Even though chess is a simple board game, it has given birth to a number of professions. These include professional tournament play, chess hustling, chess coaching (including specialised schools) and chess publishing.
However, for more than 99% of players, chess will not be a profitable venture. For the most part, chess will be a one-way flow out of an enthusiast’s pocket. Among other things, players will have to afford travel expenses, tournament entry costs and club membership costs. More serious players may have to take into account coaching costs, airline tickets and accommodation expenses.
A relatively cheap way to go about an amateur’s chess life is to play on a free online chess club, and to play some occasional club tournaments and weekenders. For an online chess club, I highly recommend the Free Internet Chess Server (FICS), which I find superior to other popular clubs like Yahoo! Chess and Pogo. Some of the features that FICS has are even more powerful than those of commercial online chess clubs.
Here is a look into some chess-related professions:
If a player becomes good enough, professional chess will become an option, but this is highly unlikely. Professional chess involves a very hectic and stressful lifestyle which will not be suited to everyone. Chess results have high variance too, since the income would not be steady. The only players who really have it easy are probably players ranked within the world’s top 50, who have regular sponsors. At the time of writing, you will need at least a 2685 FIDE rating to enter the top 50. Professional chess is most applicable in countries with a large chess presence or those where the government sponsors players; this includes China, Russia and many European countries.
In an interview, our current World Champion at the time of writing, Viswanathan Anand, stated that he was financially comfortable “after becoming a GM”, although nowadays it is more difficult. Anand advised that only at 2650+, does one have “a good chance of supporting [oneself]”. (The rest of the Anand interview is also a good read.)
Speaking as a 2100 player, I am severely in the red when I play chess even though I have won my fair share of prize money. Nevertheless, hardcore chess enthusiasts who can put up with the costs will find it easier when they earn their International Master title. This is because they are then offered many free services such as membership on PlayChess and waived entry fees to many over-the-board (OTB) tournaments.
It is now a cliché for a chess player to play poker as well. Every chess player and their grandmother tries to earn an income via poker these days. It is quite obvious why – poker is a strategy game just like chess, so chess minds are easy accustomed to the game; in addition, poker has so much more income-earning potential than chess, both from other players and from sponsorship. Of course, poker is becoming extremely popular and presumably, it is becoming increasingly difficult to outdo other motivated and well-educated players. Nevertheless, some players continually prove that they can beat the majority of the crowd consistently.
Chess hustling is an offshoot of playing chess professionally. Professional hustlers are skilled blitz or bullet players, and bet money on each game. They can be stronger than International Masters in playing strength in their specialised time limit. It often takes place in public places such as parks. Like professional tournament play, hustling is a tough gig which is time-draining and stressful. According to a New York Times article: “on a good night, [hustlers] might earn $150 to $200, but a slow night could produce as little as $30.”
Another option is to become a chess coach once a player reaches a realistic playing standard. However, chess coaches are not very high up on the income scale, so you should only pursue it as a career if you love chess and love teaching children too. Of course, it is a lucrative option for young people wanting to obtain some experience in dealing with clients. It can be used as a stepping stone onto a greater career or business.
An additional major area is chess journalism, writing and other publishing. This may include writing for online websites such as ChessPublishing, writing a regular column in a newspaper, writing books, writing articles for chess magazines such as New In Chess or publishing instructional DVDs. Celebrated author American International Master Jeremy Silman has noted that writing chess books is not particularly profitable. I wrote a chess ebook once; the profit is highest at the beginning and gradually over a year or two will fade away and become virtually zero. I suspect the profit pattern will be similar for chess books and instructional DVDs. Perhaps writing for online websites, for newspaper columns and for chess magazines will provide the most steady income. However, I am unsure of how high this income will be and whether it is fully sustainable.
A certain playing strength is required to be able to write for magazines and online websites. Typically, the player must be at least an International Master, although playing strength may vary according to the readership.
Writing chess software and playing programs is another method to generate some income. In general, a collaborative effort is necessary to create truly unique programs. The programmer does not necessarily have to be a strong chess player, but it would be helpful if he is well versed in the needs of strong chess players. Some successful chess software brands include ChessBase, Fritz, Rybka, Chess Assistant, Bookup/Chess Openings Wizard and Chessmaster.
Just as an example, the Rybka UCI chess playing engine is designed by a team headed by International Master Vasik Rajlich. The team includes a main programming author (Rajlich himself), hardware expert, two opening book authors, tester (his wife, who is also an IM), webmaster, website designer, advisor and two operators.
A related option is to own a chess-related company. For example, a chess magazine company, online club or a software company. Obviously being a boss is the most attractive option, although an entrepreneur needs some start-up capital and a sound business model.
It is disappointing that chess-related professions are not profitable enough for more than 99% of chess players. From what I can see, this situation is unlikely to change in the future. There is just not enough interest and sponsorship to support any major advancement of chess professions. Therefore, for most people, chess becomes an enjoyable hobby. As American Grandmaster Maurice Ashley eloquently put it, chess is “art for art’s sake”.