What is the Millionaire Open? It’s a chess tournament with an entry fee of $1000. On the other hand this $1000 entry fee gives you a shot at the top prize in the Championship section: $100,000. All sorts of traditions that you expect at a chess tournament are broken. For instance Grandmasters have to pay an entry fee just like everyone else. Grandmasters who registered early will have limos pick them up at the airport and there will be red carpet photo ops with players and celebrities involved. In short, it’s going to be the most glamorous open chess tournament that’s ever been held.
The concept of the Millionaire Open is controversial to a lot of people, mainly because it’s something that’s never been tried, and because the entry fee seems outlandish compared to a typical big money chess tournament. Let’s break down the reasons why the Millionaire Open is a good thing.
A. The Millionaire Open has the potential to change the landscape of chess
Do I know that after this tournament, huge money chess tournaments are going to be common occurrences? Definitely not.
However do I know that if this tournament wasn’t held, that there would definitely never be regular tournaments with gigantic prize funds? Most definitely.
The United States is generally a very money focused country. In other countries the typical open chess tournaments have much smaller prize funds, but also much smaller entry fees and nicer conditions. In the United States, it’s somehow accepted that for a tournament to be a major event that everyone wants to go to, we need to have an entry fee of a few hundred dollars and big prize money.
This type of thinking and culture is completely unique to the United States. However the top prize of $25,000 at a tournament such as the World Open, isn’t quite enough to capture the attention of the mainstream media.
However once you start throwing around worlds like “million”, people start salivating and they want to know more. This tournament is already capturing the attention of major news outlets around the world. For instance here's a great televised interview from Amy Lee on the event. The branding of "Millionaire Chess" has great potential.
B. All it takes is one huge investor to change everything
Professional chess has undergone a major renaissance in the United States over the past decade. Believe it or not, the majority of this can be attributed to one man, Rex Sinquefield.
Rex is a retired multi-millionaire who loves chess and decided to put his money to good use and form an incredible chess club in St. Louis. Along with this, the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center hosts all of the major United States championship events, and gives away generous prize funds for each of them. In the few years before Rex came onto the scene, the U.S. Championship had relatively low prize funds and was held in out of the way places with almost no spectators. It got so bad that a lot of top players wouldn't even bother to play. Now there are thousands of spectators who come to see the action live.
Obviously there are plenty of other people involved in making Rex’s vision a reality, but in truth, without Rex none of this would have happened.
Why is this important in regards to the Millionaire Open? The tournament is obviously an exciting, media friendly event and the entire chess world is going to be watching. Some people from outside of the chess world are going to be watching as well. Meanwhile you have two very engaging, energetic, passionate and dynamic personalities working on the event 24/7.
It doesn't take a genius to see that there is the potential for something major to happen. Maybe someone with a ton of money and influence will like what they see and want to throw their support behind the game. Perhaps they will be captured by the vision and imagination of Maurice and Amy, of the game of chess or by the players themselves. It can be as simple as convincing just one person that chess is a cause worthy of millions of dollars of investment. However in order to convince someone of this, first you have to get out there and do exciting things.
No one could have predicted what happened with the St. Louis Chess Center ten years ago. It was almost like a miracle from heaven for the United States chess scene. Maurice and Amy are doing something that could play off of that miracle and make even more incredible things happen.
C: Amy and Maurice are in it for the long haul
Why do I think that Amy and Maurice have no intention of stopping after this year? It’s because the event is almost guaranteed to be a financial disaster this year, and everyone involved with the event knew this well in advance. They and their investors have no illusions that they are going to do anything other than lose tons of money this first year.
When you go into something knowing it’s going to fail at first, that’s a good sign that you aren’t in it for just one big bang. They are going to do everything they can to make this event amazing, and use the publicity, energy and feedback from this year’s Open, to come back next year and try to make it even better.
This year’s Millionaire Open is an investment by Maurice Ashley and Amy Lee for the future of chess. Is it going to work out? I honestly have no idea, as anyone who thinks they can predict the future too accurately with this many variables involved is usually worth ignoring, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of exciting new changes in the chess landscape over the next decade.
I don’t know Amy so well, but I know that Maurice is a very successful guy. He would have no problem charging gigantic amounts for chess lessons, lectures, simultaneous exhibitions or even public speaking engagements. It is very important to understand that Maurice does not have to do this! In fact it is much much easier for him not to do this.
The large majority of Grandmasters don’t go above and beyond to give back to the game like Maurice is trying to do here. We are talking about someone who has tons of options, plenty of financial stability who could probably do anything he wants and yet his passion is to use his skills and do whatever it takes to raise the profile of chess players around the world.
This type of energy to create the change you think is needed is really close to my heart. Many readers may know that I’ve founded a bunch of chess institutions myself, such as the U.S. Chess School, U.S. Chess League and the New York Masters. All of these were founded because I felt that there was something missing, and I wanted to fill that void. I know what it’s like to have a vision of something and then get to work putting it together from scratch, and I have big respect for anyone who gives their time and energy up to follow their vision and to raise the profile of chess.
Maurice and Amy are working their asses off for the chess community and as a chess player and chess fan, my hat is off to them.