Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Who wants to be a Millionaire?

  I do. Who doesn’t? Billionaires and multi-millionaires pop into my mind and there are those who disdain money or think money is the root of all evil or have everything they need and wouldn't want a million dollars even to give away. All in all people who don’t want to be millionaires are on a short list.

Karen Weber-Mendham won $1,000,000 in May for her submission of Cheesy Garlic Bread flavored potato chips in Frito-Lay's “Do Us a Flavor” contest. For the less inventive among us, there's always the lottery...

  The promise of a big prize holds tremendous allure for younger and older chess players alike. In 2005, Grandmaster Maurice Ashley joined forces with the HB Foundation to put on the HB Global Chess Challenge in Minneapolis. The tournament was to be organized by Ashley and sponsored by the HB Foundation with a guaranteed half a million dollar prize fund. The half a million dollar prize fund was unheard of at the time and so was the $350 entry fee. I didn’t think the entry fee to be outrageous (In New Jersey in the 1980’s I paid $50 for big events) but since I had three chess players in the house and a hotel room to get and dogs to board I couldn’t see dropping two or three grand on a tournament no matter how large the prize fund. A co-worker went to the tournament and had a great time. The next year I did spend around half that when we all played in the US Open in Chicago.

  One thing I remember about the tournament was the massive amount of publicity for the tournament. Ashley was on the cover of Chess Life with an armored truck full of money along with a major article and was a regular guest on the Internet Chess Club’s ‘Chess.FM’ broadcasts pumping the tournament in the weeks and months leading up to it. I remember that the month before he was almost pleading chess players to support the tournament and saying the sponsor needed 3,000 players to commit to holding the tournament again next year.

  The tournament drew over 1,500 players (including 50 Grandmasters) and was regarded as an exceptionally well run tournament. As it turned out, the HB foundation was not merely a sponsor of the tournament – they were an investor looking to fund their foundation from the proceeds of the tournament (see Ashley’s comments on this message board) and even though the entry fees covered the prize fund the HB Foundation announced that the tournament would not be continued in 2006.

  Last week, Ashley announced a tournament called the Millionaire Chess Open’ to be held in October 2014 in Las Vegas. The tournament will have a guaranteed million dollar prize fund with a thousand dollar entry fee. When I initially saw the announcement I didn’t think it had much of a chance to be successful and was more of a Field Of Dreams idea (‘If you build it, he will come’) but the more I look at it the more I think it has a chance of succeeding where the HB Global Challenge didn’t.

  The Millionaire Chess Open is not making any pretense about being sponsored by anything other than participant entry fees. In fact, the tournament may not even be held unless there are 1,500 registered entries by March 31st. The tournament site is in Las Vegas which may repel as many chess players as it attracts but it also is a relatively low cost air fare destination with plenty of other attractions for non-chess playing traveling partners. Ashley’s partner in this venture is a businesswoman (Amy Lee) instead of a foundation. Ashley is even enlisting the MIT Media lab’s ‘technological innovativeness’ to ‘present chess in ways never seen before’ for what promises to be a stellar Internet presentation. With the credibility of having run the HB Global Chess tournament, plenty of advance notice for the tournament site and three hotels offering rooms at a discount, a transparent and upfront business plan, and nine months to generate buzz the tournament has all the appearances of a successful venture.

  The other reason I see the Millionaire Chess Open having a great chance of success is that chess has become big business. I received at least a dozen mailings from candidates for the United States Chess Federation's board elections earlier this year touting various candidacies and tickets of candidates which tells me the candidates had the financial backing to solicit votes that was lacking in past years when I merely received a copy of the Chess Life with a ballot and candidate statements. Spending that kind of money to advertise candidacies for unpaid positions on the board makes me think there must be money to be had behind the scenes. Outside of USCF Chess, Billionaire and chess patron Rex Sinquefield recently fronted $175,000 as a prize fund for a four player tournament featuring the top two players in the world (future World Champion Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian) and the top two American players (Hikaru Nakamura and Gata Kamsky). I know that’s just pocket change to a billionaire that recently invested 2 million dollars to get a 50% income tax cut through the Missouri State legislature but it dwarfed any previously privately sponsored chess tournament in the United States.

  Ten years ago I knew of only two people in Iowa who charged for private chess lessons, now I can rattle off half a dozen. Earlier this year Ken Fee, proprietor of the Kansas City Chess Club, brought his three children to one of my youth tournaments. We got to talking and he told me he not only gets paid for teaching chess in the schools, he helps the schools get funding to pay him, and he has employees that teach chess in the schools for him. I'm not saying it is good or bad that there is so much cash floating around at the moment – I just saying it is and that can only be a good omen for the Millionaire Chess Open.

  In my section of the Millionaire Chess Open, I could get my $1,000 entry fee back by finishing in the top 20 and recoup $600 for finishing in the top 50. If I were to finish in the top four I’d make it to my sections ‘Millionaire Monday’ where I’d play a double round robin for a chance at the $40,000 first prize. In the open section of the Millionaire Chess Open the top prize is $100,000 with the top 50 places at least recouping the $1,000 entry fee. These are incredible sums of money and I can see a lot of players wanting to take a $1,000 chance on getting hot at the right time and winning a small fortune. I can even see ‘satellite’ tournaments where the top prize would be an entry to the ‘Millionaire Chess Open’.

  There’s only one thing I see missing from the Millionaire Chess Open – a millionaire. The prize fund is a million dollars in total but as catchy as the title is unless and until there is a million dollars prize there won’t be any millionaires created at the ‘Millionaire Chess Open’. If I want to become a millionaire at the chessboard, I’ll have to keep working and waiting for a real millionaire tournament but luckily there are plenty of lottery games and I have my crack team working on the winning idea for the next potato chip flavor contest!

After numerous trials and samplings, my crack team of chefs and I will be submitting our suggestion of 'Bacon Jerky' Potato Chips in the next Frito-Lay flavor contest! Since that million is in the bag, my personal lottery consultant Dot from the Jiffy will be happy to help you on your millionaire quest...