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Building digital chess: In conversation with Chess24 CEO Sebastian Kuhnert

CEO of Chess24 and COO of Play Magnus Group Sebastian Kuhnert (Image Credits - Finance Feeds)
CEO of Chess24 and COO of Play Magnus Group Sebastian Kuhnert (Image Credits - Finance Feeds)
FEATURED WRITER
Modified 29 Aug 2020
Feature

Sebastian Kuhnert is the current CEO of Chess24, the world's largest chess-viewing site, owned by World Champion Magnus Carlsen. He is also the COO of Carlsen's group called Play Magnus, which is attempting to revolutionise digital chess.

In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, Kuhnert talks about how he got involved with chess and the e-space. He also shares some useful advice for other budding esports entrepreneurs and investors.

Here are the excerpts from the interview:

1. Let's go back in time for this question. How did you get introduced to chess?

My family had a beautiful chess-set at home. One day, I got curious and my father taught me the game- I believe- when I was around seven years old. Since then, chess has been one of my favourite games.

I'm not a great player, but I recognise the beauty of a game that doesn't involve luck and offers so much novelty each time you play- it's deeply fascinating. I also appreciate the chess culture, its rich heritage with so many fascinating characters among history's greatest players, and I fell in love with the novella "The Royal Game" by Stefan Zweig as a teenager.

2. You studied Business at your university and were pursuing several other initiatives related to education and technology. How did you branch out towards chess?

GM Jan Gustafsson and Enrique Guzman were starting Chess24 around the same time in Gibraltar when I was working on Tradimo, a financial education startup. Enrique's company was the main investor in both startups. We consulted each other to learn from one another and help the young businesses succeed.

I felt fortunate to be entrusted with leading a million dollar startup at the age of 23. I was passionate about the stock market and wanted to do a great job at Tradimo. At the same time, I already felt back then that it would be great to also be part of developing chess as an online sport.

After a few years, Chess24 was in need of more business leaders, and I was offered the opportunity to become a part of the platform's journey, which I happily accepted.

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3. Coming to your role as CEO of Chess24. Can you talk more about the company and its current plan?

Chess24 is the number one place in the world to watch chess online. Any tournament in the world can be watched with an interactive chessboard online that has unmatched functionality.

A corresponding new free Android app "chess24 Broadcast" has been released this year. Chess24 also has one of the world's leading collections of chess video series by the world's greatest chess players, including former World Champion Vishy Anand, World Champion Magnus Carlsen, GM Peter Svidler, GM Jan Gustafsson, GM Josif Dorfman, and many more. Of course, you can also play chess online on chess24, and a new version of that will go live later this year with a completely reworked user experience.

This year, World Champion Magnus Carlsen and Chess24 have launched the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour, the leading online elite chess tour, and thereby became the online home of many of the world's top players. The Tour was also viewable on Eurosport India and was generally the largest success in online chess history, enjoyed by tens of millions of viewers. In November, the next season will start.

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Our goal is to make chess one of the most popular sports in the world. Until the next season starts, we will run open qualifiers where anyone can participate in order to bring new players into the Tour. The most anticipated of these qualifying events is the Chess24 Banter Series.

Banter Blitz is a concept popularised by Chess24, whereby the players explain their thoughts and emotions while playing. They cannot hear each other but the viewers can hear both players. Last season's Banter Blitz Cup was won by GM Alireza Firouzja in a spectacular match against World Champion Magnus Carlsen. This year, two spots in our Chess Tour will be determined through the Chess24 Banter Series, a series of Banter Blitz tournaments in September.

4. Chess24 also brought on an exclusive tour spanning four months or so. What led to its creation, and what was the experience like?

We organised the most popular coverage of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in March and invested a lot into making that a great experience for all our viewers. World Champion Magnus Carlsen even joined as a commentator on a regular basis on chess24.com and everyone was having a great time.

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Then, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the candidates got paused, we sensed that the time had come for a serious and professional online chess tour. Our viewers and users longed for it, the players were getting nervous about what they would do for the rest of the year and Magnus Carlsen especially couldn't imagine that the sport would now just be put on hold. He loves live sports generally and is a chess fanatic. Being locked up at home without chess was unthinkable, and at the same time, there was a sense of responsibility towards the fans and other players. Hence, something had to be done and we wanted to lead the way.

Within two weeks of working non-stop, Magnus and our team managed to get it done and came up with the $250,000 Magnus Carlsen Invitational. It became such an epic success, followed by over 10 million people across the Chess24 channels on chess24.com, YouTube, Twitch, Facebook and Twitter online and also on several TV channels, that we decided to turn it into a whole tour throughout the summer.

All major news media reported on it because it was the only sport that kept going during the pandemic and it was innovative at the same time, with a rapid online format optimised for viewers at home and optimised in such a way that players would face each other often enough that it would be possible to determine the world's best chess player.

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Throughout the tour, we kept innovating, improving formats, broadcasting technology, media partnerships, etc. We also came up with a unique theme for each tournament: #Heritage during the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge, #StudyChess during the Chessable Masters, #ChessLegends during the chess24 Legends of Chess- which was different in that it also brought a generational battle bringing together players and commentators never seen together online before such as Kramnik, Anand, Ivanchuk, Gelfand, Leko, Svidler and on the commentary side Kasparov, Polgar and Karpov- and finally #ImpactChess for the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Finals benefiting Kiva, which brought a charitable dimension into the tour that closed a loop.

5. You are also the COO of the Play Magnus Group, which is the World Champion Carlsen's exclusive brand. Can you tell us about your time at the company. What was your experience like?

The Play Magnus Group consists of four of the leading and most innovative brands in chess: Chess24, the number one place to watch chess; Play Magnus, the World Champion's suite of mobile apps; Chessable, the world's number one place to study chess online; and CoChess.com, our new online chess coaching platform with some of the world's best chess teachers for all age groups.

We created the Play Magnus Group by bringing the companies around Chess24 and Play Magnus into one ownership structure. Thereafter, we acquired Chessable and started CoChess as well as the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour. It's been a fantastic experience for all of us, and I'm very proud of what the team has achieved so far. At the same time, we are working hard to ensure that this is only the beginning.

6. It is a very prestigious honour to get to work with a World Champion. How has your journey been like with Magnus Carlsen and his businesses? Can you tell us a bit more about working with him?

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It's an incredible honour to have Magnus with us and supporting us in making the products the best they can be. Only the best is good enough for him. He constantly challenges himself and we're the same on the business side. We want to create the highest quality products in each area of the chess world: play, watch, learn, train and compete.

It's very motivating for our team to know that Magnus could drop in anytime during a broadcast or a banter blitz session. It's amazing to have the opportunity to produce content with him. His latest Chessable Course, The Magnus Touch: Free Endgame Lesson, for example, was extremely motivating for the team.

7. You are also leading other chess ventures like ChessX and Queenside Games. What are these venures all about?

ChessX is the company behind CoChess.com, our online coaching platform. Queenside Games is one of our partners, and I'm merely a part of the advisory board in helping shape decisions that will make the game, Choker, a mix of chess and poker, more and more entertaining.

That is rather on the experimental side and not part of our core offering, but I feel that it is great to keep exploring different variants in and around the chess world, next to being very focused on our core products.

8. How has chess evolved as an esport? 

It's been a natural evolution. Chess is perfectly suited for being played online and, at the same time, it is the only online sport that can count on hundreds or even thousands of years of history. It simply won't go out of fashion and, therefore, allows many people to dedicate their entire lives to the sport.

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Such enthusiasm is the best precondition for a successful esport. The real breakthrough for chess as an esport has now come during the COVID-19 pandemic with the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour.

9. What can you say have been some of the key lessons you learnt while working in the digital gaming space?

Excellent question. Focus is very important. I believe that is what the first CEO I ever met in the space told me as the most important lesson he had learned himself when working with digital products. It took me many years to truly understand what is meant by that.

At least for a character such as myself who likes to say yes, be optimistic, positive and try out many new things, it takes experience to grasp the value of saying no, doing less, letting your mind rest and absorbing new inspiration instead of staying permanently busy. But that is what is needed in order to reach excellence in selected areas. That counts also for products.

Chess24 has initially been attempting to unite many of the areas of chess on one platform. Today, we have very focused products within the Play Magnus Group that each fulfil a very specific need for different segments of chess lovers. Some like to watch chess, others enjoy learning from courses, another group prefers to learn from and with other people while another group likes to train with interactive tactics. So, we have unique, specialised products for all of them.

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The other thing I have learned is that people and their comments might seem rough over the anonymity of the internet. However, behind the persona is usually a friendlier person than one might think based on the comments. It's important to keep comments and feedback in mind but just like in life, it's crucial to continue your own true path, both as a product and as a person.

Last but not least, I have learned that there is a huge benefit to being in a network of excellence. Successful people attract each other and grow together. There are very few limits to what you can accomplish when you are surrounded by excellent people hungry for success. And if you are not on the road of becoming a part of such a group of excellence, you could be spending years and years without much progress.

There is no arbitrary ceiling that separates success from failure. You're either growing and a part of excellence or are on a journey to join a group of other successful people. Otherwise, you will have a hard time growing. Nothing is more frustrating than being isolated and excellent. The difference between success and failure is just one step away, and it involves asking others for deep, mutually beneficial partnerships and saying yes to others.

10. What advice would you give to youngsters who aim to enter the digital gaming arena and work on their entrepreneurial skills?

It depends on your character and skill set. Are you a coder with a rough business understanding? Create a prototype, a working solution and start getting users onto it, preferably with a willingness to pay for your product. Then you'll have a great starting point.

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Are you a communicator, team player and project manager? Then apply for an internship or graduate programme at a digital company and develop a network with people who you find fascinating. Then stay close to them, be loyal, learn and show what you can do and you might end up with a great career.

The most important is that you show someone why you're worth their time and work hard at creating value every day.

11. What are your near-future goals? 

I want to play my part in making chess one of the largest esports in the world. I want to help a lot of people either make a living from chess or lift their consciousness through it.

12. Finally, any concluding thoughts that you would like to share with the readers?

Stay humble, be conscious of your time, take care of yourself, enjoy the connection with other people, never underestimate the power of positivity shared with others- digitally or offline- and celebrate unique excellence over competitiveness.

Published 29 Aug 2020, 18:25 IST
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