Millionaire Chess: an interview with Maurice Ashley

by Johannes Fischer
10/5/2016 – On 6th October the 3rd Millionaire Chess tournament starts in Atlantic City. And again it is a tournament in which players can win a lot of money. Chess organiser, author, coach and commentator GM Maurice Ashley is one of the driving forces behind the Millionaire Chess tournament. In an interview he openly talks about expectations, this year's tournament, Chess in the US and why he is so enthusiastic about the game.

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The stage is set

Johannes Fischer: Hi Maurice, tomorrow, on 6th October the 3rd Millionaire Chess tournament will begin. What do you expect from this year’s tournament?

Maurice Ashley: ​I've learned over time that expectations are like waiting for the supermodel you gave your number to call you up sometime soon. As an organizer, all you can do is work like a dog and hope the players don't bite your hand off. Certainly, we're excited to be doing our third edition. Though we changed location and lowered the prize fund, we plan to continue the level of excellence we achieved in the first two years.​  

​Who will take part, on which players are you particularly keen?

​Well, I'm waiting for the supermodel who promised to enter the tournament to register soon. But seriously, the key concept of the event is ​showcase chess at every level. That means amateurs as well as professionals. We understand that top players draw interest in events, but without a major sponsor footing the bill it is the amateurs who make it possible to make such a tournament.

That said, we do have a few new GMs jumping in such as Gawain Jones of England and Adhiban Baskaran of India who I know are looking to take home the money. ​And let's not forget Jeffrey Xiong whose star is on the rise as the new World Junior Champion. I would not be shocked if he won it all.

Jeffery Xiong (Photo: Tournament page of the World Junior Championships 2016)

Is it still possible to register?

​Registration is officially closed, but I'm sure there will be some players throwing cash in our faces at the door who will be hard to turn away.​  

The first two editions of the Millionaire Chess tournament took place in Las Vegas, the 3rd edition takes place in Atlantic City. Why the change of venue?

​We were hoping that we would benefit from all the East Coast chess players plus the proximity to Europe. Vegas has a reputation of wild partying and tons of fun, but in the end we are trying to run a successful chess tournament. If Atlantic City doesn't work out, then we might have to return to Vegas just so we can all party.

What else did change?

​We added a Redemption Jackpot, where players who begin the tournament badly can pay to have only their last few rounds count towards a new prize. ​It means that players will keep interest in a tournament even if they were playing lousy up to that point. That said, I'm not sure the concept will work. I think I suffer from New Idea Syndrome, where I get bored if I do the same thing over and over. Sometimes, you just have to be boring to be successful.

You put a lot of time and effort into organizing Millionaire Chess. What were your personal highlights in the last years of the tournament?

​All I heard you say was "Time and Effort." Being an organizer is like being the parents of a family of 20 children. It's a lot of fun until they all have to go the bathroom at the same time!

Maurice Ashley at the Millionaire Chess tournament 2015

The official website mentions in passing that this “might be the last edition of Millionaire Chess”? Can you elaborate on this short and surprising remark?

​Well, the business model for our tournament was to get sponsors and television to come on board once the player entry fees paid for the event itself. We have gotten none of the above. My partner Amy Lee has been footing the bill, but this is not a sustainable model. If we can't figure out a viable system, then we will have to put this idea to rest. Even so, as an addict and glutton for punishment, I can't say I would never do it again. But like Odysseus and the Sirens, my friends should probably tie me up if I ever suggest organizing a big crazy tournament once more. 

In regard to structure and prizes and many other details the Millionaire Chess tournament was a unique, a special tournament. Was the format and the tournament a success?

​Well, given that we might not continue the event, it's hard for me to call the tournament a success! That said, the format has been incredibly exciting. By having Millionaire Monday be a knockout on the last day, last round GM draws simply never happen. The fans love seeing a clear winner instead of ten players wimping out at the end with wet-noodle draws. ​   ​  

US American chess is on the rise. The US won the Open in the Olympiad, the US has a number of talented players such as Jeffery Xiong, Kayden Troff, Samuel Sevian, Ray Robson and many others. In how far did the Millionaire Chess tournament contribute to the rise of US American chess?

​I don't think it's possible to quantify what Millionaire Chess' contribution has been. The players who won prizes certainly loved us, and we got a lot of media noise from the New York Times to Playboy magazine. If you could measure perception only, then we were like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West arguing in the middle of Times Square. If only the guys who stole the $10 million in jewelry could pass us a couple of necklaces, we'd be doing okay.

Now, please, forgive me for being somewhat indiscreet. You were born in 1966, the year Bobby Fischer played his eighth and last US Championship (he won them all), in which the 2. Piatigorsky Cup took place and Petrosian defended his title against Spassky. What do you think has been the most striking change in chess during the last 50 years? How did you experience the changes in the US American chess scene on a personal level?

Clearly the age of computers and the rise of the internet have been game-changers. Nowadays, young players can't even imagine adjourned games, the allure of correspondence chess, big thick opening Encyclopedias, or Shelby Lyman waiting for moves from Reykjavik by teletype. It's a golden age for commentators to present chess in a dynamic way that reaches a world-wide audience in  a snap.

Maurice Ashley and Fabiano Caruana
during the Olympiad 2016 in Baku

I was shocked at the recent Olympiad in Baku to have fans from around the world come up to me telling me they watch our broadcasts all the time. That simply was impossible back in the day.​  

You are very much part of the recent chess boom in the US – as organizer, as coach and as one of the most lively and entertaining chess commentators in the world. What triggered the recent boom in US chess?

I think most of the credit has to go to Rex Sinquefield and his amazing team in St. Louis. US Chess was going nowhere until the world's greatest super fan showed up. Without Rex's commitment to chess, you and I might be talking about basketball or Donald Trump.​

Maurice Ashley (right) interviews Garry Kasparov
during the Grand Chess Tour tournament in Leuven

You are also an ambassador for chess because you are always impeccably and stylishly dressed. What is the reason for this private dress code in a world of players who do not seem to care much about such niceties?

Thanks for the compliment, but I think dressing well is one sign that we care how people perceive our game. If you want to stroll into a tournament with yellow shorts, flip-flops and a​  wife-beater, you probably don't deserve a lot of respect.​

As a commentator you combine deep knowledge with amazing eloquence. And no matter how long a game lasts you commentate, you never seem to lose your enthusiasm for chess. What is it that attracted you to chess and how do you keep this enthusiasm alive?

Chess is a brutal game. In Brooklyn, we play chess in the parks with music blaring and everyone talking trash. ​If you get your feelings hurt, play better chess!

A young Maurice Ashley, playing chess in the park

I love the energy of the game and the fact that you have to prove yourself on every move. When I am watching chess, I like to bring out the tight-rope quality to our game: make one false step and you die. Who wouldn't be enthusiastic when someone might die any second?

Even though Maurice Ashley is a now a grandmaster he occasionally likes to return to the hustling days of the past. As you can see in the following video.

At the Olympiad in Baku you acted as captain for the team of ​the Ivory Coast​. How did that happen and what did you think about this experience?

​ I recently toured three African countries (Kenya, South Africa and Madagascar) at the behest of the Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa, and I came away inspired and depressed. I saw a lot of talent and passion, but a lack of resources and opportunity. In economies that are challenged, few strong players migrate to those countries, so the cycle continues. When I got asked to be a coach by the head of the Ivory Coast delegation, I was happy to say yes. It was a wonderful experience in Baku at my first Olympiad, and I think I had an impact on my team.

I also came away with a renewed commitment to trying to help, especially given how great the need is. I've already recruited a few friends to join the cause.

During the Chess Olympiad in Baku Daniel King had a quick chat with Maurice Ashley

Last question: in November Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin will play for the World Championship in New York, the city where you were born and grew up. Any thoughts about this match?

​Actually, I was born in Kingston, Jamaica, but New York has been home forever and of course should have a major chess event every year.  I'm hoping Agon really does a special job because success could mean something wonderful for chess in the U.S.  I wish we had an American playing for PR purposes, but Magnus vs the Bad Boy Russian sounds like a story-line that the media can sink their teeth into.  I think the organizers plan to pull out all the stops, so I will sit back with some popcorn and watch these guys try to ​pummel​ ​ each other. ​ As long as someone gets his feelings hurt at the end, I'll be watching.

Thank you very much for your time and good luck with the Millionaire Chess tournament!

Website of the Millionaire Chess tournament

Website of Maurice Ashley

ChessBase author Maurice Ashley

Maurice Ashley also did a couple of very entertaining DVDs for ChessBase which allow you to experience his lively commentary and his enthusiasm for the game.

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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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peterfrost peterfrost 10/8/2016 05:30
I like Maurice Ashley and think he is great for chess. However, I find the prize structure in this tournament, where mediocre players can win huge prizes by keeping their rating artificially low, to be obscene. The bulk of the prize money in any tournament should go to elite professional players as a reward for their excellence. The rest of us should be content to play in the same room as them, and play for minimal prizes, or even trophies, which is the case in the majority of amateur sports.
yesenadam yesenadam 10/6/2016 05:24
What a great guy. Nice thoughtful, candid interview. "I think I suffer from New Idea Syndrome, where I get bored if I do the same thing over and over. Sometimes, you just have to be boring to be successful." Noo don't go changing! :-D Hmm but yeah, a tournament that changed everything every year would be disconcerting. He's too creative for that gig, maybe.
johnmk johnmk 10/6/2016 01:22
@genem. There is and always has been such a thing as a Class Tournament, in which each class competes to win the prize money paid for by players in that class.
But on the other hand, some players like the chance to compete against the best. They figure that if there is a chance to beat someone much higher rated, it's worth a try and it may boost his/her rating quite a lot too. Winning money is not the only motive for chess players.

Rama Rama 10/6/2016 06:12
There is nothing wrong with the "big-money" Swiss Tournament model. Bill Goichberg has been doing it for many, many years. However there is a limit to how much people want to pay. One year Mr. Goichberg actually tried a $400,000. prize fund for his World Open. The World Open is still held every year but with a more modest prize fund (and entry fee):
Philip Feeley Philip Feeley 10/6/2016 05:59
"Millionaire Chess" always sounded to me like the winner would get $1 million. A little disappointing that it was "only" $100,000!
ChiliBean ChiliBean 10/5/2016 11:32
I am excited and hopefully there aren't any sandbaggers.
Mosdef Mosdef 10/5/2016 09:35
@genem and sampru
Not sure what you mean. Do you know the tournament regulations or am I just misinformed? To my knowledge there are a lot of different rating classes with huge prices for the winner. So if you are for example the best player with elo <2000 you also win a huge amount. So the approach you are considering was already used in the first two editions.
Regards MosDef
randysavage randysavage 10/5/2016 09:04
Just curious to the first poster:

How exactly will the best players have any incentive to compete? My understanding of the rating system is that the rating for master (2200/2300) was chosen based off of the top 1% of chess players meaning a very small group that could theoretically compete the create the prize fund. To this ideal, that means that if there are 100 in the Master section...from years of hard work and toil they only receive 70%ish of the 100 players entry fees whereas the the Class D player that has been playing chess for a year as a hobby has 400 players in his section and receives 70% of the money. Honestly, as a tournament organizer and a 2200 rated player that must compete in the section which I have no chance of winning, that would effectively make me quit chess...rewarding mediocrity doesn't seem like the best way to promote the game.
Sampru Sampru 10/5/2016 09:02
Genem makes an important point and I agree with it.
genem genem 10/5/2016 08:29
Maurice Ashley says the Millionaire Chess business model seems to have failed, and that he likes to try new approaches. Here is a new approach to consider:
How about having all the entry fee money paid by class A players be paid out only to class A players (who have a winning record in the tournament). And all the class B to the winning B players; and the same for all the classes.
This would be very different from the failed business model of taking so much money from the class players and giving huge sums to the winning grandmasters. The typical Tournament Organizer talks about the prestige he feels from having GMs enter in his tournament, but the the T.O. goes astray when he projects those feelings onto the mass of class players who enter. Yes I prefer to have Caruana & Nakamura & So and other famous GMs attend when I attend, but I would value more highly having all the entry fee money (minus expenses of course) be paid back to my class of players who are competing against each other.
In organized chess, the enduring principle is to take from the lower Elo classes, and give to the higher Elo classes. I question this principle. And I suspect the Millionaire tournament could have new life if Ashley questioned it too.