Since the Millionaire Chess Open ended, I have read several accounts of the historic event. Most were favorable; some were mixed; some were critical. As is custom in my coverage of major tournaments The Chess Drum covers live, I do a reflections piece. It recounts my overall experiences along with an assessment on some specifics. Let me begin.
I learned of the Millionaire Chess Open a couple of weeks before it was announced. GM Maurice Ashley called me with the news of… “a million dollar tournament”. The words I remember going through my head were… shocking… unprecedented… revolutionary. Of course, I remember a similar phone call when he told me about the HB Global Chess Challenge in 2004. Like before, he told me to hold off on announcing it until there was an official press release going out.
On December 12th, the announcement was made and after a few articles were in circulation, there was an immediate reaction. Most of it was in reference to the $1000 entry fee. In fact, a thread on chess.com has reached 2300 entries… most of the early ones showed intense skepticism by a couple of antagonists. Other antagonists included one high profile player with objections about Amy Lee’s experience… the hybrid format… the large prize. There was so much misinformation, that another press release had to be released to clarify. In fact, there were three interviews (#1, #2, #3) conducted by The Chess Drum of Maurice to clarify issues at various points of the project’s evolution. I had also written perhaps a dozen articles about the event.
A week prior to the Millionaire Chess Open, Maurice and Amy released a statement titled, “Letter to Participants” which stated, “…we are absolutely looking forward to October 9th when the excitement will begin in the Celebrity Ballroom at Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.” It was surreal when I saw the players at the opening breakfast. It had begun!
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I started recognizing various faces while I assembled my Canon 60D camera. Maurice was greeting tables as the co-host and interacting with those who had come from overseas. The excitement was reaching a fever pitch. Maurice came on to welcome everyone and talked about his 12-year old vision. He gave effusive praise to his partner and set the stage for her to come forth. Amy likened this event to having a baby since it had been 408 days. (Read speech here!)
After the opening ceremony and everyone had eaten breakfast, the Millionaire Chess Open would join the annals of history. Despite this, there were very few chess sites sending representatives. ChessBase had Sabrina Chevannes and photojournalist Lennart Ootes was in the building as well as a professional team that was charged with capturing the tournament as none had been covered before. Since I was playing, I saw very little of the broadcasts, but I had gotten mostly positive reviews from word-of-mouth. Regardless, the tournament had begun and the months of anticipation were past us.
GM Maurice Ashley and IM Lawrence Trent
Daaim Shabazz and Adia Onyango show that purple is the color!
One of the most touching events of the MCO was the red carpet promenade. Each of the players would be able to take a professional photo with a backdrop of sponsors. It was a beautiful touch and good to see Maurice greeting each person. It was apparent that MCO was ramping up the customer service and Amy refused to allow anything (on the administrative side) to fall through. Throughout the event, there was the ubiquitous presence of Amy and Maurice addressing concerns. I was able to see them conferring on problems and was amazed at the mutual respect exuded in those interactions.
In the next four days, each person would etch their own special memories of the Millionaire Chess Open. There was an excitement not seen in recent years and there was the impression that no expense was spared to make this a wonderful experience. Amy was seen walking briskly throughout, but was always upbeat with a smile. Maurice commanded a presence and presented himself as a consummate ambassador of the game. The entire experience was first-rate and while each person has memories they will cherish, I had my own.
My five best memories were…
…meeting Amy Lee. For several months, I had communicated with this enigmatic Canadian woman with an ambitious vision. While not a chess player, I saw a dynamo of a mind at work. I didn’t appreciate this until I saw her in action. Maurice stated that she hardly sleeps and I began to believe it when I observed her. She seemed like she had motors in her legs as she scurried about. I noticed her endless cache of spreadsheets, forms and documents with every conceivable permutation of data. What really impressed me were the checks… all organized with the W-9 forms ready. It was quite an organizational marvel to watch. We should be grateful not only for her largess, but for her energy and effort.
…the red carpet. I enjoyed this touch as it made the players feel special and at the same time it gave the impression of a special event. What I found interesting was how Maurice took a photo with each and every participant. When have you seen a GM give that much access to fans? It simply doesn’t happen… at least not very often. Some GMs are so unapproachable to fans and amateurs at tournaments that a schism is created. This was apparent when GMs asserted that amateurs should not win big money. Maurice seems to be sending the message that amateur players (who generally carry the financial load of U.S. tournaments) deserve a tournament of the highest standard and will be treated in a royal fashion.
…ambiance and positive vibe in the playing hall. The purple monogrammed clothes were a nice touch to the playing hall and established the brand of Millionaire Chess. There were portraits of every world champion in the modern era from Wilheim Steinitz to Magnus Carlsen. There were the national flags of 43 nations and in an unusual touch, the National Anthem of the United States was played. The playing hall was comfortable and spacious and had adequate lighting. The beautiful young ladies serving water to the players was a simple, yet powerful gesture. It was a nice touch of class and contributed to the “special treatment” of the participants.
…conducting interviews and taking photos. With each major event that I cover, I usually get several good interviews for The Chess Drum audience. This event would be a bonanza for my photography and for my interviewing opportunism. Generally, I’ll compile a list of people I want to pursue and then adjust as the event goes on. When I found out that poker star FM Ylon Schwartz was playing, he was on my list. What occurred was one of the most interesting interviews I had conducted.10:30 minutes One of my biggest interview coups was GM Isan Ortiz of Cuba who I had an intention to interview since the Olympiad in Turkey. This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by Colombian IM Joshua Ruiz. The second such interview I have used a translator. 9:16 minutes All of the interviews, including the ones with MCO winner GM Wesley So and Amy Lee) can be heard here! As for my millionaire photos, you can see them here!
Favorite Photos at the Millionaire Chess Open
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… the VIP room! I would be the first to admit that I took advantage of this perk… particularly the free massages. I understand that the location was rather suboptimal, but perhaps the privacy and seclusion from the ruckus of the casino downstairs was fortuitous. I visited twice and received massages both times. I also went over to the boards and sulked over my incredible loss. Knowing I had a draw after blundering a slightly better position didn’t comfort me, but the “Doll Lounge” was a good place to heal. The massages were great! I also observed a group of players (including William Aramil) showing puzzles from their games. There was a nice one offered by one player with a queen sacrifice ending with a beautiful mate. Unfortunately, the VIP lounge did not get many visitors and after the first day Amy had to encourage players to visit.
Purple accents made for an elegant appeal!
Photo by Billy Johnson.
While I will not give a letter grade on this event, I will touch on five areas that some have been mentioned in other reflection articles.
The five areas of focus are…
Security… In my view, the security seemed to work well from a logistical standpoint. When you have 600 players and guests to scan, then it becomes a balance between thorough searching and delays. Players were told to allow ten minutes and it seemed as if the lines moved smoothly. As a journalist, I had clearance, but since I was also a player I checked my phone and digital recorder at the booth. This operation worked extremely well as each person’s belongings were deposited in a plastic bag and a ticket given.
There were no “in-and-out” privileges meaning that once you entered, you could only leave when you finished your game. If you had to go to the restroom, you had to walk through the scanner. You could only leave the playing hall if you had a stamp indicating that you had finished your game. Thus, you had to bring your own snacks in the playing hall since you could not go to a vending machine. Perhaps some small refreshments would have been a nice touch… a very nice touch.
The floor directors were clearly distinguished by purple shirts and in general, appeared to have a sense of professionalism.
In a two-part review written by GM Alejandro Ramirez on ChessBase (#1 and #2), he cited one of his friends mistakenly brought a cell phone into the playing hall, but quickly exited to check it. I was told by Frank Johnson, that while there were no cheating incidents, they investigated some suspicious behavior. If you listen to my interview with FM Ylon Schwartz, he felt the security was too “militant” but understood the necessity. Personally, I thought the security did a good job and arbiters seem to be alert while walking around watching the hall.
Playing conditions… One of the common issues was the positioning of the top players and the stage. I will concede it was very difficult to take photos and follow the action since the boards were above eye level for most. There were no demonstration boards or no way to follow the top games in the playing hall. Thus, it was not spectator-friendly in that regard. Perhaps it is just as good with the players on the floor behind a roped area.
The purple accents were a nice touch!
What I did like was the top boards of each section were featured near the front row. This, I would imagine, is also done so these crucial boards could be monitored. I enjoyed watching the class players in battle and I believe they felt some encouragement to be recognized in that way. However, there have been widespread complaints that no attention was paid to these games. This can be easily corrected in the future. Spectators may be interested in watching people at various levels to note the contrast. There was also the issue of the 8th and 9th rounds. Those playing two extra rounds did not use the wooden DGT boards they were used to and the attention shifted 100% to the Millionaire Monday which was in the adjacent room.
Side activities… some of the events had great intentions like the red carpet, best dressed contest, GM lectures and the blitz/bughouse tournaments. They were enjoyed and carried through in the spirit of the event. OK… both comedy shows were abysmal, but in my view, activities like the daily lectures were a success. The red carpet was a smashing success. Players were giddily approaching the carpet to take personal photos with GM Maurice Ashley and then one solo photo. Photographer Billy Johnson did an outstanding job and these “celebrity” pictures immortalized this historic event.
Comedy… uh no. I had heard of this comedian, but it appears he had an off night. His jokes only evoked polite laughter throughout. 😕
The youth-only activity was a bughouse tournament with plenty of pizza! Sorry no adult buggers allowed. 🙂
I decided to wear my Millionaire Chess theme. It was nice to see players divert from the usual t-shirt and blue jeans and there were some very creative expressions. Well… Adia Onyango and Dr. Carolina Blanco stood out the most!
The best-dressed contest was an interesting and well-received for those who decided to “look like a million bucks” but there was no idea of how people were to be seen, who was judging or where we could find photos of who had won each day. It would have been nice to see the various outfits. I would also suggest a small prize each day for both male and female. The kids’ bughouse tournament looked to be a lot of fun with hot several pizzas for the kids and the raucous atmosphere that bughouse is. All adults were told to excuse themselves from the room as it was a youth activity.
Tournament format and prizes… With me winning $67.00 in the under-2200 section, it came as a shock. I played decent chess, but I had a -1 score! It showed me how deep the prizes were. However, some had issue with the distribution noting that there was a huge different between 1st ($100,000 and 5th ($8,000) in the open section. Perhaps that can be adjusted. The issue of the entry fee brought about some bizarre arguments about return on investment. For most chess players, chess is a passion. I personally do not view a chess tournament as an investment where I have to achieve an ROI, or return on investment. Some people play golf… some collect expensive art… some sail boats… we play chess and spend lots of money on it.
Top board of the under-1600. This gentleman was getting into the zone.
Amy Lee and Maurice Ashley present a triumphant Wesley So with the winner’s check. Photo by Paul Truong.
Of course, there are chess professionals who have to consider these issues more carefully, but there are also those who want other opportunities besides the money payoff. When I interviewed poker professional FM Ylon Schwartz, he expressed some disappointment because he was unable to vie for an IM norm. As one of the top four players under-2350, he had to play in the rapid tiebreaker and playoffs, thus forfeiting any chance of a norm. He stated that if a player is doing well, he should be able to compete for a norm. Ylon also found going from classical to rapid was a bit drastic. However, no one can deny that the format brought immense excitement and perhaps there can be a way to accomplish both. The last complaint was those playing the 8th and 9th rounds for norms felt that they were forgotten since the focus was on “Millionaire Monday”.
Customer Service… Of course there were some pairing issues and some of the rounds started late, but overall the staff was outstanding! The MC staff was willing and in most cases, able. I want to personally thank them for their time, energy and effort. Everyone working the registration desk, cell phone check desk, TD booth and the water attendants were cheerful and professional. Amy and Maurice were diligent at addressing the many concerns and in some instances, I was standing right before them as they discussed these issues… albeit bleary-eyed. It was inspiring to see their passion at work.
Synopsis… All in all, the Millionaire Chess Open was a fantastic showing despite some of the flaws that would naturally occur in a debut event. In my assessment, the tournament succeeded at providing an excellent playing venue and the decor was elegant and appealing.
Small aesthetic touches like the water service and the purple runners on the tables were nice. However, I did not assess the tournament as an A+ in all categories (as one article did). Such reviews are not as helpful to the MC brand as those with at least some critiques. We need to provide objective feedback if we ever want to see MCO as a marquee event.
The MC app was very active and the players seemed to enjoy this social networking tool… thoroughly. On the down side, there was not nearly enough daily news coverage to generate the desired buzz. Chess sites barely gave MCO any consistent attention. Most settled for doing the post-tournament report. The tournament is generating some sustained buzz and hopefully this will create interest in the MC franchise.
Amy and Maurice were up early and worked hard to put on a successful event. I also came to this desk late after everyone had left. Yes… they were there.
I was glad to finally meet Maurice Ashley’s daughter, Nia Ashley. I used to always ask Maurice about her. Nia is an ambitious young lady attending Barnard College at Columbia University aspiring to run a production company. She is especially adept in the social-networking platform and was giving Amy tips on how to promote the MC brand.
I could not find a flower shop nearby, so I bought Amy some Chicago famous Garrett’s popcorn…almond caramel crisp and cheese (mix)! As a Chicagoan, I wanted to share one of our city icons.
I want to personally thank Amy Lee for her belief that chess deserves its day in the sunshine. You gave it to us! Kudos to GM Maurice Ashley, the floor general who some days operated on little or no sleep. Thanks for your vision. I am most certain that improvements will come in the second installment of the Millionaire Chess Open. Thanks for a wonderful tournament. See you for MC2!!
CONTACT: MILLIONAIRE CHESS
Drum Coverage: https://www.thechessdrum.net/