Carlsen has turned chess into a spectator sport in Norway, says Kurt Haugli, a veteran sports writer for Norwegian daily Aftenposten.
Besides the new channel launched by VG, state-owned NRK is also telecasting the match live in Norway—a country which until the rise of Carlsen only took interest in skiing, ice hockey, football and biking.
“I am told some two million people are watching the match live in Norway, and that’s huge considering we have only six million people,” Haugli says.
“For any sport, you need a global profile to create that kind of interest,” says Agdestein.
At the same time, broadcasters in Norway have found a way to make chess exciting, according to Haugli. They have successfully integrated the television screen with the mobile phone, making the telecast more interactive and inclusive even for the not-so-fervent Carlsen supporters, he says.
What broadcasters can do to a sport is perhaps best understood in the Indian context from the recent success of Pro Kabaddi League. “Not only are children at cricket coaching camps playing kabaddi during drinks breaks, in hindsight we are of the view that we sold the event far below its true potential,” says a Star India executive, asking not to be identified.
Star Sports had the exclusive telecast right of the league.