Magnus Carlsen’s new brand of chess could pay him off

Magnus Carlsen is good at the beautiful game. Problem is, he also seems to be a pretty good businessman.

The 25-year-old grandmaster became the world’s top-ranked chess player in 2015. Last year, the Norwegian paid for the half-hour TV show “Sotto Voce” about grandmasters who excel in secret. Perhaps the most entertaining episode involved Carlsen dealing with the larger-than-life personality of the legendary Bobby Fischer. He even wore a comb-over wig inspired by the title character in the movie “Giant.”

But Carlsen’s increasing prominence in the sport could also mean a financial payoff for him. Chess used to be largely an elitist pursuit in Norway. Until last fall, the only grandmasters who competed on U.S. TV were the professionals from the Washington area—the only thing they had in common besides being play in the National Museum of American History, was a tardy intro and a deliberate resignation.

Carlsen is ending that vicious circle: He got 90 million kroner from the Norwegian government, reportedly Norway’s largest tax donation in history, to turn his chess skills into a cultural venture that features national celebrations of the sport and also programs to teach children how to play the game.

A new TV series on Norway’s NRK public television will showcase “Skill Nation,” a chess-focused documentary series that debuts this fall. The format will try to include the “fun factor” of the sport, so there’s no need to wear a bathrobe—or flip into the back seat of a taxi—when you’re playing.

“One of the things we try to do is show people that this is really about tactics and strategy,” said Rob Klinkhamer, a former professional chess player who was an early consultant on the series. “Most people, when they say chess, they think thinking about a board. But it’s also about trading expertise and good communication skills.”

The idea, he added, is to create a chess network through a series of TV programs, a chess “retreat” in Norway and through tournaments. “The chess communities in Norway and the U.S. want to work together,” he said.

But the chess fans will get in on the fun, too. The first episode will showcase a competition of Norwegian housewives, and the second episode will involve a group of the nation’s top players.

The show is funded by the Norwegian government. Klinkhamer said that the money is “not a trivial amount” of money. In contrast, he said, other government subsidy for the arts in the past has been “considerably less” but “not nearly as lucrative.”

Klinkhamer has worked with other former chess players, including Florent Boike (who was inducted into the International Chess Hall of Fame last year), but he said that this was the first time he was asked to consult on a TV program.

Just as Mastercard put Carlsen in the top 10 of “The Forbes Billionaires Club,” Klinkhamer said, “We wanted to expose everyone to chess.” The $5 million world chess championship in May in New York is the only major chess tournament outside Norway that features professional players.

In addition to the TV show, the initiative will encourage chess fans to join academies that will teach the sport to school children in Norway. The program does not currently include any promotional tie-ins with U.S. retailers, but Klinkhamer said that the initiative is part of a larger brand-building effort.

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