09 August 2017

Grand Prix Boycott

A few weeks ago, while I was adding the Geneva Grand Prix tournament to my page on the 2017 Grand Prix, I learned of a controversy with the Grand Prix series that I hadn't encountered before, although it had been public knowledge since the Moscow Grand Prix event a few months earlier. Here is a Peter Doggers report from Chess.com.
Because of Agon's attempt to limit the live transmission of the games to its own website, one of the major Russian sites, ChessPro, has not covered their events since the Candidates' Tournament last year. Now Chess24, the number one site for watching live games online, has decided to boycott the Moscow Grand Prix altogether: no news reports, no tweets and no live transmission. • Hou Yifan Sole Winner In Moscow GP Round 1 (May 2017)

I reported on the Agon tactics last year in World Championship Broadcasting (November 2016), and World Championship Bullying (ditto), where the issue seemed to have been resolved against Agon's interests in a U.S. court, but the dispute went from bad to worse. Here are Doggers and Chess.com again.

By trying (and, thus far, failing) to limit the live transmission to the WorldChess website, Agon has alienated a number of well-established chess websites. One of the major Russian sites, ChessPro, hasn't covered Agon's events since the Candidates' Tournament last year. Chess24, who have been involved in lawsuits with Agon, decided to boycott the Moscow Grand Prix altogether and also did not cover yesterday's first round of the Geneva GP. • Agonized Grand Prix Resumes In Geneva (July 2017)

What did Chess24 have to say about the boycott? Other than the tweet embedded in Doggers' two reports, the site was silent. I did, however, find a few semi-official statements in a Chess24.com forum, Coverage of Moscow Grand Prix? (May 2017). The question was,

I'm curious why there is no coverage or discussion about the Moscow Grand Prix, which started today. It's an important event. Does anyone know why?

A few messages into the discussion, Chess24 editor Colin McGourty weighed in. In response to the question, 'Is chess24 prepared to sit out the next two World Championship cycles to "protest" AGON?', he answered,

The Candidates and World Championship match are an order of magnitude more important and I think it's 99% certain we would cover those, regardless of Agon's approach. For this tournament we decided against putting time, energy and money into manually adding games and reporting on the event and thereby giving publicity to Agon. Of course it wasn't an easy decision for us and we may make a different choice in future. On how long Agon will stick around - we'll see. They currently have numerous unpaid debts and have completely failed in their alleged aim of bringing commercial sponsorship to chess. The patience of many within and outside FIDE is running out. • May 16, 2017 | 15:18

The dialog continued: 'A commercial site boycotting another commercial site for making money with chess? How ridiculous is that?'

No-one is boycotting Agon "for making money with chess". Agon are free to make their video broadcast pay-per-view, just as you can in any sport, and no-one has the right to that content but them. They can also refuse to provide the live PGN file that any tournament that wants as many people to follow it as possible provides, though we're just as free to choose not to cover or support the event.

The main problem with Agon, however, is that they're trying to claim copyright of the fact that e.g. Magnus played 14.Nd5. Courts in the US, Germany and Russia have upheld that you simply can't do that, just as you can't prevent the reporting of Messi scoring a goal. Agon continue to waste money (their own and that of others) on lawyers over an issue they can't win and a policy they can't implement in practice even if they somehow found a judge to support them (try to stop people sharing the moves of the World Championship... even if in another reality you manage you'll simply have killed off interest in the event).

We'll have to agree to differ on Agon being a commercial company - they're attempting to justify their actions that way but there's nothing commercial about the way they operate or found themselves in the position they are now. Instead they're trying to kill off competition from genuinely commercial sites, which is a destructive policy in what is already a very tough industry. We have every reason to boycott their events, though as mentioned, we won't necessarily do so in future. • May 17, 2017 | 15:09

'You won a court trial and decided "against putting efforts" into this very high level event? [...] Such decision of Chess24 will only make people to buy Agon subscription instead of Chess24 subscription.'

You talk about it being possible given our court win, but although the US case is over Agon's second appeal is still active in Russia (they've lost twice so far), and in fact there was a hearing two days ago in a Moscow court. A decision was postponed for two weeks. In Russia Agon have a young lawyer working for them - Merenzon seems to own 90% of "his" company - and he probably has little else to do but submit frivolous lawsuits for his boss. It's very likely they would have sued again in Russia simply as a PR ploy, since it would cost them very little and us a lot (to date we've probably spent 6 figures on lawyers) - if we chose to defend a new case. Of course completely ignoring lawsuits as ChessGames & Chessbomb have done is a very valid option, but again, that plays into Agon's PR goals.

That's just one factor, but as you can see, it's not an easy decision. As I said, we will cover the most important events (and luckily most big chess events have nothing to do with Agon), but in this case we took the decision we thought was best. • May 18, 2017 | 10:15

'I'd really like to see Chess24 declaring up front that the event is going on and that they are not covering it for legal reasons etc, rather than just ignoring it as seems to be the case.'

You may well have a point, though it was decided that if we were going to skip the broadcast it would be better to go the whole way and completely ignore the event. It's a shame another major chess site that seriously considered a boycott ultimately decided against, since if more joined in Agon really would have a problem. If the legal case had been decided there would probably have been a statement about that (and the tournament in passing), but I agree - putting out some kind of statement in any case would have made sense. • May 21, 2017 | 01:18

Nearly three months later, the situation hasn't budged. Agon got half of what it wants, a halt to transmission of moves; Chess24 took a principled stand; and chess fans got the shaft. The fourth and final Grand Prix is scheduled for Palma De Mallorca in November. At least two tickets to the next stage of the World Championship, the Candidates tournament, will be up for grabs. Will the face-off continue?

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