GM Maurice Ashley sent this in the Millionaire Chess newsletter on February 20th to address responses that were part of a lively Facebook post on February 16th. The thread has generated more than 200 comments concerning the Millionaire Chess Open to take place this October. Several players chimed in including GMs Michal Krasenkow, Robert Hess and Fabiano Caruana. Below is the text from the newsletter.
Your Words & Our Vision
A few days ago, I posted a simple comment and question on my Facebook page:
I heard an opinion from a fellow GM that amateurs should not win the kind of money that the Millionaire Chess Open is giving away in prizes. Do you agree?
I was surprised at the firestorm it set off, as it really seemed to touch a raw nerve in the chess community. While most of the amateurs felt it was fair that they get a shot at big prizes, all of the GMs who replied felt precisely the opposite and vociferously said so. The responses speak to a deeper issue about how to spread the game to a broader fan base, and about just how we incentivize the existing fans to help promote chess in a way that attracts big-name sponsors.
I’ll need a much longer essay to truly explore all the relevant issues, but in this newsletter, I wanted to touch on a couple of points that I feel need to be said right away. You can look for more in the upcoming week, but you can read below or on our website for now.
Host of Millionaire Chess Open
by GM Maurice Ashley
The Millionaire Chess Open is not just a new event giving away an unprecedented amount of money. At its core, the tournament is about promoting a vision for change in how a sport sees itself.
At the moment, there is a top-down structure, where the best players in the world are paid decent appearance fees to play spectacular chess at premier events. Aside from this group of maybe 50 players, the remaining professionals cobble together a living through teaching, writing, lecturing, performing simultaneous exhibitions, and the like. Below them are a massive group of amateurs who play regularly, and who eagerly follow the latest events to watch their gods create works of art. This structure has been going on for decades, and is fueled by the impression that it is the top that matters most.
While Millionaire Chess appreciates the importance and brilliance residing at the top of the pyramid, we firmly believe that the gigantic base is where the energy lies. The average fans are the ones who buy books, DVDs, software, chess sets, clocks, and memorabilia. They are the ones who pay for lessons that keep many a GM (including myself) in business. The more serious ones are also fueling prizes for the top players (at least in the US), where GMs play for free but are able to win the lion’s share of the prizes. It is through the largesse of the fans that our sport exists!
What most of the GMs who responded to my post miss is that this fan base is the only group in the world that both loves to play chess and idolizes their heroes. They are the players who go to bed thinking about how to play like Carlsen or line up to get Kasparov to sign a copy of My Great Predecessors. They are the untapped and unrecognized champions of chess, spending hours every night playing on the Internet Chess Club or playchess.com while their families wonder why they are so in love with this game. Go across any chess club in America, and you’ll find them arguing about the latest line of the Sicilian Defense or trying to solve the latest Pal Benko endgame study.
Most strategies to grow chess have either aimed at bringing more sponsorship to the top or by wisely growing the scholastic base (ideas I applaud), but no one has thought to truly incentivize the massive number of existing fans to participate in events that reward them for their dedication. Not to say there are no great events; there are some fantastic Open tournaments held every single year around the world. But most of these are really about rewarding the best players and seeing the fans play a supporting role.
Millionaire Chess wants to flatten that structure, making the average fan a star, while simultaneously rewarding the brilliance at the top. The way to do that, in our opinion, is to create amazing tournaments that excite the base, that make the average weekend warrior get up every day dreaming of winning the big event, of seeing their name in lights and walking home with a larger-than-life check. While our events will continue to respect GMs for all the work they have put in and for their talent, it’s clear to us that a strategy that reenergizes the base is one well worth trying. After all, without the base, why should chess exist at all?