Deal highlights complex relationship between chess and gambling

Chess Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen Becomes Global Brand Ambassador For Unibet

Magnus Carlsen, the man at the pinnacle of competitive chess, is the newest star of sports and games to partner with an online gambling operator.

Last week, the 29-year-old grandmaster from Norway signed a two-year deal to become the Global Brand Ambassador for Unibet. Carlsen is the reigning four-time World Chess Champion and the top-ranked player in the world.

Based in London, Unibet maintains strong ties to Norway’s eastern neighbor. Both its founder and the current CEO of its parent company Kindred Group are from Sweden, and the company trades publicly on the Stockholm Stock Exchange.

Carlsen’s new role with Unibet Sports

Unibet’s international operations include all three major online gambling verticals: casino, sports, and poker.

For now, Carlsen’s promotion of the brand will naturally focus on Unibet Sports. Chess can be categorized as a mind sport, after all, and is occasionally available in some betting markets.

More importantly, the messaging around Carlsen’s sponsorship emphasizes the ways in which gaming rewards intelligence over luck. Have a look at the first promo featuring the new ambassador:

That’s arguably true for sports betting, which has its share of professionals and would-be professionals. It’s much harder to make the same case for casino games, with their small-to-nonexistent skill component and a house edge that’s typically insurmountable.

Seat open for Carlsen at the poker table?

Neither Unibet nor its ambassador have mentioned poker, but that could be in the cards too.

In past interviews, Carlsen has at times mentioned that he plays poker online. Considering Unibet also runs a major live poker tour, it’s at least possible that he could make an appearance at the upcoming Unibet Open stop in Dublin this month.

Whether or not he involves himself with Unibet Poker, though, US players are unlikely to see much of him. The company has not yet branched out into online poker in the US and frankly may never do so.

Unibet a bit late to US online gambling

Although Unibet has served European markets since 1997, its presence in the US only dates back to last year.

Unibet Casino was the first to launch in New Jersey in partnership with Hard Rock, followed shortly thereafter by its online sportsbook product. The company subsequently opened its doors in Pennsylvania under the license of Mohegan Sun Pocono, though that launch was largely overshadowed by PokerStars a week before.

Unibet remains a minor player in both of its US markets, at least for the time being.

Hard Rock’s monthly online casino revenues are a little over $2 million (about 5% of the state total), but Unibet only accounts for about a quarter of that. The rest comes from the property’s other partner, bet365.

The situation is similar in PA, with Unibet only holding a 4% share of total online casino revenues. Its presence in the sports betting vertical is smaller still — almost insignificant.

It’s uncertain, then, if Unibet will even attempt to launch a US poker product.

Online poker is generally the least lucrative of the verticals, and the NJ market is already crowded. It would have to grow before it could reasonably expect to compete in the US, and larger states (like PA and Michigan) would have to join the multi-state poker compact. It’s quite possible that neither of these things happen.

Carlsen’s relationship with gambling

Unibet is among the online gambling operators that holds a new license to offer its products in Sweden. The country’s government liberalized its gambling laws last year, relinquishing the monopoly previously held by state-owned operator Svenska Spel.

Carlsen’s relationship with Unibet actually began with a similar effort to get Norway to abandon its own state monopoly.

Shortly after beginning licensed operations in Sweden, Kindred offered to sponsor the Norwegian Chess Federation (NCF) to the tune of DKK 50 million — equivalent to more than USD $5 million. While Carlsen supported the effort, the NCF ultimately rejected the offer amid pressure from Norwegian gambling authority Lottstift.

Carlsen responded by resigning from the NCF and forming his own chess club, Offerspill, with the goal of changing the underlying policy. After accepting a smaller sponsorship of DKK 4 million for the club, this ambassadorship with Unibet seems to represent an amplification of that effort.

Betting on chess in the US?

Even though Unibet is struggling to establish a presence in the US sports betting market, this new deal could become a factor. Its sportsbook is among those offering lines on chess, including a -286 price on Carlsen to defend his title later this year.

While legal US sportsbooks have yet to take a bet on a chess match, 2020 could be the year that changes. Several operators have begun pressing gaming authorities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to allow them to take bets on this year’s World Chess Championship.

More recently, regulators in Indiana reportedly voiced a willingness to consider such action.

Risk vs. reward for chess betting

Compared to physical sports, however, betting on chess presents some unique risks to game integrity.

Many of those risks, ironically, stem from that fact that chess is a game of zero chance. It’s also because it’s played individually, and because over half of top-level games end in a draw. These factors make it objectively easier to manipulate results.

Proposition bets such as match length create a particular concern. Situations arise in which more- and less-aggressive lines might offer similar chances of victory, and a player seeking to shorten or prolong the game could choose between them on that basis.

If, however, chess betting does come to the US in time for the World Championship, then having the champion himself in its corner will be a boon for Unibet. Sometimes when you lack a foothold in a market, even the tiniest of toeholds will do.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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