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Chess as a spectator sport? Organizers of big-money tourney say yes

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Steve Marcus

Video feeds are shown on monitors in the broadcast/production area during the Millionaire Chess Open at Planet Hollywood Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014. The tournament offers $1 million in prize money - the largest prize pot in chess history. Amateurs compete for a top prize of $40,000 and pros compete for top prize of $100,000.

The announcers were breathless. With a spot in the finals on the line, Zhou Jianchao of China was off to a dreadful start in a tie-breaker series with Filipino Wesley So, the top-ranked chess player at the Millionaire Chess Open.

Nineteen moves and 20 minutes into the match, Jianchao resigned.

“He’s done everything wrong. He should have a negative probability of winning,” quipped commentator Robert Hess, a grandmaster.

“It’s an absolute mauling,” British commentator Lawrence Trent said. “That’s a beating.”

Twenty minutes later, the same two players squared off again in the best-of-three tiebreaker, and this time So squeaked out a victory when Jianchao threatened but ran out of time.

It was quick and compelling, and real money was on the line. So, a member of the top-flight chess team at Webster University who turned 21 while in Las Vegas for the tournament, was now guaranteed $50,000 and had a chance at the title and grand prize of $100,000.

It was exactly the type of excitement the organizers were hoping for.

The Millionaire Chess Open, the largest prize pool chess competition in history, was held at Planet Hollywood Oct. 9-13. The event was the brainchild of chess grand master Maurice Ashley and his partner, entrepreneur and financial backer Amy Lee.

Ashley is very clear about his vision. He wants chess to be a spectator sport, and the open was his move at replicating the atmosphere of the World Series of Poker.

The web broadcast, complete with slick graphics and a team of chess announcers who were both well versed in the game but up for injecting tension and drama into the proceedings, were all part of Ashley’s gambit that chess can capture a broader audience.

“This is not your average tournament, and the goal is to elevate chess to a new level,” Ashley said. “There is an audience and a market out there that has never been tapped.”

The tournament’s VIP room, gift bags, complimentary massages, professional broadcast team, and other features defied the typically drab atmosphere at many chess competitions.

There was an amateur division, with the top prize of $40,000, and an open division for players over a certain ranking, with the $100,000 top prize.

Ashley and Lee are aware that doubts about the viability of the tournament, and chess as a spectator sport in general, are everywhere. When the tournament was announced, chess bloggers criticized everything from the location to the payouts for amateurs. While cable television has found room for spelling bees, poker, the lives of rich housewives and even televised video game tournaments, it remains to be seen if chess, with its simple rules but endless possibilities and highly complicated strategies, can deliver.

The organizers initially hoped for 1,500 competitors or more, but the final tally came to 550 competitors from 40 countries. Ashley said some of the top players in the world stayed home because they balked at paying the $1,000 entry fee required of all entrants, and he said he expected some bumps and some skepticism in the first year.

On the final day, competitors said the tournament had gone smoothly, and most welcomed Ashley and Lee’s courage to try something new and attempt to generate excitement around competitive chess.

“I think this could be a turning point for chess,” said amateur player John Collins, who came from England to compete. “It’s a unique tournament and event with high prize amounts. There is a great younger generation coming up. For America, it could depend on having a star player. Magnus Carlsen (the current No. 1-ranked player) is a star in Norway. The TV cameras follow him around.”

In 2005 Ashley organized the HB Global Chess Challenge, with a $500,000 prize pool, in Minneapolis. Ashley learned a lot from that experience, and when he partnered with Lee on a second try he knew he needed to capture people’s attention. That led them to the $1 million prize pool and central Strip location.

Chess matches come in different formats, with some taking hours and others on strict time limits that yield a breakneck pace and matches ending in less than 30 minutes. In a tweak from the typical chess tournament rules, Ashley tried to reduce the number of draws, as novice spectators do not want to see ties.

“I think, when it comes to the general public, chess might be good for television if you’re talking the short, fast-paced matches,” said amateur competitor Ian Barruel, who is also a poker player. “I think people can get into that, and the audience can pick up enough to follow the action.”

So, in the end, took advantage of the absence of the top handful of players in the world and defeated one of his Webster University teammates for the top prize. His ranking rose from the teens to a spot in the top 10, and he walked out with a giant-sized check for $100,000.

Ashley already was scouting venues for next year’s installment, and thinking about expansion. With the World Series of Poker as his model, he knows the value of a location that is always in the international spotlight.

“I’d love for there to be a grand slam of four chess tournaments every year held around the world, and this could be one of them,” he said, referring to an idea gaining traction in the chess world. “I hope we can keep coming back. Vegas is important to us because it’s Vegas.”

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