How much do chess players make? A reality check

Chess pieces and money

Have you checked some of the latest chess tournaments on the news? Chances are you are blown away with the huge amount of tournament funds available for all its competitors. This can make you wonder how much do chess players really earn? Is it a lucrative industry that you should get on right now?

I want you to hold on to your horses, it is not what you think and this article will tell you exactly why. Many chess players struggle to make a living which is not covered too much by the media, if you want a reality check then this is the article for you. Keep on reading if you are interested.

Only the best of the best players can earn significant money in chess

There is a major disconnect between people who earn money playing chess and those that only look at their paychecks, people think that there is a large sum of money available for all competitors. This couldn’t be further from the truth, chess in itself does not have the monetary incentive as with other competitions.

The more popular a competition is the more likely that there will be more money for its competitors, however, there are things that apply to chess which holds it back from further monetization. Primarily this has something to do with spectator fees, not a lot of people are willing to pay money in order to observe in formal tournaments.

It is also not as popular in some countries as with basketball, baseball, soccer, etc. which provides a monetary ceiling for its players that makes it pale in comparison with other sports. There is of course money to be made but due to the nature of chess competitions (sponsorship) the earnings are concentrated on the top.

Regretfully, the majority of wealth is centered at the top of the economic pyramid. As an example, you can see this occurring in professional chess tournament settings like the world championships, an event where the monetary rewards outweigh the gains from previous tournaments.

A world chess championship match is definitely an event that a lot of people are willing to attend and pay money for, however, the majority of tournaments are more normal and don’t have the same earning potential. A regular titled chess master will definitely struggle making a living from tournaments only, probably below minimum wage.

This is ignoring the fact that players can actually lose money and be negative if they don’t get the first, second, or third place of the event (they still have to bear some travel and accommodation expenses). It is really hard for a non super-grandmaster to even make a living.

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The potential earning can depend on the prestige of the chess tournament

I have to elaborate this point further, some people will look at the world champion and be absolutely astonished as to how much he is currently making. However the other side of the story tells us that the prestige of the tournament will really determine its earning potential, it doesn’t matter how many small tournaments you participate in, it will only earn you less.

Although Magnus Carlsen may have earned a total of $100,000 after winning a Sinquefield event, the very last ranked competitor in the World Chess Championship event will earn 5 times that amount even if he doesn’t manage to win a single game on the board.

This means that the money to be made in this game is mostly reserved for people that have access to these prestige tournaments (usually super grandmasters with the rating of 2700 and above). A regular grandmaster can earn a couple of hundred/thousand dollars from being first place in a small chess tournament.

This is adding to the fact that titled players have to travel internationally to even compete in these small-scale events, the traveling/accommodation expenses usually even exceed the tournament prize (except the first, second, and third place). Most chess masters that only rely on tournaments need to find a second job in order to sustain their chess career.

Most chess masters are broke financially

If a competitor is not on the super grandmaster level (which most of them are) they are unlikely to even make minimum wage, most of their earnings also come back into developing their skills. Hiring coaches, buying courses, and getting additional resources that would push them further also cost money that will be deducted from their total earnings.

While the world’s top chess players earn more than $100,000 USD per year, with the majority of their income coming from competing for clubs, participating in competitions, appearance fees, and sponsorship. The average professional chess master, on the other hand, earns significantly less than $100,000 per year and must depend on his or her work in tutoring, serving as an arbiter for chess tournaments, marketing chess goods, and hustling in order to earn a fair annual pay.

It is not exaggeration to say that a minimum wage fry cook can earn way more than some chess masters, a minimum wage earner also does not have other financial commitments that would deduct their overall salary.

Of course some can push beyond the minimum wage by doing some extra coaching and being an arbiter to some small chess tournaments, but not all can do that. Some resort to having a day job and only participating in chess tournaments during their free time, however this makes chess a hobby and not a career, most are really broke.

The best players in the world earn a lot of money from chess tournaments

Now let’s talk about the other side of the rainbow, even though a lot of chess masters struggle with having their financial conditions stable, the best of the best do earn a lot of money from chess tournaments. Prestigious chess events do gain enough traction to house spectator fees and sponsorships from large organizations.

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Some prestigious chess events have prize pools reaching a couple of millions USD, even players who only draw their games will receive a lot of money for just their participation. It is stressful to play in these kinds of tournaments, however, the financial return will more than enough compensate for it.

Despite the fact that a great number of professional grandmasters are not wealthy, the world’s leading chess players earn in excess of $100,000 USD each year from the sport of chess. In just two years for example, Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, who competed in the 2019 World Chess Championship, have earned more than $1 million USD in chess wins alone.

If someone has managed to reach the elite levels of chess rankings (at around top 20 players of the world) they can be a top earner and the possibilities are endless. They can even coach or create an app (like the magnus app) out of their own expertise and make more than what they can by relying on tournament prize only.

I would not be surprised if they can make more than 200,000 USD in a single year from all their sponsorship commissions and coaching services, although prizes from tournaments can work just as well if the super grandmaster does not prefer doing other work.

To make a living as a chess master you have to be creative

Now you might think that with chess masters not even earning minimum wage there wouldn’t be a lot of competitors that are willing to pursue this career, however, this is not the case as there are many who still play chess professionally. You have to wonder why this is the case? If there aren’t any monetary return from tournaments then shouldn’t they just quit from playing entirely?

The reason why there are still many professional chess players is because most of them rely on additional sources of income other than tournament prizes l, they can make significantly more with these side gigs then they would have by playing only. This includes coaching among all else but also publishing their own chess book, ebooks, or courses that can earn some passive income.

Unless you’re a world-class grandmaster, I wouldn’t believe anyone can earn a career just from chess. Coaching, on the other hand, is a very simple way to augment your revenue. Skilled players may charge a great deal of money for tutoring, which allows them to earn a lot of money. For example, there are reports that Ben Finegold charges a minimum of $100 per hour according to reliable sources. There are also others that don’t even have a title yet demand $30/hr regardless of their qualifications.

Regular chess masters have to be creative to make a living for themselves, there are many instances where one can earn a lot of money from doing other jobs related to chess and not on tournament prizes specifically. There are those who earn way more than people of higher rating just because they know how to market themselves, this makes determining how much a player earns quite difficult since it can depend on the person’s creativity.

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Lower/non grandmasters can earn more than honored grandmasters

This is something that needs a little bit of elaboration, rating is important to determining a player’s chess competency but this wouldn’t really amount to the monetary potential someone has. If someone is lower rated yet they offer services related to chess, they may earn more than someone who is much stronger than them.

Consulting, selling/publishing books, ebooks, courses, chess merchandising, and many more can be a business model created out of one’s expertise in chess. If someone is a natural businessman/woman they can make something out of chess that is normally not within the natural earning range.

In addition to the best elite players, so many top players earn a solid livelihood from chess and are far wealthier than the middle and lower class due to the creativity they apply on the market. This is especially true for influencers (youtubers and bloggers) who have made chess their niche, regular titled players may not earn much but the potential depends on the individual.

Chess influencers are the ones that makes the most money out of chess

In our digital age influencers have taken over the internet, this is primarily due to the monetary opportunities that being an influencer can bring to the table. There is definitely money to be made out of being a pillar of a specific niche such as chess, many are taking advantage of this.

Since regular titled players in chess bulimic sally brain out of her career, it makes sense to chef in a more lucrative industry related to the same niche such as blogging and youtube. Youtubers like Gothamchess, Ben Finegold, and Eric Rosen are making more than a living with their internet career.

Even Hikaru Nakamura who is one of the best chess players ever decided to ditch playing competitive classical chess ever since getting a taste of that streamer income, there is clearly a monetary incentive for making this choice. You can even argue that he is making more than Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion (although both of their net worths are not publicly accessible).

There are chess youtubers that don’t even have a high rating and yet are making a lot of money from being an influencer, this is just another example of how one can earn money from chess even without relying on tournament prizes. Estimating how much one can earn in chess is difficult due to these circumstances, creativity is on the table (though if someone is only relying on tournament prizes expect a minimum wage).

If you ever see a titled player you should respect their decision, becoming a chess master is a challenging pursuit not only due to the stress but also to the monetary limitations. Sports in general are notorious for only giving money to the people at the top, chess takes that on a whole other level.

However even with these constraints there are many things a player can do to make a living, some lower rated players can outearn a higher rated player if they know how to market their skills. That is all for this article, thank you for reading.

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