Millionaire Chess Preview

by admin on October 3, 2014

Well, Maurice Ashley’s Ode to the Almighty Dollar is almost here. The Millionaire Chess Tournament will be held at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas from October 9 to 13, dedicated to the proposition that big entry fees and big prizes will make for exciting chess. I sure hope so!

So far, the tournament has gotten 525 advance entries, which even if they paid the higher entry fee ($1500 after July 31, versus $1000 before) still doesn’t even come close to covering the guaranteed million-dollar prize fund, plus the mountain of other expenses Ashley surely has to pay. I can only hope that his sponsor, identified on the website as entrepreneur Amy Lee, doesn’t mind taking a million-dollar bath. However, that is between Ashley and Lee; it’s none of our business unless it gives chess a black eye and makes Lee never want to sponsor a chess tournament again.

From the viewpoint of quality chess, it looks as if this tournament has a chance of being the second-best tournament in the U.S. this year. Of course, nothing will top the Sinquefield Cup, which was not only the strongest tournament in history but also one of the most historic tournaments in history, if that isn’t redundant. But Millionaire Chess does boast four of the top 50 players in the world: Wesley So (#14), Xiangzhi Bu (#42), Le Quang Liem (#44), and Yangyi Yu (#49). It also features six of the top ten American players: Varuzhan Akobian (#3), Ray Robson (#5), Sam Shankland (#6), Alexandr Lenderman (#7), Timur Gareyev (#8) and Daniel Naroditsky (#9).

Conspicuously absent, though, are all three Americans on the world’s top-10o list: Hikaru Nakamura (#9), Gata Kamsky (#67), and Alexander Onischuk (#84). That’s got to sting Ashley a little bit, that his own leading countrymen wouldn’t show up. Of course, I know nothing about what may be going on behind the scene and whether any of those people might put in a last-minute appearance.

For me the biggest question is: Will Sam Shankland continue his amazing hot streak from the Olympiad, or was that just a one-time fluke? If he can keep it going, I think he’ll definitely finish in the top four. It’s a perfect  setup for him. The foreign players will not be as accustomed to the intense two-game-a-day schedule, and Las Vegas is practically Shankland’s home territory, being only one state over from California.

Oh yes, I should mention the quirky format of the tournament. The first seven rounds are a normal Swiss system. But then the top four players will qualify for a two-round knockout tournament on Monday. Each round of the knockout will consist of a pair of 25-minute games; followed by a pair of 15-minute games if they are tied; followed by a pair of 5-minute games if the match is still tied; followed by a single Armageddon game.

Anyone who’s read my blog in the past knows what I think of this idea. I think it stinks. Rapid chess is only somewhat like chess, blitz chess is even less like chess, and Armageddon is a completely different game entirely. This kind of playoff is like breaking a tie for the Pulitzer Prize with a spelling bee. For that reason I don’t care who wins. I only care who finishes in the top four.

Here are my other three choices to join Shankland in the final four. First, I’m going to go with Wesley So, who is after all the highest-rated player and has also been playing in the U.S. all year. And I’m going with Le Quang Liem, only because I know a teeny bit about him, but nothing about Bu and Yu. Finally, I need one more dark horse, so I’ll go way out on a limb and predict Ehsan Ghaem-Maghami for the fourth participant in the playoff.

“Eh-what Who?” you say. Well, he’s an Iranian grandmaster with, as far as I can tell, three main claims to fame — two positive, one negative. One is that he set the world record for most simultaneous games played. Two is that he once beat Anatoly Karpov in a 20-game match (four regular, four rapid, twelve blitz). And the third is that he was once booted out of a tournament for refusing to play against an Israeli player.

Note: There is an Israeli player at this tournament, too. His name is Aviv Bar. I am hoping that the two of them will get paired against each other and that the game will actually take place. It would help restore my faith in humanity.

Why choose Ghaem-Maghami for the top four? Well, one reason is that it’s been a good year for Iranian intellectuals. Maryam Mirzakhani won the most prestigious math prize in the world, the Fields Medal. Another reason is that Ghaem-Maghami plays an opening that I’m curious about. It’s a variation of the Nimzo-Indian that goes 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nb4 4. Qc2 O-O (kind of a provocative move already) 5. a3 Bxc3 6. Qxc3 b5!? (diagram)

ghaemFEN: rnbq1rk1/p1pp1ppp/4pn2/1p6/2PP4/P1Q5/1P2PPPP/R1B1KBNR w KQ – 0 7

The Ghaem-bit?

Let me say first of all that I don’t really understand Black’s sixth move. Specifically, if White simply declines the gambit with 7. e3 or 7. b3, I don’t see why the pawn is better posted on b5 than it would be on b6.

However, in practice White almost always accepts the gambit, and after 7. cb c6!? it gets interesting. This part does make sense to me. Black is saying that White has already wasted a couple tempi with a3 and Qc2-c3. If White would like to gift him with another tempo by taking on c6, then Black would have serious compensation for the pawn. White’s queen can come under fire very quickly.

Ghaem-Maghami played this line five times against Karpov — and won four of them! It’s no exaggeration to say that those four wins as Black were what won the match for him. Maybe the Ghaem Gambit can make a dent against other strategical players.

Of course, my previous record at chess handicapping is abysmal, so all of these predictions should be taken with a huge grain of salt.

The prize fund is $100,000 for first, $50,000 for second, $25,000 for third, and $14,000 for fourth. So lots of bucks will be at stake in those rapid and blitz playoff games! I sincerely hope that somehow the Ashley Gambit will work out and the publicity over the big prizes will help chess grow.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Edward October 4, 2014 at 1:29 pm

I don’t know about the “…almighty dollar…” in the Las Vegas, but I do know the only thing our game is lacking is a robust professional class like pro tennis, golf and poker. Maybe what’s missing from the world of chess is the ability to attract more almighty dollars.


Rob Radford October 5, 2014 at 9:04 am

She also lacks a robust audience. 🙁


Armchair Warrior October 4, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Don’t hold back; tell us how you really feel!
I’m in total agreement.


Pranav Nagarajan October 5, 2014 at 8:35 pm

I think the “Ghaem Gambit” is actually a pretty good gambit called the Vitolinsh Gambit. White does not get any advantage out of 7.e3 or 7.b3 because he is already behind on development and another pawn move won’t help. After taking on c4 and playing …d5, …c5, or both, Black should either get the initiative or at least secure a good game.

The Vitolinsh Gambit, if accepted, is designed more to take advantage of White’s awkwardly placed pieces and light squared weaknesses created by a3 rather than increase Black’s developmental advantage (though that will probably happen too). White’s theoretically most challenging option against this gambit is probably 7.cxb5 c6 8. Bg5 or 8.f3, though there are other plausible alternatives also, such as 8.bxc6, 8.e3, or 8.a4!?

This gambit is probably slightly better for White with best play but offers lots of dynamic chances for Black. It’s surprising why it’s not more popular. Grandmasters consider it to be pretty sound, anyway, and if it worked for the Iranian GM against Karpov that it should work for lesser minds also! 🙂


admin October 5, 2014 at 9:19 pm

Thanks, Pranav! It does look as if Vitolinsh was the first GM to play it. However, he played 7. … a6 instead of 7. … c6. Anyway, it’s new to me. The only theory I know is the Milner-Barry Variation, … Nc6, … d6, … e5. I need to expand my repertoire!


Oscar October 5, 2014 at 11:29 pm

I agree that the tournament format of the Millionaire Chess Tournament is, pardon the word, “stupid”. You want to get “the very best effort” from the players in every single round because they are playing to win the biggest prize possible, not playing to “place in the top 4”.

With this format, we won’t be surprised if we’ll see lackluster draws in at least 1 of the last 2 rounds of the regular (classical) rounds, regardless of the rule about no draws under 30 moves.

Also, the Rapid, Blitz and Armaggedon games do not produce “quality” chess and almost resemble crap-shoot games. I’d rather have a round-robin, classical chess tourney of the Final Four to determine the the 1st – 4th prizes.


Matt Hayes October 6, 2014 at 8:40 am

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Millionaire Chess when it was announced and, to this day, I am still not sure. I like the fact that it will generate publicity for chess, especially being in Vegas, and I like what Maurice Ashley is trying to do for the game.

However, I agree with you, Dana, about the format of the tournament. Just make it a regular Swiss and then have a play-off at the end if multiple players are tied. I also think the entry fee is a huge turn off for more players. I don’t know many wealthy chess players but I do know a lot of GOOD players who would love to play in such a tournament but couldn’t come close to affording the entry fee. $1,000 is way too high and that’s even the lower amount that has since risen to $1,500, and maybe even $2,000 by now since the tournament is almost upon us.

Personally, there’s no way I am going to lay out $1,000 (at the cheapest) to play in a tournament that I think will be rife with sandbaggers. Perhaps not a problem in the Open section but a serious concern in the lower sections. When you then add in the cost of gas there and back, hotel costs, food for several days… I can’t see getting out of Vegas spending less than $2K.

I hope the tournament is a success but I am not sure this experiment will be repeated. As you say, Dana, the entry fees aren’t going to come close to covering the prize fund, unless they have a sudden rush of late entries (which I doubt, given the aforementioned increase in the entry fee now). True, that happens in a lot of tournaments but in those tournaments we are talking about the organizer losing, at worst, perhaps a few thousand dollars and not hundreds of thousands!


culjoe October 7, 2014 at 9:18 pm

The “Ghaem” gambit was played in the early 90’s on a frequent basis by American GM Larry Christiansen with a lot of success. I remember Larry having a couple of games published in Chess Life during that period of time on the Black side of that line. As far as the Millionaire’s event is concerned, I concur with the admin on all points. The entry fee is too high and the format is terrible especially when one realizes that if one makes it to the final four, they are playing blitz for $35,000 in the lower sections. To me, I would have no problem with a big money blitz event where every round is fast but not an event where the first 7 rounds are “semi” classical controls and then blitz because the adjustment is too brutal to fathom.


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