Drum Interviews @ Millionaire Chess Open

The Millionaire Chess Open has come and gone, but will not be soon forgotten. The four-day festival culminated with an exciting playoff and in the end GM Wesley So came out victorious. The 21-year old Filipino was expressive at the closing ceremony and could be seen milling out in a jubilant mood.

GM Varuzhan Akobian helping Wesley So celebrate. Photo by Daaim Shabazz.
Varuzhan Akobian (right) helping Wesley So celebrate.
All photos by Daaim Shabazz unless otherwise stated.

GM Wesley So (Manila, Philippines) – The Chess Drum had an opportunity to chat with the Webster University student and he proceeded to give most of the credit to his coach, GM Susan Polgar. The Hungarian legend has built an Olympiad-strength program since leaving Texas Tech University. It consists of players from every corner of the planet and So is the latest example of how successful Webster has been. Listen to his impressions after winning the Millionaire Open. 6:09 minutes

Amy Lee (Vancouver, Canada) – This event would not have come to fruition without the largess and energy of Amy Lee. This energetic and dynamic woman certainly put on a event that will be talked about in the coming years. Combined with the charisma and chess acumen of GM Maurice Ashley, the two staged the first US$1,000,000 tournament in open history.


Amy Lee and Daaim Shabazz

The event was a rousing success and put shame to all the naysayers who speculated that the event would fail. Certainly there will be a number of improvements Lee was able to clarify some of the issues and some of the 11:31 minutes


FM Ylon Schwartz gave a very insightful interview.

FM Ylon Schwartz (Brooklyn, NY, USA) – One of the celebrities mentioned in the Amy Lee interview was FM Ylon Schwartz, World Series of Poker (WSOP) professional. He came in 4th in 2008 WSOP winning a hefty $3,774,974 and four years later was the winner of bracelet in the 2012 WSOP. It was refreshing to see the Brooklyn native competing and he seemed to enjoy it immensely. He gave a very insightful interview and discussed his views of the Millionaire Chess tournament, the format and spoke on the chess/poker analogy.


Poker star Ylon Schwartz lost in the playoffs to NM Jimmy Canty. Photo by lasvegasvegas.com

What is shocking is that after the interview he expressed how the mentality of top players in both games are totally different. Top poker players, he stated, are used to losing and the loss rate is 83%. Conversely, top chess Grandmasters rarely lose. However, 17% of the time, a top poker player may win a large amount and nullify the other loses.

He also mentioned after the interview that he feels much more passionate about chess than poker. He is still seeking IM norms and was disappointed that he was forced to compete for a higher prize rather than vie for an IM norm. His interview gives quite a lot of food for thought. 10:30 minutes

Frank Johnson (Atlanta, Georgia, USA) – Right before the blitz tournament, The Chess Drum grabbed one of the tournament directors charged with keeping the players happy, basically. Apart from a couple late starts, the staff did a wonderful job in running the tournament. Johnson runs two locations of the 64 Squares Chess Club in Atlanta, Georgia and is a coach and promoter through chess-coach.net. 2:13 minutes

The directing was first class apart from a few pairing glitches and a couple of late starts. Atlanta’s Frank Johnson (right) directing India’s Sandhya Goli. Check out chess-coach.net!


IM John Bartholomew (center) on route to 5/9.

IM John Bartholomew (Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA) – This Minnesota native was a standout high school player who won a scholarship to the famed University of Texas at Dallas. After a year of law school in Denver, he moved to New York for a short stint to focus on chess. Later he returned to Minneapolis where he is now a successful coach.

A long-time supporter of The Chess Drum, Bartholomew came to vie for his second GM norm. He ended with 5/9 playing six GMs (2/6) and 2378 performance rating. John talks about the ebbs and flows of his life and how he has now found his passion. 9:15 minutes


GM Isan Reynaldo Suarez Ortiz (Cuba)

GM Isan Reynaldo Suarez Ortiz (Holguin, Cuba) – This Cuban national comes from a strong chess tradition. A member of the Cuban Olympiad team, the 25-year old from the city of Holguin has an ELO of around 2600. This was his second tournament in the U.S., but the Cubans have recently been making regular trips to compete in America.

Ortiz scored 6.5/9 and stated that he enjoyed the event. He showed me a scintillating game against FM Li Ruifeng, shown below. He will compete in the Pan-American Zonal in Brazil which is a world championship qualifier. This interview had the help of translation by IM Joshua Ruiz of Colombia. 9:16 minutes


Amina Sherif and Daaim Shabazz

Amina Sherif (Dusseldorf, Germany) – An enchanting 15-year old girl is of Egyptian (paternal) and German (maternal) heritage and came with her parents to the Las Vegas as part of a family vacation. This talented girl has been representing Egypt for a couple of events after being approached by one of the chess officials during a visit to Egypt. Her father is from the Nubian province, Aswan. The aspiring economist has such a sweet personality and her parents beam with pride when watching their tall and stately daughter. The family stays near Dusseldorf, Germany. (Note: We actually played in the blitz tournament splitting a pair of games.) 6:23 minutes

Dr. Jones Murphy (Dominica) – This brilliant physicist comes from the small island of Dominica, but spent his formative years in New York City. He attended City College of New York helping to win the Pan-American Collegiate Championship. This was his first tournament in more than 10 years. While Jones was pleased with the turnout, its diversity and the organization, he was critical of the naysayers who he found to be illogical in their rationale for not supporting the historic event.


Jones Murphy (right) analyzing his game with Aderemi “Remi” Adekola. This was the sixth win in a row for Remi who Jones called “talented”. Remi would come in 2nd overall in the under-2000 with 6.5/7 and then go on to playoffs to take 2nd. He won $20,000.

Jones gave some interesting suggestions for the next MCO including having playoffs after the nine rounds so that one can vie for norms as well. He also articulated why sponsors would be interested in such an investment in MCO and ends with what it means for the impact of chess around the world. Excellent interview!14:10 minutes


New York stand up! Jones Murphy with FMs Ylon Schwartz and William Morrison. All three have known each other for more than 25 years.

Dr. Maria Carolina Blanco (Venezuela) – Certainly one of the players who may have been mistaken for a celebrity or model is incidentally an orthodontist from Venezuela. A 15-time national champion of Venezuela, the Women’s International Master (WIM) and has represented Venezuela in several Olympiad, but left the country 10 years ago. She has now resided in Atlanta, Georgia for eight years and has a number of chess students. She mentioned that her students were watching result. She emphatically expressed her love for chess and has decided to work in orthodontist office only on a part-time basis. Check her website at https://www.drcarolinablanco.com 9:51 minutes


United Nations! IM Carlos Perdomo (Argentina), GM Robert Hess (USA), WIM Dr. Carolina Blanco (Venezuela), WIM Arianne Caoali (Australia), IM Lawrence Trent (England) at the Millionaire Open.

Mbugua Githoro (Houston, Texas, USA) – This player of Kenyan ancestry was born in Texas, a place where everything is big. With his third place showing, “Bo” would win big as well. With his $10,000 haul, he will have an opportunity to expand his Dark Knights (www.DarkKnightsChess.com) chess organization. When the question came up about his Kenyan ancestry, he stated that he was unaware of the chess community, but would love the opportunity to play for his ancestral country in future events. 10:01 minutes


Mbugua Githoro analyzing his 7th round game which he won.


Daaim Shabazz with Kenyans at Millionaire Chess Open. Pictured from left to right are: Akollo Odundo, James Apiri, Adia Onyango, Daaim Shabazz, Mbugua Bo Githoro and Collins Apiri. All photos by Daaim Shabazz unless otherwise stated.

CONTACT: MILLIONAIRE CHESS

email address: contact@millionairechess.com
official website: https://millionairechess.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/HighStakesChess
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/millionairechess
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/MillionaireChess
Photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/advancedphoto/sets/

Daaim Shabazz

Dr. Daaim Shabazz is the creator and webmaster of The Chess Drum. He serves as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds an MBA in Marketing and a doctorate in International Affairs & Development. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

28 Comments

  1. You always provide great insight with great interviews. I hope MCO continue to host this event every year.

  2. Daaim, you are too kind: I only scored 5/9 🙂 Excellent report, by the way! I thoroughly enjoyed all the interviews; great mix of perspectives.

  3. Hi Daaim.
    Great job as always. In the picture of Kenyans, I recognize Adia Onyango & James Apiri. Who are the others?

    1. In the picture from left Akollo Odundo, James Apiri, Adia Onyango, Daaim Shabazz, Mbugua Bo Githoro and Collins Apiri

  4. I think the MCO was a overall success but one thing I would ask them to change about it. They need to show more amatuer games on the big screens…Its cool to see the grandmaster play but I would also like to see players u/1800,u/1600 and u/1400. Set up one a two boards aside for the players in there section and just broadcast those games as well as the GM games. Sometimes my mistakes will not be found in a GM game but more likely in amatuer game, then I can hear and see where i went wrong.

    1. Perhaps. It may be quite embarrassing for a GM to point out many mistakes that occur in those games. I do agree that some value can be derived from seeing some of the games in the lower sections. It can show the variance in the levels of play as well.

  5. Great interviews! However, I found it foolish for one to assume that people stayed home because they did not want to receive lucrative payouts. Also, I find the idea given for why sponsors would be interested somewhat debatable. In my opinion, sponsors are mainly interested in knowing the people who are potentially in the market for their product. While MC was an incomparable tournament, I think it will take few years before it has something tangible to appeal to sponsors. The bright side is that the first step has begun.

    1. Guy,

      There were some very bizarre comments made on various sites (including chess.com) not in support of Millionaire Chess. One was that it was simply unrealistic to offer that much in the way of prize fund. Another stated that that amateurs should not be able to win that much money, yet they are paying entry fees and the GMs don’t want to. Some opined that they should have a smaller tournament for $500,000-$750,000 to lower entry fee. If you do this, it won’t have the desired impact. Also paying $1000.00 was too much and that Maurice and Amy were only looking to profit from this tournament. At the same time, some asked how could they afford to lose so much money. One person even doubted that the tournament existed, so he actually came to Las Vegas to see for himself!!

      Some made an issue that they didn’t think the tournament would exist next year to buttress their points. I’m not sure why this would be a condition for not playing this year. Jones was referring to these and many other bizarre points. One elite player we both know has made some points that were totally illogical… such as, Amy Lee doesn’t have the type of money like Rex Sinquefield so the tournament is not sustainable. The player also said that Amy doesn’t really care about chess because she had not done anything in chess before. When I asked him what Rex did in chess before opening the St. Louis Chess Club, he said, “Well he was a player.” Had me scratching my head. I believe people used so many false analogies like this.

      So many bizarre points were being made in the 10 months time, but so many good points were made. I supported it on principle … and because I was covering it. The tournament was an overwhelming success, but of course there were some areas of improvement. However, some exaggerated. One guy wrote an article about the Millionaire Chess where he gave the tournament an A+ in every category. Certainly, this is not an objective report since both Maurice and Amy will say there are things to improve on.

    2. Hello Guy, Have you tried to watch “regular TV” or the “dumb tube” lately. I kindly suggest that chess has something to sale “the promotion of intelligence life”. I may be one of a few who thinks that many people use drugs because they just don’t want to use there minds. And the development of mental strength helps in all aspect of life, so why not chess TV programs. I really feel sponsors have their wheels turning on how to capitalize. I hope we can find those sponsors who have the social conscious of America at heart. I now more than ever appreciate Amy’s impact not coming from a chess background. I admit it took a while to see Ashley dream and even from an initial interpretation I think he could never have dreamt about the potential cosmic shift the public exposure and collaboration of enlighten people can produce.

  6. Daaim,

    I think for Maurice and Amie the fact that MC has come and gone that in itself must have brought a feeling of great satisfaction to them. As for the pessimist, I am sure that was expected. My point stems from being personally attacked by your brilliant physician in terms I can’t repeat here, simply because I had disagreed with his interpretation of my comment about MC. He assumed that I didn’t attend because I thought the prize was too generous. Throw out or just ignore unhealthy comments but legitimate criticism should not be ridiculed. I wholeheartedly would like to see MC catch on fire and become the norm for tournaments here in America, but let’s not be youthful and act like the possibility of MC having to discontinue in two or three years is not a real possibility if this project is not handled a for profit endeavor. Given all the efforts and the inclusion of the services from top notch MIT tech geeks and many other investments, like: time and energy that was put into this venture and yet the organization fell substantially short of their expectation. If one takes that into consideration, then I think it’s normal to wonder whether it’s prudent to rush to have this done right away. True, there are those who will tell you, what do you care, just come and take her money, I just don’t see that way because if MC fails, then it will be fair to ask the question, was MC good or bad for chess?

    1. Guy,

      I would say that chess players are cutting off their nose to spite their faces. All of the negativism about Millionaire Chess Open was read by many who may have considered sponsoring such an event. All of the negativism (at any level) would give a financier pause to get involved. Some of the criticism was racist, acerbic, vapid and mean-spirited. It gave sponsors and the non-chess public an idea of the minds of chess players. It was not a good look.

      MC did not fail and represented chess very well. It was a classy event despite of its flaws. It is something to build on and it was timely. It gets the conversation started. There is no way you can have an honest discussion unless you actually hold the event. If you wait until you have so much feedback, you’ll never hold the event because there will be too many viewpoints.

      Maurice and Amy did what any business person would do with a dream… do it! I believe the naysayers have done more damage than MC could ever have done, even if it flopped. A chess player has to support this concept in principle. MC has proven a number of points, but has created quite a rich dialogue. For that alone, MC was a great benefit to chess. What other event has caused any discussion? Bill Goichberg’s tournaments?

  7. Guy – You are correct that dispassionate corporate sponsors are only interested in supporting activities that drive sales of their products. In business terms, MCO 1 was a proof-of-concept, that demonstrated players from a wide spectrum of backgrounds (professional to amateur, investment bankers to school teachers) would pay a hefty entry fee and travel expenses to play in a big money chess event. It exposed the tip of the pyramid. Amy is a smart business person, she has risked her capital to get to this point, and I expect that now with a concrete success to offer, she will figure out a way to monetize it. Maurice is two for two with me, HB + MCO, so I will definitely play in his next event, and tell anyone who enjoys playing OTB that they need to start making their plan now!

  8. I am little unclear of your message Cleveland. I am 100% behind the idea of promoting chess, but the discussion now is what can be done so MC 2015, can attrack at least 1000 players. We can all agree that drugs destroy the mind but chess helps develop certain parts of the brain, although I don’t think it makes one smarter.Can chess be sold to major sponsors, perhaps but we don’t have to debate it, because we’ll know in few years due to this bold undertaking by two courageous individuals.

    1. Hello Guy, Sorry for the confusion. We are on the same page! I was only trying to say that the time is now (“….not a few years…”) for the right sponsors to commercially promote the great game of chess nationally/internationally. There might be a legitimate debate whether or not MC still need the buy-in of the general chess community. I hope efforts can now be directed as to the issue: can or will chess competition be sold to the general public? I really can see a TV audience watch a general chess match once chess promoters find tune the art of chess animation and learn to personify the game.

  9. Got you Cleveland. Looking down the road, if MC catches on, the idea of a merger might surface. With so many other major tournaments already in place, it may be the only way, for the world open, Chicago open. etc. to remain relevant. Just a thought .

  10. Great job on the interviews.

    And also kudos to the organizers who ran a great event knowing that they were short of break even.

    1. In business, the most important factor is to giving a good emotional experience to the customers. That was done. Now they have to work on growing the MC brand and enlisting more believers. They will most likely get 800-1000 players, if they can tweak the business model a bit.

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