For Chess, a Would-Be White Knight

Andrew Paulson

If chess were storytelling, Andrew Paulson would be the undisputed world champion, the Bobby Fischer of raconteurs.

Not a moment of his rich life is not made richer by Mr. Paulson’s recounting, whether it be working in a science lab at Johns Hopkins University at age 11; his decision to come out at Yale, which he says inspired other gay students to do the same; the brutal murder of two colleagues in Russia who he says he suspects were KGB officers; the playwrights he has inspired; and, of course, his hard-fought business successes, as an American who became a Moscow media personality and pioneer.

Now Mr. Paulson, 55 and the former chief executive of SUP, a leading blogging platform in Russia, is turning his narrative skills to a sell that would tax the best pitchman. He wants to turn chess into the world’s next mass-market spectator sport.

The World Chess Federation, also known as FIDE, has sold worldwide licensing and marketing rights to Mr. Paulson’s company, Agon, in the hope that he will become the game’s white knight, able to monetize chess where past efforts have flopped.

Picture it as Mr. Paulson does: chess on television, or in mass-consumed digital feeds, sponsored by the world’s biggest companies, the players as sex symbols with bulging brains, a new generation of apps and hand-held gadgets that make the game easier to understand, and, of course, live commentators.

And, now, the world champion lifts his pawn — no, it’s his rook, his rook! No, he’s setting it back down….

If this sounds like a guy selling beachfront property in Nebraska, Mr. Paulson is ready to make his case.

Andrew Paulson
Andrew Paulson

“Do you realize there are more people in America who play chess than tennis and golf combined?” Mr. Paulson said minutes into our first conversation, in an enthusiastic burst that made it seem irrelevant whether chess is, in fact, more popular. “Who would’ve thought people would be watching golf on TV, and, yet, they are. And all of India is watching cricket on TV. The only thing more boring than cricket is golf!”

Mr. Paulson, who lives in London, has a good idea of what India is watching because he parked himself there for several months in advance of the chess world championship, which was decided on Friday in Chennai. The victor was Magnus Carlsen, a handsome and personable 22-year-old from Norway who made a Cosmopolitan magazine list of the sexiest men of 2013. To Mr. Paulson, Mr. Carlsen is “a sea change in the history of chess, who gives us the opportunity to reveal the individual of chess players rather than their introverted inscrutability.”

In the months leading up to the tournament, Mr. Paulson talked the ear off any Indian advertising buyer or media executive who would meet with him. Chess, he told them, is a chance to pair with a brand associated with strategy, intellect, creativity and …..