Anand, AI and $1m: FIDE-approved Global Chess League aims big

The ‘phygital’ league, as Anand calls it, will involve virtual games while the final will be over-the-board, if the pandemic ebbs. A launch date in 2021 is a possibility once FIDE approves a window.

One million dollars in prize money, spectators polling online to decide the format, YouTube stars commentating, and seasoned pros, juniors, and wildcard entrants playing for privately-owned teams from around the world. In addition fans get to play against a Grandmaster over a virtual chess board in the fantasy version of the league.

Online chess’ new-found popularity during the pandemic received a booster shot in the arm with the international chess federation (FIDE) approving the Global Chess League on Friday. Five-time former world champion Viswanathan Anand is the mentor and a partner of the league, which is promoted by Tech Mahindra.

The ‘phygital’ league, as Anand calls it, will involve virtual games while the final will be over-the-board, if the pandemic ebbs. A launch date in 2021 is a possibility once FIDE approves a window.

Anand compares the recent growth of chess to the T20 revolution that boosted cricket’s popularity a decade-and-a-half ago.

“In 2007 and 2008 there was this discussion whether you could have a club culture in cricket. It is similar in chess, we have national chess leagues. But this kind of a global league is really a first,” Anand tells The Indian Express.

“You can see the parallel right? There was this big boom last year during the Chess Olympiad that happened online due to necessity. That is how Anand Mahindra was tweeting with some of the fans and here we come with the league afterwards. People from FIDE had reached out.”

Mahindra, the chairman of the Mahindra Group, recalled how tweeting during the online Olympiad last year – India and Russia were joint winners – planted the seed for the league. “From tweeting about the game to forming a league under Viswanathan Anand’s mentorship, now on-boarding FIDE, the entire journey has been very gratifying,” Mahindra says.

Anand has meticulously gone about setting up the league, the only global venture approved by FIDE. He looked at Esports’s growth for clues and studied the best practices for national chess leagues before he advised Tech Mahindra on the way forward.

The five-time World Champion wants to keep details of the format and scoring system close to his chest. But he is confident it will be ‘engaging’ and ‘fans will be interested till the very end.’

“I gave my perspective on what the world of chess is like and what a good league should look like. I tried to borrow elements from various aspects of Esports as well as national chess leagues. I tried to connect Tech Mahindra with the key players in the world of chess, like FIDE,” Anand says.

Following the pandemic, online streaming of chess has boomed as popular YouTubers and Twitch streamers with millions of followers have picked up the game. New fans are tuning in and established Grandmasters have innovated by commentating while playing online.

Anand says the Global Chess League is open to experimenting via streaming, on digital platforms, and commentary, as long as the essence of the game is intact.

“We would love to engage all these YouTube stars because they have managed to make chess reach a much wider audience,” he says.

“Many of them are extremely innovative. They could participate in presenting the league as well. There are many exciting possibilities when it comes to how we would like to work with them.”

5G, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR), provided by Tech Mahindra, will combine to put fans at a virtual stadium at the click of a button.

A stand-out feature will be the Fantasy League, is the belief at Tech Mahindra. Unlike in other sports like cricket or football, those who log in can actually play the game and earn points.

“The role of fantasy here is way beyond what we have seen in today’s sports,” says Jagdish Mitra, chief strategy officer and head of growth at Tech Mahindra.

“We could create a fantasy league where you are playing the game. In cricket, your team includes Virat Kohli or an R Ashwin or a Ben Stokes and it is all dependent on those guys playing on the ground. We see 5G, AI and VR playing a critical role. Imagine sitting in Noida and playing against Vishy (Anand) on a 3D board.”

Anand is also on the same page when it comes to putting fans at the centre of the Global Chess League project.

“The key element is that anyone who watches this league should go with the feeling that they understood what happened,” explains India’s first ever Grandmaster.

“We are going to use technology for this. In a way, that is what the streamers did last year and that is what a lot of fans have come to the game for. Commentary in chess tournaments has improved a lot, there are confessional booths where participants go and talk about what they are thinking of during the game, it is a perspective we have never had before.”

Even as he fine-tunes the blueprint and works towards launching the Global Chess League, Anand, 51, is unsure if he will be part of a team. “As to whether I will be playing, I don’t think I will but we will see when the teams are up.”

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