Dreaming Of A Chess Juggernaut

Professional chess isn't exactly a glamour game that commands the world's attention. But an American businessman is betting he can change that. Last year, Andrew Paulson bought the marketing rights to chess, and he hopes to transform it into a global powerhouse. Host Scott Simon talks to Paulson about his plans.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The World Chess Championship is being played in India next week. Chances are, the winner won't be welcomed home with a ticker tape parade. Hundreds of millions of people around the world play chess, but, come on, would you watch chess? Would that be about as exciting as a professional staring contest? Well, Andrew Paulson in London thinks that chess can be a crowd-pleasing, stadium-filling, revenue-generating juggernaut. Mr. Paulson is an American living in London and for half a million dollars he' bought the rights to promote World Chess for the next decade. He joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.

ANDREW PAULSON: Thank you.

SIMON: What's your game plan to recapture the glory days of Fischer versus Spassky?

PAULSON: Well, I think what I remember most clearly from my childhood, which inspires me in transforming chess into a spectator sport is having a radio under my pillow and listening to the Orioles games in Baltimore. Here in England, I try and remind people of listening to cricket on the radio. These were enormously popular ways of consuming sports, and you didn't really need to see anything. You have the same thing with chess. If you happen to have a computer at hand, you get brilliant new data visualization, which allows you to see with the eyes of a grandmaster. So, it's not at all the sort of paint-drying experience that you imagine.

SIMON: How do you hope to get people who don't care so deeply about chess or might even not know how the game is played except the vaguely know that a checkmate is something good and the king is something that you aspire to be on the board. How do you get them interested?

PAULSON: Well, we don't probably. And I don't think it really matters. We hired a great media research company and we came to the amazing conclusion there are more people in America who play chess regularly now than there are people who play tennis and golf.

SIMON: But to point out the obvious: the play chess, they don't watch it.

PAULSON: Who would ever in a million years have imagined that anyone would be interested in watching golf on TV? In our poll, golf is considered the most boring sport in America and yet it's incredibly successful on TV. It is indeed considered, in this poll, more boring than chess. But if you think about it, if you know anything about chess, you know that there's a rich, thick history, both of players and personalities and madness and theory that you can talk about on and on and on and on. There's nothing to talk about in golf.

SIMON: Andrew Paulson speaking with us from London. Thank you very much. Good luck to you and to chess, Mr. Paulson.

PAULSON: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And this is NPR News.

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