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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