World Chess to issue digital tokens in stock market flotation

By on November 21, 2019

The company that ran the World Chess Championships plans to issue a cryptocurrency-like digital token ahead of a stock market float in London as it tries to cash in the growing popularity of the game online.

World Chess on Thursday said it aims to carry out an unusual “hybrid initial public offering” in 2020, issuing digital tokens followed by floating shares on London’s Alternative Investment Market.

World Chess, which has been incorporated in the UK since 2017, will raise “low millions of euros” in money from the token offering, according to Ilya Merenzon, the company’s chief executive and founder. The tokens will use blockchain ledgers to simplify the fundraising process, and will be convertible to shares at a later point, he said.

Chess is popular around the world and has a large online following, but financial profitability has long taken a secondary place to politics. During the cold war the board game played a part in the battle for supremacy between the US and the Soviet Union.

Russian Boris Spassky (left) shakes hands with American Bobby Fischer at the World Chess Championship in 1972. Photograph: Associated Press

Since the lifting of the iron curtain Russia has continued to take a keen interest in the chess world. Russian millionaire Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was ousted as the head of the International Chess Federation (Fide) in 2018 after being sanctioned by the US for his close relations with dictators, including Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Arkady Dvorkovich, a former Russian deputy prime minister, was elected head of Fide in October 2018 after Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, reportedly put pressure on the organisation’s officials.

World Chess held the commercial rights to the World Chess Championships, administered by Fide, until 2018. Fide has since reclaimed those rights, but World Chess retains a financial interest in the tournament, at which chess stars such as Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So do battle.

Merenzon said World Chess has no links to Fide beyond the contractual relationship, and said chess offered major opportunities for commercial development.

“It’s probably the only startup left in sports,” he said. “Everything else is overdeveloped. It’s kind of a blank canvas.”

World Chess still has the commercial rights to Fide’s Grand Prix series, but it is seeking to broaden its revenue streams. New products planned include merchandising, a new form of competition chess more suited for broadcast, in which draws are impossible, dubbed “Armageddon chess”, and even “World Chess clubs” in major cities around the world such as London, New York and Berlin. The clubs will sell cocktails and cater to “hipster” chess players, said Merenzon.

At the same time, the company is trying to develop a €25 (£21) per year online chess platform. Merenzon said a contract with Fide means the platform will allow users to earn points in online games that could count towards an official Fide world ranking.

World Chess is also developing software to detect cheating using artificial intelligence techniques, working with companies linked to one of its backers, the venture capital firm Prytek, Merenzon added.

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