Why chess in the U.S. is not (yet) a profession

by admin on November 15, 2007

Every now and then I like to surf Russian web sites, just to see what’s happening on the other side of the world. (I studied Russian in college, spent a semester abroad in Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — and used to be somewhat fluent. For lack of practice my spoken Russian is now extremely rusty, but I can still read just fine.)

So last night I was perusing the website www.64.ru. If you didn’t know this, “64” was one of the main Soviet-era chess magazines. During the transition from the Communist system to whatever system they have nowadays, “64” stopped publishing for a while, but it was then brought back by the personal initiative of its former editor, Alexander Roshal’. The website is full of articles and interviews with absolutely top players. Of course, when you talk about top Russian players you’re talking about the best players in the world — people like Kramnik, Shirov, … Now I’m a big fan of the U.S. Chess website, www.uschess.org, but when you compare them on a strictly chess level it’s hard to escape the feeling that we in the U.S. are the junior varsity.

The latest issue of “64” had an interesting column by Evgenii Sveshnikov — yes, that Sveshnikov — which really shows the difference in the chess culture between our countries.

Sveshnikov was complaining about the size of his pension, and arguing that Russia needs to support its older generation of chess players better. He ticks off the long list of his accomplishments: grandmaster, former Russian chess champion, inventor of a world-famous opening line, leader of a Russian chess school “which produced around ten grandmasters and an uncountable number of masters,” a second for Anatoly Karpov and Lev Polugaevsky in candidates’ matches, and a participant in 40 years of Russian championships, from his first one in 1967 to his most recent one in 2006. He asks, why don’t I get the same credit for 40 years of service that an ordinary laborer would? Instead he gets a measly pension of 2250 rubles ($91), which I assume is per month (the article doesn’t say).

There are a few details in Sveshnikov’s article that I don’t understand, not being familiar with the Russian pension system and all that, but it seems he has two main complaints. First is that a retired athlete of his caliber would be getting a pension of about $500 (again, I assume this is a per-month figure), and so the Russian Chess Federation needs to get its act together to keep up with the other sports. His second complaint is that the Agency of Sport has not sufficiently recognized his accomplishments.

Reading this here in the U.S., my reactions were probably quite different from what Sveshnikov had in mind. My first thought was, “Oh-ho, there’s trouble in paradise!” I was amazed by Sveshnikov’s complete sense of entitlement, the idea that of course he should receive a government paycheck because that’s the way it’s always been. Earth to Sveshnikov: if you lived in the U.S., you wouldn’t be entitled to anything! (Well, there’s a small exception I will mention below.)

But as I thought about it some more, I realized that Sveshnikov is absolutely right. What is a profession? Almost by definition it is a service to society, performed over a long period of time, for which society compensates you during the period of service and after you retire. Who in the U.S. thinks about chess in such lofty terms? But in Russia, they do. They have at least established the principle that chess is a profession, even if the financial rewards are not as great as Sveshnikov would like.

There is one ray of light here. In recent years the U.S. Chess Federation has established a pension fund for grandmasters. I am extremely ignorant about this fund. All I know is that in certain large tournaments, a dollar or so of your entry fee goes into it. I don’t know how large the fund is, who qualifies for the pension (just grandmasters?), or how large the monthly payments are. Does anyone out there know the answers?

As a matter of pride and as a matter of principle, I think that we need to support U.S. grandmasters and ensure that they can retire without slipping into poverty.

As for Sveshnikov, I do think he deserves more than $91 a month. Good grief! Maybe we should set up a Sveshnikov Fund, which you have to pay a penny into every time you play 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cd 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e5 as Black. Too bad I won’t be contributing to it… I’ll be paying into the Ruy Lopez Fund instead!  😎

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

alfaqui November 15, 2007 at 11:03 am

I would rather get nothing than be insulted with 90$. Long live to Defence Sveshniov


Matt Hayes November 15, 2007 at 2:16 pm

I’m sure $90 goes further in Russia than it does here. Why is it an insult to get $90 for doing nothing?


Dribbling November 16, 2007 at 1:26 am

What is a profession? The politically incorrect answer is that it is a conspiracy to defraud the public.


Carina J. November 16, 2007 at 1:42 am

In Denmark, chess is much smaller than in either Russia or U.S., and we don’t get money either. 🙁 I think that it’s stupid, though. Chess is so beneficial for people that I think it should be encouraged to play, and people who make a lifelong profession of it (and who are successful) should be rewarded and supported for it, so the sport can grow!

But it’s a difficult thing to promote. For people who play, it seems obvious that chess would demand of committed players that they make it a profession. And that means sacrificing other careers, and they’ll need support.

But for people who don’t play the game, it must seem senseless to devote your life to play, and I think nonplayers thinks it’s luxurious to be outside the standard 9-17 job system (and might even envy it) and that since the players aren’t making money for society by working in a slave-job 😆 , then society hasn’t any obligation to support players when they grow old, either. I think the freedom and intelligence that is associated with being able to play only chess and travel the world for tournaments, is begrudged by people in common professions who don’t have that option, but are enslaved to work for other people. So I guess that’s why noones rushing to pay the free birds, too.

I think the only solution is to find a way to get chess more strongly into the mainstream, so the game, and also the Grandmasters, will get the recognition and funding they deserve.

As for whether a little money is better than no money, I definitely think that a little is better than nothing. And 90 dollars would have a lot more buying power in Russia. But also, it’s easier to make a little grow bigger (convince them to increase pay) than it is to make something out of nothing, like in other countries, where pay isn’t at all established.


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