Do amateur chess players deserve the Millionaire Chess event?
I believe Mr. Ashley asked a similar question months before the event.
After a week in Vegas I have tried to gather my thoughts. There are many questions that lay ahead, and I do not pretend to know all the answers. I do know though, this is a critical time in American chess history.
Let me first state this was the most amazing chess event I have ever attended. Here are the things I have never seen before at any other event.
1. Presentation: The most spectacular playing hall. Posters of past champions, flags of the countries, and a stage for top boards. It had a feel of super GM tournament.
2. Security: All phones, computers and bags checked before entering hall. Metal detectors at the entrance. Security guards checking you as you enter the hall and bathroom.
3. Accommodations: Boards and clocks provided for each game. Boards set up in the skittles room. Girls serving water to players during games.
4. Amenities: Free breakfast before the start of the event. Comedy show for the players. End of tournament party with free alcohol!
IIwas very impressed with MC as an organization. They spared no expenses and truly went beyond the call of duty. I kept thinking during the event that is was too good to be true. You can find other post and articles about how great the event was but now the time has come to ask, "Is this the future of chess"? Let us first establish that this tournament lost a great deal of money.(Well over $500,000) Considering Mrs. Lee is not a sponsor of chess but a vendor, this important to note. They will not continue to lose this kind of money for years to come. The only way it continues is if MC is profitable. Many players do not want to think about that now but rather enjoy the moment while it lasts. I think the time has come to ask some tough questions if you truly want to see our game lifted to a higher level.
Was the Millionaire Chess event for amateurs or professionals?
I I was confused about this during the event. Over 90% of the players were below master level and amateurs. I know Mr. Ashley and Mrs. Lee said they were going to offer the biggest prizes in under section history. I assumed that there would be more media coverage on the amateur players too, but it seemed to be focused primarily on the top boards of the open( As a chess enthusiast I understand why). In the first match of the semi-finals the u1600 section and another under section were not even covered at all by dgt boards. The cameras and attention was all on Wesley So and the other top players. Here is my point. We already know that the general public could care less about top level chess and grandmasters. I thought the more interesting idea for attracting a larger audience would be to focus on the characters that make up the under section. If the goal is sponsors and TV coverage then you need to compete with dramas and reality shows. We already know that the average American can not follow top level chess,but they might be interested in lower level games played by real people with real flaws. We could have focused on the stress and pressure that some of the players must have felt. For example, one of the winners of $40,000 in a under section did not bathe or change his clothes the entire event! Clearly, he had a lot on the line.....
Does the Millionaire Chess event change the fact that there is no money to be made playing chess?
If you have been around chess long enough then it should be clear to you that unless you are a GM playing against non GMs, there is no way to make consistent money playing chess. (Except for the top players in the world but this event is not about them) So when Mr. Ashley and Mrs. Lee attempt to model chess after the recent success of poker in the past decade, one has to acknowledge that not even 4 millionaire tournaments would change the fact that less the 1% of players playing in the USA can make a living off of playing chess. In poker there are many people making a good living off the game. Chess will never compare when it comes to earning potential. This also explains the popularity of poker. Let us do some simple math. Millionaire Chess hopes to get around 1500 players for the next year and years to come. There are about 300 prizes and with 1500 people this would roughly be 20% of players winning prizes (Standard payout). Of course, some of the prizes do not even cover the whole cost of the trip! This means that 80% of people will come home not only losing $1000 for the entry but also another $1500 in expenses. This year over 50% of players went home with prizes. This is unsustainable for the years to come for any organization. When we openly acknowledge that roughly 1200 players (1500 x 80%) need to lose thousands of dollars each in order to sustain this event, it brings into question the success for future Millionaire Chess events.
Do chess players really want better quality tournaments?
The real value in this event was the quality of the event and not the money. I personally would pay every time for this quality. In the end amateurs are customers. I think MC understands this well. All of this quality costs a great deal of money. Amateur chess players were treated far better than ever before and maybe better then we deserve. The question is would the average chess player rather spend much less, receive much less and focus more on the game itself? There is a reason why such a service has never been provided in the past. It is because players did not want it. Chess players are notorious for staying at the cheaper hotel down the road, bringing their own food, sleeping in the car, crashing at a friend's house nearby, skipping meals and counting every dollar possible to make their chess trip cost the least. When I talk to chess players about going to an event, money is often the most important factor determining if they will go or not. From what I know of chess players, they would prefer to play as cheap as possible. This will have to change for the MC to truly be successful.
Can Millionaire Chess grow in numbers over the next couple of years?
Everyone I talked to had a great time and said it was an amazing event. Then you would assume they would all go back, tell their friends and more would show up next year. I do not believe it is so simple. First, let us establish that MC needs more than 1000 players to break even and 1500 players to show any real profit with this kind of investment. This event cost around $2000-$2500 per player. The World Open has about 1200 people on average and cost half the amount. How can we expect MC to do better than 1200 players a year at twice the cost? I am certain that the average chess player can't afford this event every year. Furthermore, we acknowledge that about 70% players will lose money and will not place, therefore we know that not all those players will be back the following years.
What are the realistic chances of the average amateur winning their section?
From what I witnessed, one needs to be at least two levels above their current rating to win an event like this. I personally trained a friend (Ben Franco AKA Epidemic) for this event who was in fact very underrated. In the end, he battled it out vs. 3 other guys who also were far below their current level to cash in for the big pay day. He took home $10,000 for 3rd place. In my section it was even more unreasonable. In the U2200, 6 players with either no rating or provisional rating, finished in the top 6. Two unrated players finished in the top 3! Now, the only major issue I had going into the event was that these players normally are forced into the open section or limited in the prize money they could win. This is standard protocol. I assume that because many players in the open section complained, Mr. Ashley thought putting them in the u2200 would cause the least backlash. This section had to be the least unfair section of the tournament. Considering that 4 players in the top 10 achieved ratings over 2200 (2 players over 2300!) after the event is only proof that they were not suppose to be in the section to begin with. All of this was personally irrelevant since I had no delusions of winning this event. I played this event to be a part of chess history. I did personally witness many player's dreams crushed and savings squandered by going to this event. In the future, I could not personally advocate for any chess friend to attend this event that does not have either $2000 to lose or is 400 points underrated.
Did chess really change after this event?
Maybe it is because I was focused on playing but I was not able to see any ground breaking way to present chess to a large audience. I know that some of my friends following this event from afar did complain about the coverage and said it was far below the top events in the world. I will need to review the archives if possible and please share with me if I missed something amazing. I was personally informed prior to the event that sponsorship was the most important factor for the success of future MC events. I guess more important than the response from the players playing the event was the response of the players watching the event.
This discussion in the chess world should continue. I know leading up to this event many people were emotionally invested in the MC organization and the people running it. Some people will not like me asking these questions while others already think they know the answers. I personally want chess to grow and for the MC to continue. I also do not want another HB Global. I believe the feedback from the players around the world will help MC make the best possible decisions moving forward.
There are still many thoughts floating in my head about this event. I plan to write a blog of possible answers to these questions and other questions to come.