Millionaire Chess: An interview with Maurice Ashley

by Johannes Fischer
10/27/2014 – The Millionaire Chess event in Las Vegas was the Open with the biggest prize-fund in chess history. But was the tournament a success? In an interview organizer Maurice Ashley talks about past, present and future of the event, reveals why chess fascinates him, praises the attractions of Las Vegas, and draws a résumé of the Millionaire Chess Open.

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Mauric Ashley, MC of the MC

Johannes Fischer: Maurice, Amy Lee and you were the organizers and driving force behind the Millionaire Chess event in Las Vegas, the open with the biggest prize-pool in chess history. Do you still remember the very first moment when you had the idea to organize such a tournament?

Maurice Ashley: I actually thought about organizing this event more than 12 years ago. At the time, I felt like chess was not getting the shine it deserved, that we really needed to have larger than life events that really showcased how big the sport could be. My first stab at this came in the form of the 2005 HB Global Chess Challenge, which drew over 1,600 players. Unfortunately, the sponsor pulled out the next year, and it wasn't until a casual conversation last summer with my friend (now business partner) Amy that the idea was rekindled.

A strong team: Amy Lee and Maurice Ashley

What happened afterwards? How did you go about turning your idea into reality?

Well, Amy is a tour de force when it comes to getting stuff done. I've never met such an energetic person. Once the idea captivated her, she insisted we make it happen. I wasn't sure she knew what she was getting herself into, but as a successful entrepreneur she saw an opportunity to pull off an idea that no one else was doing. We discussed the possibilities long and hard from all angles for about six weeks and then decided that it was now or never. Without Amy, my idea would probably still be stuck in my head. I am forever grateful that she was willing to put her time, effort and resources into making this event happen.

Amy Lee, one of the driving forces behind the Millionaire Chess event

One stated goal of the tournament was to attract more people to chess. Can you tell us a bit about your career: how did you get attracted to chess, what fascinates you about the game, and why do you coach and encourage young players to try to get better at chess?

I fell in love with chess at 14 years old at Brooklyn Technical High School after a friend demolished me in a game. I really knew nothing, not even Scholar's Mate, but being extremely competitive I could not take that lying down. As destiny would have it, I saw a chess book in the school library and became hooked by all the astonishing ideas I saw in it. I loved reading about the history of the game, the famous players, and all the crazy tactics that were possible. Whenever I coach my students, I try to stress the beauty of chess. It's what keeps us coming back for more.

Searching for the unexpected

You are a chess teacher and you also recorded a number of ChessBase DVDs. What do you want to teach when you teach chess?

For me, I am mainly attracted to beautiful and unusual ideas. The exceptions to the rule. I always want my students to step outside of themselves, to put themselves in the mind of the other person, to go beyond their own thoughts when trying to solve problems. My first DVD with ChessBase, The Secret to Chess, really emphasizes this idea of Aikido Chess, using the other person's energy against them. I like to explore counterintuitive concepts that make the great players who they are. I think learning happens best when we break from our natural line of thinking to explore alien approaches that we would never consider.

Las Vegas - sunnier than one might think

Some people think Las Vegas and chess do not go well together: on the one hand you have chess that prides itself to be a rational logical game, a game of reason, on the other you have Las Vegas, a town created to lure people into irrationally gamble money away in the hope of scoring a lucky win in a game of chance. The World Championship 2012 was played in the Tretyakov Gallery, a distinguished museum, the Millionaire Chess event took place close to table dancers, in a town that proudly labels itself „Sin City“. Is this the right image for chess?

I think different people have their own image of what chess is or where it ought to be played. I grew up playing chess in parks in Brooklyn, New York with music blasting and guys trash-talking in the summer sun. I think that is as legitimate an image for chess as playing in a distinguished high class museum. Some might even argue that my child-hood image is ten times more fun and a lot more marketable. We all know chess is not a game of chance, and the 560 chess players from 44 countries who attended the Millionaire Chess Open came because they wanted to play great chess in an enjoyable setting.

Las Vegas is also the town of high-stakes gambling. Do you think it is money that attracts people to chess?

Gambling has nothing to do with playing chess. By the way, Las Vegas is also a town of concerts, magic shows, museums, night clubs, shopping, and even a local chess club. There is lots to do in Vegas that do not fit into the simple box that people see in the movies. Of course, the city also made its name on the crazy fun a responsible adult can have while there. It depends on your taste what you wish to do while visiting the city. As for what attracts people to chess, I think if it were money, then we would all be starving!

Part of the problem I have with chess is that any semi-professional player not in the Top 20 trying to make a living playing the game you love is going to struggle. It's a dirty little secret that every year we see talented young chess players, particularly here in the US, leave chess in droves because the money one can earn playing is a pittance compared to almost any other profession. Chess has been stuck with a formula of hoping that a wealthy patron or company will give out some basic conditions for grandmasters to come play for a chance to win prizes that other sports would snicker at. I think rewarding chess players for making brilliant moves is a good thing, and that GMs deserve to play for big prizes like anyone else.

Players on stage

Some people were wondering why not more strong GMs tried to win the $100.000 first prize, and wondered how the roughly 500 participants paying an entrance fee of $1,000 could cover the $1,000,000 prize-fund. Are you satisfied with the strength of the field and the number of participants?

There were a few reasons. I think with anything new it takes time for players to adjust. GMs are not used to paying any entry fee, much less one as high as $1,000, even if the prizes are more than a year's salary for some. We did not promise any conditions because we wanted to have an equal ground for all, and that is a non-starter for most GMs. Also, top players are not used to playing two games a day, which demands a tremendous amount of endurance. We found that our GM field was full of very young GMs who see a new fresh way forward for chess as a good thing.

Ray Robson

The old way has not brought that much attention or money to chess, so young professionals are willing to try this way to see if other organizers might follow or if the press and corporate sponsors might pick up on it. We were very happy that the likes of Wesley So, Le Quam Liem, Bu Xiangzhi and Yu Yangli played. When we do this again, we will see more GMs and many more amateurs, especially as we tweak the prizes to make it even more attractive. When we start to get sponsors then we can have even deeper and richer prizes to make this opportunity an attractive one for even the practicing professional.

The proud winner Wesley So

What feedback did you get about the tournament - from the general press, the chess community and from participants? Was there any difference between GMs and amateurs?

General press has been simply astonishing. We could not have been more pleased with the coverage. I did more than one interview on sports talk radio about the event, before it even happened!

High media interest for chess

How often does a chess tournament make it into mainstream sports discussions? The participants, especially the amateurs, were gushing in their praise. We were very touched by the response of the majority of players.

The tournament hall

We see them as clients, and we want our clients to come back because we treated them with the respect they deserve. GMs like Wesley So, Sam Shankland, Daniel Naroditsky and others personally expressed their excitement about the tournament. Most want to see the prizes become a bit flatter, but definitely want to see us do it again and again. As for the chess community, there are those who sit at a distance who were not sure if our event was going to happen, if we were actually going to pay, if we were going to do it again, if we really care about chess. We've checked off all those boxes.

In his long and candid ChessBase report about the Millionaire Chess tournament GM Alejandro Ramirez offered some criticism but finished by stating: “Overall I congratulate Maurice and Amy, and I hope that next year the tournament is held again, even better, with even more fantastic prizes.“ What is your résumé about the tournament: What did you like, what went well, what would you do better, and will there be a second edition?

Alejandro surprised me with some of his criticisms, especially those like his security complaint that it would have taken him two minutes on site to come directly to me as a colleague and tell me I ought to look into. I think when he shrugs his shoulders at being picked up in a limo it reminds me that some GMs are used to a certain level of treatment that the average amateur would find pretty cool. Of course, as the organizer we see things that could be improved that even the players are completely unaware of. Though most of our players gave us between a 9 and a 12, we rate ourselves between a 6 and 7.

The stage is set

Our goal is to eventually be the gold standard of chess tournaments, and not just one, but at least 4 world-wide. We hope to see many other organizers follow our lead and brag about who has the biggest prizes instead of who has the highest Category event. I think any movement that rewards chess players at all levels is a good thing.

You are a chess player, a chess coach, a commentator and an organizer. Which do you like best?

I have had a lot of roles in chess, and this new one as an organizer has been the most difficult by far! I had no idea what went into dealing with millions of details, and I still can't believe I am back in this role after the massive headaches I had from 2005. But I have to say it has been very gratifying to pull of such a major event, and to see a vision I had for over 12 years being realized. Now I am hooked on doing this again and again! That said, of all the jobs I have had in chess, the most fun is definitely as a commentator. I get to run my mouth with no consequences whatsoever; it reminds me of trash-talking back in the day in Brooklyn. It killed me that I could not do commentary at my own event, but I decided it was not the right thing to do this time around. I loved our team of Lawrence Trent, Robert Hess and Arianne Caioli;

Chess - an old but modern game

Commentators Ariana Caoili and Robert Hess

I think they did a great job and will only get better. Who doesn't like to watch top GMs play under enormous pressure for huge prizes while we get paid to talk about it? Maybe next time!

Thank you very much for this interview!

Pictures: Amy Lee

Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


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