The ongoing World Chess Championship in London could crown the game’s first American champion since Bobby Fischer in 1972. With legal and regulated sports betting spreading across the U.S., could a new American chess star generate interest from the betting public?
Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, arguably the best chess player in history, began his World Championship defense on Friday against Fabiano Caruana, who hails from South Florida. Grandmaster Caruana, the world’s No. 2 ranked player, is looking to best the Norwegian Grandmaster over the 12-game match. Through Monday, the first three games resulted in draws, which is not uncommon for high-level chess.
In August, the EU-facing online sports betting brand Unibet (which is currently seeking a New Jersey presence through a partnership with Hard Rock AC) was named as the first official betting partner for the FIDE World Chess Championship. It was an historic development for the game. Unibet promptly released odds for the contest, with Carlsen being the betting favorite.
“The odds from […] Unibet shows just how exciting this championship will be,” Ilya Merenzon, the CEO of World Chess, commented in a statement. “It’s great to see the betting community from across the globe, as well as 600 million chess fans, come together, proving that the sport is continually becoming even more popular.”
Unibet Norway said in a statement that chess is becoming a “permanent fixture in betting.”
Why take bets on chess?
Chess betting isn’t something that operators across the board are interested in — at least not yet. A spokesperson for William Hill, one of the U.K.’s leading bookmakers, told US Bets that it didn’t have an interest in offering action on the World Chess Championship. That’s even with the match happening in London.
Unibet spiced up the action with various props and in-play betting, offerings that are sportsbook staples when it comes to something like an NFL game.
Erik Backlund, Head of Sportsbook in Europe for Kindred Group (Unibet’s parent company), told US Bets that pre-game wagering has been much more popular than in-play.
“It is not a massive betting sport and it’s mainly pre-game so far,” he said. “In-play is very difficult to compile odds for, and also for the punters to be confident enough to place bets. For most/all betting operators, it hasn’t really made sense to focus on models supporting a great in-play trading product, due to the low number of active chess punters.”
According to Backlund, the most interest in chess betting comes from countries with “relevant and famous” chess profiles.
“It has hence been more popular in the eastern parts of Europe than in the west,” he said. “We have especially seen chess interest from Russian customers in the past.
“However, take a country like Norway, with chess superstar Magnus Carlsen. The sport gets a lot of media coverage including TV broadcasting and prime national news show coverage. This of course also contributes to an uptake in betting popularity and we are seeing more mainstream betting action on chess from Norway, especially on Magnus.”
The company’s position around chess was mainly driven around brand marketing and exposure to Norwegian bettors, as well as British gamblers because London is the host city.
Backlund believes that Caruana has the potential to offer similar perks to a licensed operator in the U.S.
“In the U.S., there could be opportunities to associate yourself with players like Fabiano Caruana,” he said.
The advantages are obvious for an operator looking to stand out among an increasingly crowded sports betting market, but no operator would expect a windfall from chess.
“Chess is very unlikely to gain massive betting popularity and will always stay in the shadow of more mainstream sports,” said Backlund.
A leading Nevada bookmaker told US Bets that it isn’t aware of any time in the past when a book took a chess bet (including the ongoing World Championship). A spokesperson for New Jersey bookmaker DraftKings said that chess isn’t currently on the list of approved sports with the state’s Division of Gaming Enforcement. Silver State books wouldn’t have much of an issue with regulatory approval, as books there have taken bets on “mind sports” like the World Series of Poker main event final table.
A rising tide lifts all boats
Sportsbooks aren’t the only ones that can generate additional brand awareness through chess betting. Top players could see a myriad of opportunities for their products and services if regulated betting helps grow the base of casual fans. There’s already abundant poker terminology in chess commentary (Carlsen himself is a poker player), so we could see sports betting lingo make its way into the game.
“I definitely think that a regulated online sports betting market will help raise the popularity of chess,” Jennifer Shahade, a two-time winner of the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship, told US Bets. “Chess is the ultimate game of skill, so even though our market is smaller than major sports, including chess in the mix shows a stamp of approval for regulating online gaming.”
Shahade, also a Mind Sports Ambassador for PokerStars, echoed Backlund when it comes to what a Caruana victory could mean for U.S.-facing sportsbooks in the future. She said that it could raise interest “in all aspects of the game,” including coaching and wagering.
International Master and chess streamer Kostya Kavutskiy, who resides in California, told US Bets that the online community “would certainly take an interest in betting on the U.S. championship and other top events.” The chess channel on Twitch had more than 40,000 eyeballs during the early stages of Carlsen vs. Caruana.
Like any professional sport (especially individual ones), protecting game integrity is of utmost importance to any organization running a chess event and the sports betting operators taking action.
Regulated betting puts the activity out in the open, allowing operators to monitor any suspicious betting patterns. Regulated wagering can also give governments and operators great oversight on the identities of bettors. The bottom line is that the white market, as opposed to the black market, better protects the integrity of games.
There are a handful of offshore sports betting platforms catering to Americans that offered betting on the 2018 World Chess Championship.
Getting rid of the black market could prove especially important for a game like chess, where even the world’s best players can’t determine if a game is being thrown. It’s a game of “complete information” when it comes to strategy, but not when it comes to the world of wagering.
“Strong players can find a number of subtle ways to lose the game, especially if their opponent is aware that they’re throwing it,” Kavutskiy said. “For instance, if a player gets low on time, that can allow for a game-losing mistake that would appear natural. I think it would be very tough, even for experts, to spot a fixed game based on the moves alone.”
Even in the absence of wagering, chess is no stranger to controversies related to game integrity. Regulated wagering is unlikely to stir up more controversies for the aforementioned reasons. Kavutskiy said there was a recent controversy in the U14 World Youth Championship when a player made a “huge blunder deep in the endgame.” However, the controversy was later determined to be “baseless.”
It’s worth noting that sportsbooks wouldn’t offer action on just any chess event. The most popular chess events are already high-stakes affairs thanks to the prize money on the line. More than $1.1 million in prize money was up for grabs in Carlsen vs. Caruana.
“Most top players have a great deal of integrity and would never cheat,” Kavutskiy added about the highly unlikely scenario in which an International Master or Grandmaster would throw a game for a little extra cash.
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