More players, even some who are not the very elite, are finding that having a manager pays dividends.
The first time that Aleksandr Lenderman, an American grandmaster, wanted to play in the Isle of Man International, he wrote to the organizers asking for some perks but he failed to get the terms that he wanted.
But for last year’s tournament, Lenderman left the task to his manager —Sabrina Chevannes, a London-based marketing specialist who also is a woman’s international master — and received what he said were “good conditions.”
Asked to elaborate on what he meant by “good conditions,” Lenderman declined to provide specifics but said it could entail money, free lodging and/or other incentives.
“Good conditions are conditions where I’m happy playing. Put it that way,” he said.
Most chess players barely manage to scratch out a living from the game, so a manager would seem to be an unnecessary and unaffordable luxury for a player like Lenderman, who is ranked No. 340 in the world. But as his experience with the Isle of Man tournament shows, managers can make a difference financially.
Aleksandr Lenderman is not in the top 100 in the world, but he has found that having a manager pays off.
That is not surprising for a player like Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion, who is also a brand and a hot commodity (he earns about $2 million a year, according to his management team), but it is increasingly true for other elite players – a sign that the game is gaining traction as a viable business and profession.
The list of high-profile players who now have or have hired managers in the last few years includes Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura of the United States, who are ranked No. 3 and No. 6 in the world, respectively, on the Live Ratings list; Levon Aronian of Armenia, who is No. 8; Sergey Karjakin of Russia, who is No. 9; and Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria, who is No. 19.
Robert Hess, a grandmaster and co-founder and chief operating officer for The Sports Quotient, a digital media company, wrote in an e-mail that managers for chess players should serve “both as contractual representative (i.e. you want Fabiano to play in Gibraltar? Compensate him with $XX,000 just for showing up) and brand recognition advisor.”
“By that I mean that the manager should be pitching the client [athlete/chessplayer] to companies and making endorsement deals stick,” Hess said.
Another illustration of how management is becoming more important is that the people being hired are coming from outside the chess world.
Last December, Rhonda Coleman, a Chicago-area attorney, was hired by Caruana, replacing Lawrence Trent, an English international master (who is still listed as Caruana’s “commercial manager” online). Coleman runs a consulting firm that specializes in corporate sponsorships for sports organizations, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Max Avdeev for World Chess by Agon Ltd.
During the World Championship in New York City, Fabiano Caruana, right, playing with Ian Nepomniachtchi in the VIP lounge, was accompanied by his manager, Lawrence Trent, center background. Also watching the game was Kirill Zangalis, the manager of Sergey Karjakin.
In an interview by Cristian Chirila, a grandmaster who works for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis (which also employs Caruana), Coleman said that she wants to upgrade Caruana’s image, manage his social media presence, and bring some “focus” to his career so he can “reach his goal, which is to become world champion.”
While Coleman may have a skill set that Trent does not have when it comes to business, there may be other reasons for a change.
Alexander Ferdkoff, a dentist in Cibolo, Tex., managed Nakamura for a period in 2012 and 2013. He said that he believed that Rex Sinquefield, the wealthy retired investor who founded and finances the St. Louis club, and who recruited Caruana in 2015 to move back to the United States from Europe, where he had been living for many years, might have also influenced the choice of Coleman.
“The Club — Rex — has its own people and looks, in my experience and opinion, negatively on outsiders,” Ferdkoff said.
He said Caruana’s decision to go with Coleman and the decision of Nakamura — who is now a spokesman for the club — to part ways with Ferdkoff back in 2013 is “not a coincidence.”
Nakamura said that his decision to remove Ferdkoff as his manager had nothing to do with Sinquefield or the club. “That was my decision and mine alone as I did not feel that things were going in the right direction,” Nakamura said.
Efforts to reach Coleman were unsuccessful. Trent declined to comment. A spokesman for the club also did not return messages.
Sabrina Chevannes is a part-time manager for Aleksandr Lenderman.
Not everyone shares Ferdkoff’s opinion. Chevannes, Lenderman’s manager, said, “I have met Rhonda Coleman and she seems nothing but professional. She is highly qualified in a range of fields, and has special knowledge in the world of sports.
Sometimes the manager-player relationship is based on friendship. Caruana and Trent hit it off before Trent became his manager. Chevannes began working officially with Lenderman after she helped him out informally a couple of times.
Chevannes said, “Alex has always come across as a talented player, who is maybe a little shy. Therefore, he may not get the opportunities he deserves. He never asked me to help, but I offered to get him into a couple of tournaments where I knew the organizers. He was incredibly grateful for this and then decided to approach me officially to discuss working together.”
Grant Akopian, Aronian’s manager, said he became Aronian’s manager after they developed a friendship based on their mutual affinity for wine.
Akopian, who is an adviser to the board of directors of Armenia’s Converse Bank, said that Aronian is careful who he works with. “It’s more of a value-driven decision and trust rather than knowledge,” Akopian said.
Akopian said he helps Aronian review contracts, decide which tournaments are of high enough quality and prestige to warrant his participation, when it’s worthwhile to do an interview with a certain media outlet, and which corporate sponsorships to accept or reject.
For example, despite Aronian’s interest in wine, the Armenian grandmaster rejected one alcoholic beverage company’s sponsorship a few years ago because he did not want to promote any particular alcoholic beverage, Akopian said.
“I don’t think he would do beer, nor any particular wine brand,” Akopian said. “We have not been talking about any wine brand but we have talked about promoting Armenian wine as an industry.”
The benefits of having a manager are not lost on Lenderman, who remains one of the very few non-elite grandmasters who has hired one.
Lenderman said, “It can only help me because my manager finds good tournaments for me, good events, and then we work out a deal where for the tournament I pay some part from that tournament. So it makes sense for me because otherwise I wouldn’t get a chance to play that tournament without a manager, and for my manager it makes sense because they get some money as well. So it’s a win-win situation.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers higher education and chess. He is on Twitter and has his own home page. He can occasionally be found playing chess at the tables in DuPont Circle.
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