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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Buying Chess Players!

   Would you move to a foreign country to make more money? Apparently some are trying to entice Grandmasters to do just that.
     The New York Times had an article some time back titled Your Move, Grandmaster which appeared on the front page of the sports section that described an effort behind the scenes to beef up the U.S. team for international events. The article speaks of a program and a clandestine effort to recruit top players from other countries to switch their allegiance to the United States. According to the article top grandmasters are offered tens of thousands of dollars in payments to play for the U.S.
     Someone tried to persuade Fabiano Caruana to switch from playing for Italy to playing for the United States. Last year Caruana said he was approached and offered a large sum to switch federations. Caruana, it will be remembered, was born in the U.S but moved to Italy along with his parents to enhance his chess career and he holds dual U.S. and Italian citizenship. Caruna turned down the offer.
     Switching federations isn't easy because the player and his new Federation has to apply to FIDE and then pay a fee of over $5,000 and if the player hasn't lived in the new country for two years, his old Federation gets paid a fee - it could be well in excess of $50,000 - as compensation for the "loss" of the player. As a result it doesn't happen often but Wesley So switched to the U.S. last year.
     It's not that there hasn't been foreign-born players representing the United States in the past, but the whole thing reminds me of baseball's George Steinbrenner trying to buy the Pennant. See the spoof that appeared in The Onion back in 2003. In the past, players played for the U.S. because they moved here for a variety of reasons, most of which had nothing to do with their chess careers.
     If you are good enough you can earn money by finishing in the money in tournaments, appearance fees where the players get paid to show up and play, scholarships where promising players get paid, advertising sponsorships (though in the U.S. you don't see any Grandmasters advertising sports drinks or athletic shoes or even chess sets for that matter), coaching, being a second and assisting a better player, simuls and writing books are the most popular ways they earn money.
     It wasn't always that way. Spassky’s prize money for winning the world championship amounted to $1,400 (maybe $9,000 in today’s dollars), the winner of the Tarrasch-Mieses match in 1916 got a half-pound of butter...a war was on and butter was a real treat. In Berlin, a tournament winner received a keg of schmaltz herring and Reshevsky once said his prize was, as he put it, "a few kind words." Most top players had regular jobs because they couldn't make enough money to sustain themselves by playing chess.
     If a guy can make a living playing chess, I'm all for it, but somehow the whole idea of buying players to play for your country just doesn't seem right. Personally, I don't care whether Fabiano Caruana plays for the U.S. or Italy nor do I care what country Wesley So plays for. After all, if the U.S. lineup for the chess olympics consisted of Carlsen, Caruana, Nakamura, Topalov, Grischik and Anand (the top 6 in the world as of April) would that really prove anything? Only two of them were actually born here and one of them moved away.
     The University of Texas at Dallas has been recruiting chess players for years. I'm not sure why. The chess team can't possibly be making millions for the university like some college football and basketball programs do. So, why do they do it?
     Maybe it's going to end up like professional sports. When basketball star LeBron James was playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers he was adored by Cleveland fans but when he switched to Miami he was vilified and you couldn't give away a LeBron James jersey. I know one young admirer who ripped James' poster off his bedroom wall in disgust! After four seasons with the Miami Heat James returned to Cleveland and was hailed a hero as if nothing happened. That's one reason why I don't follow pro sports too closely...the guys that were being cheered this year will have on different uniforms next year and will be booed.
     It's not unusual for pro athletes to change uniforms every year as they follow the money and lots of people take jobs in other cities, states and even countries, so I have to wonder, is chess coming to the same thing where top players will go anywhere if the price is right? Anyway, I applaud Caruana because if he's happy in Italy why move just for money?

1 comment:

  1. Obviously. Fabiano Caruana should live where ever he is the happiest, but it should be remembered that he moved to Italy to further his chess career in the first place. It wouldn't be a big surprise if he later decided to move back to the country where he was born, where he learned to play chess, where he got his first tournament experience (I have friends who remember playing the young Fabiano is local Swisses), and where he first became a master. Fabiano has uncles and cousins and childhood friends by the dozens in the United States, and English remains by far his best language.