Interview

“We must not let Corona shrink the chess economy”

Language:

17 Apr 2020

The Magnus Carlsen Invitational starting this Saturday on chess24 will almost certainly be the most watched and widest reported online chess event until now. And it is a most welcome boost to the elite chess world in these hard times. Stefan Löffler spoke with chess24 CEO Sebastian Kuhnert about the motives behind this notable event and what else is brewing in the Play Magnus Group, to which chess24 belongs since the merger a year ago.

Sebastian Kuhnert
Sebastian Kuhnert (private)

chess24-CEO Sebastian Kuhnert spoke about the Magnus Carlsen Invitational and the expansion of the Play Magnus Group with Stefan Löffler.

Sebastian Kuhnert was appointed the CEO of chess24 in 2017 and became COO of the Play Magnus Group when the two companies merged in 2019. He has been working with chess24 co-founder Enrique Guzman since he graduated from WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management in 2011, initially at PokerStrategy.com, an e-learning platform for poker, and then as founder and CEO of Tradimo Interactive, an e-learning platform on finance and trading. He lives in Copenhagen.

ChessTech: What is the objective behind the Magnus Carlsen Invitational?
Sebastian Kuhnert: We have recently raised 13.5 million USD from investors to popularise chess. Chess has enjoyed rapid growth during recent years, and we must keep the momentum. We must not let the Corona pandemic reduce the chess economy to casual online games on evenings and weekends. Chess professionals need income and chess enthusiasts want entertainment. We are currently speaking to many top players about working with us.
ChessTech: What can we expect from the event?
Sebastian Kuhnert: Sixteen consecutive days of at least four hours of world-class chess live each day – not counting the hours of banter blitz sessions and interviews with the players. We’ll have commentary teams in nine languages as we had during the Candidates tournament. Norwegian TV2 and MatchTV in Russia will broadcast the Magnus Carlsen Invitational; DAZN will stream it. It is the first online chess competition that can reach millions of viewers.
ChessTech: Are your servers prepared for high traffic?
Sebastian Kuhnert: On Monday we started the Pepe Cuenca and Divis Invitational to test the format and system. Servers for transmission traffic are quite scalable.
ChessTech: Can Chess.com, Playchess, Lichess and ICC transmit the Magnus Carlsen Invitational?
Sebastian Kuhnert: We are not restricting anyone. At the same time, we, of course, hope that people find that chess24 offers the best experience for enjoying the Magnus Carlsen Invitational. We have also launched a free new Android app just for broadcast, called “chess24 Broadcast”.
ChessTech: Is Chess24 still doing transmissions for premium members only?
Sebastian Kuhnert: We haven’t restricted access to transmissions lately. Premium members have the exclusive privilege to be able to ask our guest stars and in-house top players questions or play banter blitz with them on top of accessing hundreds of high-quality educational videos at no extra charge. But live events are on an optimal environment to attract chess lovers and show them what we can do for those who can afford a premium membership. We must not waste this opportunity to grow chess for everyone.
ChessTech: Are Play Magnus and Chess24 now one company?
Sebastian Kuhnert: We keep different brands but we all operate under Play Magnus as one group. That includes the e-learning platform Chessable and ChessX in Riga which is developing our upcoming platform for live coaching, CoChess.
ChessTech: Tell us more about ChessX.
Sebastian Kuhnert: It started with a visit by Andris Ozols, at the time chairman of the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia and vice president of the Latvian Chess Federation. He was at the Chess24 office in Hamburg in February 2019. It took us only until September to open ChessX. It functions as a start-up. Its first product, CoChess, is a community-based learning platform that connects professional chess coaches with their students. CoChess will soon start beta-testing at CoChess.com.
ChessTech: How big is Play Magnus AS?
Sebastian Kuhnert: Seventy of us are working more or less full-time. There are many more who contribute as authors or commentators and we are looking for many more strong developers in all of our companies. All parts of the company are growing at a fast rate. Our valuation is now above $50 million.
ChessTech: Before the merger with Chess24 and the acquisition of Chessable, Play Magnus didn’t generate the turnover one would expect after six years of existence.
Sebastian Kuhnert: Our app sales have more than doubled since last year. Play Magnus, Magnus Trainer and Magnus Kingdom of Chess are all growing, and our new app Tactics Frenzy has started very well.
ChessTech: Is Play Magnus AS planning to be listed publicly at a stock exchange?
Sebastian Kuhnert: It may be an option in the future, but it’s neither a good time nor are there concrete plans right now.
ChessTech: Since you are now running Play Magnus …
Sebastian Kuhnert: … I am the Chief Operating Officer, which means that I am coordinating our business operations while my co-manager Andreas Thome functions as the group’s CEO.
ChessTech: Did the former CEO Kate Murphy leave?
Sebastian Kuhnert: Kate is still with us. Someone falsely reported that she left and others repeated this instead of asking us. Kate is exploring the very promising opportunities in e-sports for us.
ChessTech: Can you tell us more about your e-sport plans?
Sebastian Kuhnert: I can share that we are exploring every aspect of playing chess online and in many different formats. We believe that the best days of chess as a sport and as a game still lie ahead and want to play a big part in contributing to this.
ChessTech: When it comes to playing, it seems most players prefer Lichess and Chess.com over Chess24.
Sebastian Kuhnert: We know that our current Playzone is far from optimal. This has partly to do with Chess24 in the past fluctuating between thirty developers at one time and just three at its lowest point. We have since started to rebuild our Playzone from scratch. Our premium members shall get a glimpse of the new Playzone in May.