Agon versus the World

Generally my interest in the Candidates, and chess tournaments in general, is in the moves played, not the business or legal issues. But it seems an important business and legal issue is developing in chess, and it affects seeing the moves, so let’s see what readers think about ‘the Agon debate’.

For those who have not followed the story, the quick version is that Agon is the company that’s running the Candidates (and the World Championship) and they are claiming that only they (and their approved partners) have the right to broadcast the moves live. Other chess sites (such as chessdom and chess24) disagree, and are showing the moves despite Agon’s attempted ban. The dispute may end up debated in various courts around the world.

You can read Agon’s view here. And, for an opposing view from one of the chess sites, here is the view of chessdom.

There seem to be too many different aspects in this debate to make it sensible to reduce it to one poll question. There is the legal side: can Agon sue and win? A moral side? And a practical question: will Agon’s approach be successful commercially? And no doubt there are many other ways of looking at it.

And what’s my view and the official Quality Chess view? No comment. I would rather hear what you think. Also, there’s probably some book I should be working on…

32 thoughts on “Agon versus the World”

  1. For what’s it’s worth, Ilya Merenzon, the chief executive and possible owner of Agon, is Russian. Last I heard, Andrew Paulson, an American, is no longer involved with Agon. Though perhaps Agon’s structure is not totally clear.

    Copyrighting moves seems to be the one thing both sides agree is not possible.

  2. I helped out in the transmission of the moves for the match Kasparov – Kramnik in London, 2000, (at least, I was responsible for the automatic transmission of the moves from the electronic board to the website; I was in no way involved with that terrible French concoction), when Braingames had the similar idea of not allowing other sites to transmit the moves, sometime just after half the games had been played. I asked Keene about it, saying, “The journalists won’t be too happy about that.” His reply was, “The journalists can get stuffed.”

    To prevent the other journalists transmitting the moves from the press centre, it was decided to have the televisions only show the Braingames website. How they did this was amateurish in the extreme: someone brought along a laptop, the screen of which would be shared with the televisions. When the game had already started, the laptop’s owner, a girl who was rather out of her depth, discovered the site didn’t work: it needed RealPlayer (remember that?) to run. I helped her install it, and we finally got something to share with the journalists in the press room. That is, until the site collapsed under the load and nobody was able to follow anything any more.

    I remember an elderly Russian journalist complaining with tears in his eyes that he was too old to run back and forth from the press room to the playing hall. I considered this to be so wrong that I transmitted all the moves by IM to the journalist of another website,…

  3. At first I was totally against Agon’s decision, but when I saw Kramnik and Gelfand coming out in favour of it, I decided to think about it more. I have now come to the conclusion that organisers have a case that: they are the ones investing money in putting together these major chess events we all love to follow, therefore they deserve to profit from anyone generating commercial value from it. Broadcasts I think do class as a form of profiting, when sites such as chess24 broadcast events without contributing to the tournament organisation’ fees, they are what we call in economics “free riding”. Is it fair that tournament organisers invest lots of money, then other sites can profit off this without making contributory payment, by making their own broadcast? I think not. I am annoyed that my choice of broadcast has been limited to one, but seeing as I’m not paying for it, I guess fair enough. The main losers from this situation are the “free riding” chess sites, they have had a good thing going for several years, i.e. being able to “free ride” by making their own broadcasts without contributing to the tournament organisations costs, but life is such that “all good things come to an end”, if these chess sites want to broadcast, they should pay up or shut up.

  4. Those “free riding” sites do nothing wrong, what they’re doing is perfectly allowed. Putting up the money for something doesn’t mean you get to tell what others can and cannot do without limits. If these chess sites want to broadcast things they are allowed to broadcast, more power to them.

    Agon has the rights to everything but the actual moves. They are the only ones who can provide video of the games and interview the players afterwards, they can give sponsors great seats and have them meet the players, there are lots of things they can do. If that’s not enough for them to make a profit, then maybe they shouldn’t be in this business?

    The main problem is that their site is crap. They want people to watch there, but you have to register and give a lot of information people don’t want to give, their site goes down because of the amount of traffic, you can’t work with the moves as easily as on say If their technology were state of the art and easy to access, people would choose to watch the games on their site. But as it is, people follow the games elsewhere because it’s simply a better experience. Which is no surprise, companies who broadcast multiple tournaments every single day will be better at it than one who does it every couple of years.

    What does Agon want? Many free viewers to their site? They need to improve it then. Don’t care about free viewers? Then why does it matter that other sites also show the moves?

  5. Agon have the right to show the candidate tournament on their own premises since they are paying but unfortunately they have not prepared their website well enough and the quality of the broadcast is much lower than for example chess24.
    Poor graphics, missing the list of the moves and computer analysis makes it very uninteresting.

  6. It’s the same thing FIDE tries to force us to for years now.
    There were many different approaches: Some years ago they came with a FIDE credit card every player should be forced to have, then there was an online FIDE membership.
    These days you need a FIDE id to get a rating and therefore you must give them a email address. You can’t watch the rating archive anymore without being a member.
    Some things were definitely against the law in some member countries.
    But they still try everything they can to get as much data from world wide chess players as they can get. Whereever they intend to sell that data.
    Governments around the world are working on to stop companies like Google or Facebook misusing your personal data. Who stops Agon/Fide?

  7. @ John Shaw

    Yeah, I know – hence the 🙂 Apparently the Russians have learned a lot from the Americans about Capitalism with the capital C.

  8. I think that chess professionals were very naïve about business : the score sheets should be their propriety, not the organiser’s.
    About Internet, it was worse : everybody offered free services (lessons,etc.) and spoiled the market for teachers, writers, etc.
    So now I have some sympathy for Agon’s demand, and understand Kramnik and Gelfand. Yet I feel it is a bit too late. We can only regret that chess players were not as clever as the tennis guys.

  9. @ Remco G

    I agree, their site is indeed crap, and it’s rediculous you have to register so that they can misue your personal data. On the other hand, for other sports, like football or the olympic games, the broadcasting rights are also limited. Or is it for e.g. a Champion’s League match also possible to watch it on the internet free of charge in a legal way?

  10. @Ray
    Comparing it with the Champion’s League is interesting but flawed. True you can only ‘watch’ the football on the premium channel that broadcasts the match (BT Sports or Sky) however it is easy to find commentary on the matches, both free and legal, either on radio or the internet from 3rd party providers. What you don’t get with these 3rd parties is a live video feed.
    Additionally of course the spectators whether inside the stadium or watching on subscription TV are not forbidden to comment on the game in progress.

    The last point is that the football coverage is very professional and extremely well done, neither of these is true regarding the Agon product.

    Next season I may be watching more Champion’s League than Chess!

    A Happy Hammer

  11. @Ray: video of the event isn’t free, but you can follow the current score of a Champion’s League match live for free on a thousand sites. And the moves played so far are similar to the current score.

    The problem is that there is not much more than that to a chess match, but that’s just a fact Agon seems to accept (as John Shaw notes, that the moves aren’t copyrighted seems to be the only thing all sides seem to agree on).

  12. @Fré
    My comment seems to have been curtailed somewhat. To complete it:

    … KasparovChess (Hi Mig!), for the subsequent games until the end of the match, so that the games could be followed from at least one site.

    My opinion then: moves should be free. I thought that then, and still think so now.

  13. Unfortunately, aside from re-transmission of moves, I think Agon has EVERY right to exclude other websites from live coverage IF they bring NOTHING to the table monetarily speaking. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Having said this the lack of many better grandmasters from the west to do live commentary for English speaking audiences was TERRIBLE. While their coverage was okay, even good at times, I much would have preferred Yasser Seirawan, Simon Williams, Jan Gustafsson, Akobian, Finegold, etc. Their stance is indeed and has already hurt an enormous audience that deserves and needs better coverage. Their organisers need to do a much better job of working out a more inclusive agreement for general coverage. This will be a terrible event going forward if it stays this ‘exclusive’

  14. I watched the event free and it was not bad. I could watch Alexandria Kosteniuk anyti me day or night. She is a born attacker and her commentary was much better than her male GM counterpart!

  15. For me the coverage of London Chess Classic is mostly much better than the coverage of 2016 Candidates except when Kramnik over Gelfand or the beautiful BMW 🙂 is on screen. But , THE CANDIDATES is part of chess history and as such is far more compelling. Now should other websites be able to piggyback on Agon’s product? Historically attempts to copyright the actual moves have not worked, it hardly matters to me if the moves are delayed before getting into the public domain as long as eventually I can get to see the moves with analysis, and I will pay for a good product like in QC’s Book Carlsen’s Assault on the Crown.
    I see that sponsors should get some return on their investment, but Candidates and WC match are the highest profile chess events and up to now someone has sponsored them even if for not as much money as the competitors might have wanted.

  16. Well this is just being polite and political, I think, in terms of Kramnik. He is Russian, and he is at the tournament. In the same way that when one is invited for tea at someone’s house, one does not defecate on the living room carpet.
    Problem is – Agon has been heavy-handed, clumsy and threatening. And has rubbish coverage. Hapless, amateurish stuff.
    When one watches London and Gibraltar, one of course follows official coverage – players are there, interviews happen, the on-site coverage is the best available due to the on-site advantages. Same with the World Cup too – default viewing is that provided onsite.
    Agon and Merenzon- sheer, crass muppetry.

  17. For me it’s fine if you don’t want to share the video of the event, and I suppose that legaly no other web site can use it.

    When you talk about the moves, this is more complex, and I think you can’t do nothing about it, at least at the moment.
    This would mean that the games have a kind of property rights, and then also the players (or the owners of the rights) could ask for money if his games are reproduced in any magazines or books.
    For me, this is not a crazy idea at all.

  18. In fact, one grandmaster, (I think it was Paco Vallejo) said sometime ago something about property rights of the players about the games played.

  19. @Fer
    Copyrighting chess moves is as asinine as patenting math. Are you willing to pay a royalty any time you reproduce another player’s novelty in your games? Should we have to pay Pythagoras’ descendants every time we use his theorem?

    I guess it’s a good thing Ruy Lopez was a priest, and presumably doesn’t have any descendants we’d have to pay. (But perhaps I’m being naive there…)

    As for Agon, it wouldn’t be so absurd if their site weren’t so bad.

  20. Copyright for live broadcast and moves seems fair , copyright for the games much less , copyright for the moves senseless

  21. I hope the next topic refers to Nakamura trying to get away with that touch move cheating incident from rnd 6 today, against Aronian. I’m just glad there were cameras and an arbiter present, so he couldn’t get away with it. If they weren’t there, we could have had something similar to Kramnik-Topalov toilet-gate incident. In all seriousness, assume cameras didn’t catch it and the arbiter didn’t see it. If one player claims they said j’adoube before touching the piece, when they didn’t, how would such an issue be resolved at such a prestigious event as the World Championship Candidates tournament? If Hikaru had persisted he did say j’adoube, how would a decision of been made? I think Hikaru tried to get away with cheating today and he’s very lucky not to be punished for it. I hope FIDE take some kind of action against him after this tournament ends.

  22. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems obvious that if you don’t have access to the moves you cannot copy them, which has to be Agon’s business strategy for exclusivity. Whoever is leaking the moves to the other chess sites is probably breaching their contract in some way (e.g., the user agreement to access the website, or some part of the process of attending in person). If they can prove that the other chess websites are a third party interfering with their business relationships by inducing or conspiring with one or more users to breach their contract(s) with Agon, they could win. For example, a Google search on “interference with business relations california” revealed that here in California, USA, there is a tort called “Intentional Interference With Contractual Relations” and there are likely similar statutes in other jurisdictions.

  23. As for Agon’s strategy, enraging the chess community seems unwise. The customer is always right (even when wrong), and companies that forget about what their customers want can easily go out of business. Also, the whole mess was completely predictable. Information likes to be free, and imagining that the moves wouldn’t leak is simply unrealistic. They may ultimately “win” in some court, but it seems unlikely they would even be able to recoup their legal fees let alone collect damages. Litigation is time consuming and expensive, they have multiple defendants in multiple countries which makes things far worse, the other chess sites are unlikely to have deep pockets, and the actual damages would be hard to quantify.

  24. @James: if the arbiter didn’t see it and there are no other cameras etc, there’s nothing that the arbiter can do.

    “How would such an issue be resolved at such a prestigious event as the World Championship Candidates tournament” — by assuring that there are sufficient arbiters and cameras.

  25. You pay rights for images, video and what is written in books, so it is not so strange that you have to pay rights for reproducing chess moves of a game.

    I’m not saying that I want this (In fact, I don’t!!) but I think that it is not so clear, and could change in the future.

    Regarding to use a novelty of another player in your games, of course I think you can do it, what I’m talking is about reproduce a game a newspapers, books or magazines.
    And about what you said of patent maths, this has nothing to be with it. But take into account that is it possible to patent algorithms, and that other people has to pay you if they use it in a software.

    If Amazon was able to patent his 1-click process (something absolutely ridiculous in my opinion), everything can be possible.

    The Lurker :
    Copyrighting chess moves is as asinine as patenting math. Are you willing to pay a royalty any time you reproduce another player’s novelty in your games? Should we have to pay Pythagoras’ descendants every time we use his theorem?
    I guess it’s a good thing Ruy Lopez was a priest, and presumably doesn’t have any descendants we’d have to pay. (But perhaps I’m being naive there…)
    As for Agon, it wouldn’t be so absurd if their site weren’t so bad.

  26. @Pinpon

    Agree with you, but sadly it is at the end a question of money and ability of the companies to push the goverments. See my previous post when talking about the 1-click of amazon. In US if you are a big company, everything is possible.

  27. @Remco G
    This happened to me at the Calvia Olympiad in 2004. Japan v Hong Kong, Board 1.
    Opponent tried to get away with touch move. It’s horrible when it actually happens to you, as the first thought is akin to ‘WTF??! He’s not really doing what I think he’s doing. Is he??’, then moves onto ‘This can’t happen, this doesn’t happen in real chess.’ Then moves onto ‘He can’t get away with it, surely’ accompanied by wildly looking around for witnesses.
    By an absolute miracle, in a massive playing hall with insufficient arbiters, there was an arbiter standing right behind him at the time, who observed all.
    Query – should official complaints be made for attempted cheating like this?
    Re: Naka, it is not good for him to be seen doing this. I hope he reflects overnight, humbly apologises, then all move on.

  28. This Agon is trying to convince us to check the games after logging with fb, tw or email account. They could do it without loging request.

    Thank You very much, but no thank You.

    They didnt say anything what will happen after login with account. Will they use our login accounts for something else and for whom.

  29. Agon are going for a very interesting marketing strategy trying to prevent the product getting to the customers.

    They will very likely lose, or find to be unenforcable their legal action against other chess media sites.

    One good thing out of all this rubbish, is I have found out chess24 has a very good live broadcast.

  30. They wanted their product to go to their customers, not the customers of the other chess sites, but the way they went about marketing it was just silly. That the moves would leak was a certainty. That legal action would somehow patch the leaks in time or recoup any damages was also not realistic.

    That the other chess sites could put on a much better show was also a certainty, and something they should have figured out early on when there was time enough to do something about it. Another bad business decision.

    The obvious solution would have been to partner up with one or more of the other websites and let them create their own product(s) at their own cost as long as Agon’s sponsor’s advertisements were included as agreed. No worries about leaks, no worries about product quality, lower fixed costs for Agon, and maybe even some revenue from the other chess sites too. Everyone including Agon would win.

    Agon theoretically has what Warren Buffet would call a “sustainable competitive advantage.” Alas they don’t have a clue about how to use it which is really bad for chess. FIDE wins another brilliancy prize for their choice of marketing/production partner.

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