Norway’s chess champion Magnus Carlsen topped the national news on Tuesday after he launched and funded a new chess club that sparked instant controversy. It’s entirely aimed at all but forcing the national chess federation (Norges Sjakkforbund, NSF) to promote changes that would liberalize both gambling in Norway and sports sponsorship rules.
“This is a bit of a surprising move by Magnus,” the federation’s president, Morten L Madsen, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), “so we’re trying to follow this as well as possible.”
Madsen confirmed, however, that he’s asked federation officials to evaluate whether what Carlsen is doing complies with regulations. Carlsen’s stated goal is to form a large new club with enough members who’ll be able to vote at an upcoming federation meeting in favour of a proposal to accept a sponsorship agreement with Kindred Group worth NOK 50 million (nearly USD million).
Kindred owns the Malta-based gaming company Unibet. Tying up with a company that competes with Norway’s own state-sanctioned gambling that largely funds Norwegian sports would utterly defy Norway’s long-term gambling and sponsorship policy.
Carlsen thinks the windfall is worth the risk of being shut out of Norway’s national athletics federation Norsk Idresttsforbund. He wants to see far more support and funding for chess players in Norway, and welcomes Kindred’s offer.
He thus offered to pay the membership fee (NOK 520 for adults and NOK 260 for juniors) for the first 1,000 members of his new club, in return for a binding agreement that they’d vote for the Kindred proposal. Critics claim Carlsen is essentially buying votes to tip the balance at the meeting, and thus challenging the federation’s democratic principles: “He wants to buy a victory for the proposed agreement (between Kindred and NSF),” the chairman of Bergen Schakklub, Eirik Gullaksen, told NRK.
TV2 has reported that the Kindred agreement would extend over five years, at NOK 10 million a year. In return, the chess federation must work to get Norway to change its gambling policy and thus bust the monopoly that Norsk Tipping and Norsk Rikstoto have long had in return for being an important source of income for Norwegian sports.
Magnus simply ‘mobilizing’
Critics also contend that would force NSF into becoming a political lobbying group. There’s still a political majority in Parliament that supports Norsk Tipping’s and Norsk Rikstoto‘s monopoly and bans Kindred’s Unibet. Norwegian athletes aren’t allowed to be sponsored by it or other gaming organizations.
Carlsen’s new club had quickly attracted its first 1,000 members by Tuesday night, with Carlsen paying as much as NOK 520,000 to cover their membership fees. While Carlsen wasn’t answering media questions on Tuesday, his manager Espen Agdestein stressed that Carlsen alone was behind the establishment of the new club and not Kindred.
“He thinks there’s great potential within Norwegian chess,” Agdestein told NRK, “but it’s completely impossible for the young players to really commit themselves to chess with the (low) budgets Norwegian chess has had and operates with.”
He said he didn’t think Carlsen had any intention of staging a coup at NSF’s meeting, “but he wants to mobilize the young and engage himself in the (chess financing) issue. This is a way of doing that.” Agdestein claimed that Carlsen’s motive was “entirely to do what’s good for Norwegian chess,” even though the debate was splitting the federation.
Others remained critical. “It’s completely surreal that someone sets up a fictitious club to coup the (NSF) congress,” Atle Grønn, a chess expert who leads the Oslo Schakselskap. “There’s nothing about planned chess activies in (Carlsen’s) club and they write that they want to take (control of) the congress. That’s not how a membership democracy works. These aren’t real chess players.”
Gullaksen of the Bergen club, which has 137 members compared to Carlsen’s 1,000-plus, agreed: “I don’t think this is right, it’s not a genuine club. It’s a paper club formed to buy enough votes to win a process. That’s not good, and very unfortunate for Norwegian chess.”
There was no question the federation and chess players are split, but some defended Carlsen’s move: “He clearly cares about Norwegian chess, and wants more young players to have the chance to commit and move up ino the top world rankings,” chess expert Tarjei Svensen told NRK. “In order for that to happen, you need money. When someone knocks on the door and is willing to offer money, the federation should say thank you.”
He noted how Carlsen has said the federation didn’t (or couldn’t) help him much earlier. “Now he thinks it’s time that this agreement is accepted, since it will mean a lot for the younger generation of chess players.”