Sochi, Russia: Strangely for Russia, widely regarded as the Mecca of chess, the world title match between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand is being played to empty stands.

There are only about 140 seats in the auditorium of the media centre at the Olympic Park, where the match is being held. Ticket prices are steep, but the organizers are only too happy to give them away free. Even so, there aren’t many takers.

The picture was exactly the opposite in Chennai a year ago, where Norway’s Carlsen dethroned Anand as world champion.

The organizers at the Russian Chess Federation aren’t surprised by the poor response from locals, but they are counting heavily on a surge in online viewers compensating for the empty seats in the swank auditorium.

The match is being telecast live by two television channels in Norway, reaching, according to one Norwegian journalist, as many as two million people, but world champion Carlsen’s manager Espen Agdestein isn’t impressed with the marketing efforts of the World Chess Federation.

He has several reasons to complain: the World Chess Federation couldn’t find any bidder other than Sochi and the prize fund is the regulatory minimum of €1 million. But money isn’t the big issue here, Agdestein said in an interview. Edited excerpts:

Why was Carlsen initially reluctant to play in Sochi?

Carlsen was unsure about playing in Russia in view of the situation in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed on Russia because of the conflict. In the light of the stance taken by the Western countries on this issue, he wanted to avoid Russia.

But, in the end, he had to agree.

Yes, because there was no alternative. (Gary) Kasparov had promised to move the match from Sochi if he won the Fide (World Chess Federation) presidential election, but he didn’t win. No one else bid for the match, so Carlsen had to eventually agree to play in Russia to defend his title.

The prize fund, too, is not impressive.

Money isn’t the big issue here. Money has not been the main motivation for Carlsen. Of course, he needs money, but that’s not been the driving force.

Are you disappointed that the stands are empty?

Well, not so much, if it goes big online and on television. But for that to happen, Fide must work differently, which it doesn’t. It should start to market the telecast rights of these matches.

In Chennai, there were a lot of people at the playing venue, a lot of television channels covering the match, but no coordinated effort by Fide to market the event. And the money that was made available for the match came entirely from the (state) government (of Tamil Nadu).

This is not the right way of managing events like these.

How has life changed for Carlsen ever since he became world champion?

He has launched a company, putting his own resources into it, and we are aiming high. That apart, he has taken on a much bigger role in promoting chess, so has to travel a lot.

He is the ambassador of the chess-in-school programme in the US called First Move, and travels to the US frequently. Every school in New York and its neighbourhood now has some kind of chess programme going.

But most importantly for him, we make sure that in between chess events, he gets to do what he enjoys. So he travelled to Sochi earlier in the year to watch the Winter Olympic Games; he went to Brazil for the world cup football; he also went to Madrid at the invitation of Real Madrid to kick off a match—that for him was a big thing, being a big fan of Real Madrid.

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