Background

A risky sideline

05 Jun 2020

Dozens of betting companies rediscovered chess in March and online chess in April, when there were hardly other sport events. Most bookmakers have since reduced their chess bets or even dropped them. Match-fixing remains a risk but is hard to get away with, reports Stefan Löffler.

Visitors of a betting company’s Norwegian site are welcomed by the world champion.
Visitors of a betting company’s Norwegian site are welcomed by the world champion.

When the grandmaster reached the venue of an open he was tired from the trip. To make the best out of the situation he decided to offer a draw early in the first round and asked a friend to bet the highest possible amount on this result. The maximum wager was fifty euro. The odds for a draw were higher than 10:1, because the grandmaster was the favourite by several hundred rating points. His opponent agreed his draw offer happily, but the very next day the grandmaster received a call in his hotel from the betting company.

This true story from three years ago illustrates the attitude of bookmakers about chess. They are anxious about offering such bets, because they are all too aware of the risks of insider bets and match fixing in chess. And they will investigate a suspicious bet and refuse to pay out the winner, even if it the amount is less than 1000 euro.

Eight years earlier, one case of matchfixing between two strong grandmasters and a third grandmaster who placed the bets had killed several bookmakers’ appetite for chess for years. Between 2002 and 2009 one could find the most betting markets for chess, at least six or seven international events in a year and even some national events, says FIDE’s chief marketing and communications officer David Llada. He was working in different roles in sports betting at the time.

The companies are desperate to offer something to keep customers coming back to their website or to make a few new customers among chess fans, but I doubt that they make money on chess.

The lockdown brought difficult times for bookmakers. In March they ran out of events The Candidates Tournament was the last viable event besides the football league of Belarus and some online esports. Many bookmakers who formerly only provided odds for a world championship match or had given up chess more than a decade earlier, now offered bets. After the Candidates was interrupted, some bookmakers took on the Banter Blitz series on chess24. Dozens of betting companies offered the Magnus Carlsen Invitational in April.

“The companies are desperate to offer something to keep customers coming back to their website or to make a few new customers among chess fans, but I doubt that they make money on chess”, says Ilya Balinov, who turned from professional chess to sport betting long ago. “Usually they just accept one chess bet at a time, and you cannot wager more than fifty euro.” Farrukh Amonatov, a Tajik grandmaster and coach, worked for a Russian betting company in the past, but declined to answer questions.

If FIDE decides to educate the players to prevent cheating, match fixing must also be addressed.

Esports, snooker and darts had their matchfixing scandals. In chess matchfixing falls into the domain of FIDE’s Fair Play Commission which is headed by Salomeja Zaksaite. “For many years our focus has been on electronic assistance. If FIDE decides to educate the players to prevent cheating, match fixing must also be addressed”, says Zaksaite who wrote her PhD thesis on sports fraud in chess and is a research fellow of the Law Institute of Lithuania.

David Llada calls bookmakers to get in touch with FIDE if they suspect match fixing in online or over the board chess. He is not overly concerned though: “As soon as the big team sports, tennis and formula one are back, betting companies will drop chess except for the world championship match and maybe other events with Magnus Carlsen.” In fact, this is already happening. Only a handful bookmakers offer bets on the ongoing Clutch Chess International.

Whereas in darts the PDC Home Tour, that is matching world class dart players throwing in front a webcam in their home, is bankrolled by bookmakers, chess federations and organisers of online chess have no sideline with the betting industry. With two exceptions. One was the last world championship in 2018, during which the most active betters were Norwegians. The other is Magnus Carlsen.

The world champion and the club Offerspill that he founded last year have signed contracts with the Kindred Group to promote their Unibet brand for Norwegian online customers. Unibet advertised its chess bets in a subtle way by sponsoring the Fantasy Chess competition held by chess24 during the Magnus Carlsen Invitational.