When Bobby Fischer won the world championship in 1972 his prize money was $250,000. That doesn’t sound like much, but in 2013 dollars it amounts to about 1.3 million. Fischer’s $250k exceeded the total prizes for all previous title matches held since 1886. By contrast, Spassky’s prize money for winning the world championship just three years earlier amounted to $1400…not quite $9000 in today’s dollars. Curiously, in 1889 when Steinitz and Chigorin met for the world championship, Steinitz pocketed the equivalent of $50,000.
The First American Congress, held in 1857 had the equivalent of about $7200. Morphy won but turned down the money. Instead, he accepted a silver pitcher, four goblets, and a silver tray. Prior to the First American Chess Congress, Charles Stanley was considered the U. S. Champion but was near penniless because of his drinking problem. After the the tournament Morphy played a casual match against Stanley at odds of Pawn and move and won easily: +4 -1 =0. Morphy gave his prize money to Stanley. Actually he gave it to Stanley’s wife because he feared Stanley would have drunk it all up.
The winner of the Tarrasch-Mieses match in 1916 got a half-pound of butter. No doubt this was because the war was on and butter was a real treat. In Berlin a tournament winner received given a keg of schmaltz herring.
At a rapid tournament in Breslau in 1925, part of the first prize was enough silk to make six shirts. Nimzovich, taking it for granted that he would win, found out everything he could about the silk even before the tournament began. As it happened, however, Mieses defeated him in the first round and went on to win the tournament and the silk.
In 1889 Steinitz defended his title against Mikhail Chigorin which was played in Havana the total purse for the players was only $1,150 ($29,000 today), the smallest prize fund of any world championship match.
When I began tournament play in weekenders in the 1960’s most class players played for a cheap trophy or a book. First prize usually ranged from $50-100 based with a typical entry fee of around $10. In today’s dollars the EF would have amounted to $60-70 and that $50 prize amounted to about $360 today. I can remember playing in one tournament in downtown Cleveland Ohio and meeting a friend in the lobby right after he had checked in and he was upset at the hotel rate at the Holiday Inn…$33 a night or about $192 today!
Probably the best story about prize money was Reshevsky’s about how one time he won a tournament (the Western Open in the 1930s?) and his ‘prize’ was a few kind words!