A 2500 in a Millionaire Event (1/2)

by Alejandro Ramirez
10/18/2014 – $100,000. For a grandmaster that has not breached the top 100, let alone the top 20, and besides the World Cup, when can a grandmaster compete in a tournament that has $100,000 as its first prize? GM Alejandro Ramirez took his risk of $1,000 to participate in a unique tournament in Las Vegas. He brings us his unique Millionaire Chess impressions.

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$100,000. I'm not a tennis player, or a golfer. I don't kick around a ball for 90 minutes nor will I ever be able to dunk. In my sport, I'm not playing the Grand Prix circuit or the World Championship. Even then, I consider myself a relatively lucky grandmaster. I have been able to pull a few tournaments where I have won more than $10,000, and many over $3,000, but even my U.S. Championship winnings for second place pale in comparison to the first prize at Millionaire Chess in Las Vegas.

Alexandra Lee, a key production person for the event, Maurice Ashley and his partner Amy Lee

I heard of of this tournament as soon as it was announced; Maurice Ashley's newest venture, together with his partner Amy Lee. I remember sitting in my room in Costa Rica (I was visiting family at the time) and just kind of quietly laughing at the idea. $1,000 entry fee, even for grandmasters? A prize fund that required 1,500 players for the tournament to "break even"? It was ludicrous, but I quietly hoped it would happen. I'm a hopeful for chess, and I couldn't care less if Carlsen is raking in millions a year, I selfishly care more that a strong grandmaster can make a living playing the sport that he loves, something that is not realistic outside a certain very top level of player, usually while they play in the most remote locations of the World.

I signed up very early to the tournament. As I said, I have had luck as a grandmaster and to me the entry fee was easily affordable. Even if I didn't place in the big money, as long as I was in the top 50 of the event I would get my entry fee refunded. The costs of hotel, flight and others... well, I do like going to Las Vegas, so it wasn't that bad.

Some months before the tournament started it was quite clear that they would not reach their goals in players. The organizers claimed that it would be acceptable, as long as the tournament received attention and that their business endeavor paid off in future editions.

Going to Las Vegas

Originally I had planned to room in Las Vegas with my friend Parimarjan Negi, a young grandmaster from India. Not only is splitting costs nice, I always feel that rooming with a strong player keeps your mind focused on the tournament... Las Vegas is full of temptation everywhere. Unfortunately, Negi couldn't make it as he had conflicts with his midterms at Stanford University. The tournament offered refunds of entry fees up to October 2nd, and he took the opportunity right on time. Luckily one of my other good friends in the tournament, Ioan-Cristian Chirila, jumped at the opportunity to share a room.

Planet Hollywood is a relatively nice hotel in Las Vegas. Image from PH's official website.

I decided to spend a few days in North California to visit both Negi and Chirila (they just both happen to live in the Bay Area) and practice some chess before the event. Arun Sharma was graceful enough to host me (and some other visitors) for a few days before the tournament, and after that it was showtime.

I arrived a day early to the tournament. A limo was waiting for me (the first 20 grandmasters to sign up got a free limo ride to their hotel in Vegas). Also waiting was a small camera crew. They wanted to record the glamorous experience that this tournament was supposed to be. A limo ride was definitely not a bad start. My driver was Cuban, and in Spanish he asked me if I was some kind of celebrity. "Not really" was the closest I could answer, "But this happens once in a while".

The strip: an easy place to get lost.

The tournament was held in Planet Hollywood, smack in the middle of the famous Las Vegas Strip. For those that have never been to Sin City, being on the strip is like being transported out of this world. The amount of people openly drinking, gambling, the bright lights and the over-the-top decorations inundate the place. It's one of my favorite spots in the world, but I don't know if I could live there.

I checked in and waited for my roommate to arrive (we took separate flights because chess players can't coordinate to save their lives) while I wondered why my room was full of Bruce Willis pictures and memorabilia. If I was a tourist I might have asked and wondered more deeply, but there was a tournament to play.

Once you were in the Mezzanine, you couldn't get lost

Registration opened at 6 p.m., the organizers mandated that players checked in before being paired on the first round, which is somewhat of a strange rule since not too many people pay $1,000 to be left out of the first round pairings. The players were given a strange backpack looking thing that was too big to be practical, were asked to give an interview if they were an interesting personality, and they were ready for the next day.

The line was not swift

People crowding around the registration desk

Round One

The tournament kicked off with a free breakfast for every player, though I'm pretty sure anyone could have walked up, grabbed a plate of food, sat down and no one would have flinched at that person being out of place. Maurice Ashley and Amy Lee gave their respective speeches. A comedian lightened up the mood with his performance, though his jokes were somewhat questionable. The first round started at 12:00 p.m, and we were warned to be there early due to security.

Maurice Ashley was never shy for the camera. Part of the appeal of the event was
the ability to take a red carpet picture with him.

Levy Rozman, Alexandra Wiener, Lawrence Trent and
Alex Barnett trying to figure out if this comedian was funny at all

Security was... interesting at the tournament. The organizers took precautions against cheating by installing metal detectors before you entered the player's area and before you entered the bathrooms (odd, since you had to go through the player's area to get to the bathrooms...). I don't mind being frisked if it guarantees there will be no cheating, but security was lax to say the least. At one point in the tournament one of my friends walked in, inadvertently, with his cell phone into the playing hall. He noticed it before he sat down to play, and turned it in to the nice ladies at the cell phone check-in booth, but the fact that it happened was not surprising. Even if we set off the metal detectors the security detail would ask us what was in our pockets. "Just change..." was a sufficient response to keep on moving.

Security was tight the first day, after that it was a joke

A camera crew came into my room before the first round. They wanted to know how I felt about the tournament, the organization, and what I expected from the first round, and the rest of them. They walked me down while I had my first disappointment of the tournament's organization: the pairings. Pairings were always late, the first round wasn't published online until after the round started. As to the afternoon round, it was pointless to prepare since it wasn't unusual for the pairings to be published 30 minutes before the start of the round even if all the results had been tallied considerably earlier.

More than one round players would go to find the pairings posted right before they had to play

I sat down to play and everything looked normal. The hall was nice, without it being anything special. It had some lighting problems that were promptly fixed by the organizers (kudos to that - it's not often that organizers actually fix something that is wrong mid-tournament). There were banners with every World Champion, from Steinitz to Carlsen. There was a relatively good amount of elbow room between every player, even if you weren't playing in the top section.

However, the "stage" where the top eight boards played was probably the worst place to be. I had the luck to play there a few times and the problem was that it was wobbly and you could distinctly feel every time a player came onto the stage to check if their opponent had moved. Anyone not actually playing one of those top boards would be unable to follow the games in progress since the stage was too high to see and there were no projections of any sort relaying the games.

The playing hall, viewed from the back

The wobbly stage where the top boards played

My first round opponent was an unknown to me, but at 2250 no player is easy. I scored a win, and then another to go 2/2 from the first day. I grabbed a quick dinner and hit the blackjack tables with some of my friends at Planet Hollywood's Pleasure Pit while waiting for the pairings. A delightful Asian dealer somehow managed to make everyone at the table a winner, and my modest +$100 at least covered 1/10th of the entry fee. A good omen for my friends and me.

The third round pairing was already somewhat brutal. I expected it to be a strong tournament, but playing Wesley So with black is not an easy task. I had some confidence as the last time we played in Las Vegas at a rapid tournament I ended up victorious, and I was hoping he would kind of remember that. After an exhausting 25 move draw (no joke, it involved weird sacrifices and deep calculation!) and a quick lunch I got paired against Mamedov from Azerbaijan. Awful opening preparation meant that the Azerbaijani got a very easy equality and a draw became inevitable.

Wesley So with black isn't anyones dream pairing

[Event "Millionaire Chess Open 2014"] [Site "Las Vegas USA"] [Date "2014.10.10"] [Round "3.1"] [White "So, Wesley"] [Black "Ramirez, Alejandro"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "D45"] [WhiteElo "2755"] [BlackElo "2574"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r2q2k1/1p3ppp/p4n2/3pr3/NP4B1/P3P3/2Q2PPP/R3K2R b KQ - 0 16"] [PlyCount "20"] [EventDate "2014.10.09"] 16... Nxg4 {A strategically complex situation. Black has some threats on the kingside, but if White consolidates he can put pressure on Black's isolated pawn.} 17. O-O (17. h3 Nxe3 18. fxe3 Qh4+ 19. Kf1 Rxe3 {was my intention, and it looks risky for White, but perhaps not lost.}) 17... Rh5 (17... Nxh2 $2 18. Kxh2 Rh5+ 19. Kg1 Qh4 20. f3 {is flashy, but simply does not work.}) 18. h3 $1 (18. Qe2 {was at first what I thought my opponent's plan was, but I had a nice maneuver in stock.} Qd6 $1 19. f4 (19. g3 Qg6 {and h2 cannot be defended.}) 19... Qe6 $1 {Now White does not have time to defend e3.} 20. Nc5 (20. Rae1 Rxh2 21. f5 Rh1+ $1 22. Kxh1 Qh6+ 23. Kg1 Qh2#) 20... Qxe3+ 21. Qxe3 Nxe3 $15) 18... Qd6 19. Rfc1 {White's surprising defensive resource. Now the knight on g4 is hanging and so are mate threats on c8.} Qh2+ $1 20. Kf1 Nxe3+ $1 { Necessary.} 21. fxe3 Re8 $1 {Keeping the pressure and making g4 into a draw rather than a win.} (21... g6 {was my original intention, but this fails to} 22. g4 $1 $16 {And Black doesn't have a perpetual here.}) 22. g4 $1 {The only move. Getting too greedy lands White in trouble.} (22. Qf2 Rh6 23. Ke2 d4 $17) (22. Nc3 Rg5 $1 23. Qf2 d4 24. exd4 Qh1+ $19) 22... Qh1+ 23. Kf2 Qh2+ 24. Kf1 Qh1+ 25. Kf2 Qh2+ 26. Kf1 1/2-1/2

Your less-than-photogenic reporter happy with a draw against a now top-10 player

Tomorrow we will bring you part two of this report, continuing my journey in the Millionaire Chess Tournament

Photos by Billy Johnson from the official website, unless stated otherwise

Grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez has been playing tournament chess since 1998. His accomplishments include qualifying for the 2004 and 2013 World Cups as well as playing for Costa Rica in the 2002, 2004 and 2008 Olympiads. He currently has a rating of 2583 and is author of a number of popular and critically acclaimed ChessBase-DVDs.


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