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December 12, 2021

Magnus Carlsen's hair is disheveled, his beard messy and his white shirt tucked out. But leaning forward on his gaming chair, he towers over the chessboard, supremely confident.

In contrast, his challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi, looks despondent and resigned to defeat. He faces an almost insurmountable task in the World Chess Championship, and surveying the board one last time, smiles knowingly and stops the clock. He's resigned the round, and title, to the now-five time world champion Carlsen.

The attritional games are being held in the Expo 2020 Dubai exhibition center, and crowds throng the main atrium to catch a glimpse of the players. In the hall itself, advertising hoardings are plastered around the soundproof box the players sit in.

Despite losing, the Russian grandmaster will take home $905,000 in prize money alone. That figure might seem high, but brands can pay millions for advertising packages that have their names on stage at events like this, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) re-echoed.

Mastercard and Unibet logos are emblazoned on Carlsen's shirt, and on the back of his chair sits Coinbase, the cryptocurrency exchange platform. Sponsors Kaspersky and Phosagro, Russian cybersecurity and chemicals companies respectively, have made sure their names are printed on the game table. Advertisements for Algorand, the decentralized blockchain network where World Chess' player profiles and ratings are recorded, are everywhere. They even intermittently punctuate the live stream of the event being shown on a football stadium-sized screen in the exhibition hall.
The millions around the world watching that feed in their homes see those names for hours every day across two weeks. Chess is now marketable, and since its popularity boomed during the pandemic and following the release of the hit Netflix series "The Queen's Gambit," the game is now turning over serious profits and sharing the wealth. Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi, left, and Norway's Magnus Carlsen compete during Game 11.

Putting on a show
Vishy Anand, a former world champion dethroned by Carlsen, and Anna Muzychuk, a top female player, are in a commentary box dissecting each move and possible variation. The two mental gladiators enter the arena like boxers while being introduced by the booming voice of Jamaican-American grandmaster Maurice Ashley. A representative of a corporate sponsor ceremoniously makes the first move.

FIDE is keen to show just how popular chess has become and, more importantly, the commercial potential of the game of kings. NBC Sports has aired daily 25-minute game recap programs. After Game Four, it was the most-watched sports segment on the channel that day, according to FIDE.

After the game, FIDE said that within a few minutes of the conclusion, there were 37,200 publications about the match already printed. In a room above the auditorium, more representatives of the corporate sponsors mill about, enjoying wine and finger food. Hans Niemann, an 18-year-old grandmaster from New York, who is ranked just outside the top 100 was also there."In America, up and coming talent, I'm number one," "There is nobody who compares to my potential."

The US junior champion is part of a generation that has found another way to generate revenue from playing chess -- streaming.

"I actually turned down a huge sponsorship deal that offered me to just play chess online," he says. He has taken a step back from streaming, for now, to focus on his over-the-board career, but at his peak, he estimates he was earning 6,000-10,000 dollars a month from donations and sponsorship on Twitch, the Amazon-owned live streaming platform. That's peanuts compared to the most-watched chess players on the site. The Botez sisters, Alexandra and Andrea, have one million followers on Twitch and also said in February that they make six figures a year.