Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Special Effects with a Poverty of Content

  The Millionaire Chess Open was held in Las Vegas last weekend. When it was announced last year I wrote how I thought organizers Grandmaster Maurice Ashley and financier Amy Lee were approaching the tournament in a business-like manner by reserving the right to cancel the tournament unless they received 1,500 entries (at $1,000 per entry) for the 1 million dollar guaranteed prize fund by March 31st. At the deadline less than 100 entries were received but Ashley and Lee decided to go ahead with their vision of a high-entry, high prize fund chess tournament. At the time Ashley said he hoped to capitalize on “the incredible explosion of scholastic chess as well as the massive increase in the number of online players” to generate the enthusiasm and entries for the tournament.

  I predicted last year that the tournament was going to be successful but when the tournament started last Thursday there were less than 600 entries which to me was a very low number. I see so many young players whose parents will take them halfway across the country for national youth tournaments and so many adults that will travel to national tournaments like the World Open, US Open, Chicago Open, and National Open that I could not imagine a couple of thousand class players not putting up the $1,000 for a chance to win a $40,000 top class prize. While the high entry fees possibly scared lower rated players off and higher rated players aren’t used to paying any entry fees much less a $1,000, I believe a contributing factor to the low turnout may have been that having the tournament on National Chess Day (October 11th) meant the people who would normally travel to Las Vegas and take part in this first of a kind event were otherwise occupied by organizing and supporting their local National Chess Day events. If the scholastic players and parents that Ashley wanted to attract stayed away because of Las Vegas’ reputation (the tournament felt compelled to bill itself as 'Child Friendly') or local National Chess Day activities, online players mainly play chess online and rarely if ever play chess away from their computer screens – after all that’s why they’re online players.

  As it became clear that the attendance wasn’t going to meet projections, the tenor of Ashley and Lee’s comments changed to talking about Millionaire Chess being a business that is on a three to five year plan. I believe they didn’t talk about that before because it makes no sense to pitch a once in a lifetime tournament and future tournaments at the same time. The pair is talking about having similar tournaments in other cities and if there is one in driving distance I wouldn’t mind taking a shot at some big money (the top prize for my section at the Millionaire Open was $40,000). $1,000 is a lot to pay for a chess tournament but maybe the price could be lowered if some of the amenities (gift bags, floor shows, meals, passes to the lounge, etc…) were dispensed with.

  The Millionaire Open promised a unique Internet experience and the visual element was world class. The web page that displayed the games was very impressive. It included pictures of the players, a live computer evaluation, how much time each player had left, and how much time was being spent on the current move. In addition there is a feed of the live broadcast and a live chat board. At the bottom of the screen I could view 8 games at once or look at a graph of the computer evaluation of each move in the position. Visually it was very impressive but in my opinion there were many things missing. Only the top 13 boards of the open section were available for viewing. I’ve been watching International Master (and Okoboji Open champion) John Bartholomew’s instructional videos on YouTube and was hoping to follow his play at Millionaire Chess the same way I did at the Reykjavik Open last year but out of the first seven rounds I could only follow his games the three times he was on the top boards. The boards never seemed to have the clocks set right so it was impossible to tell which player was in time trouble and sometimes the entire page just seemed to get stuck and needed to be refreshed.

  The live game web page says ‘powered by chess24’ which means I may be off base in assigning praise or criticism to the Millionaire Open team and should instead be looking at the contractors, Whoever was responsible, the live game feed had a lot of bells and whistles that were attractive but was short on accuracy in regards to the clock times and content with so few games available for viewing. During the semi-finals and finals on Monday the live game page was disabled and there was no way to look in on any of the games in the final two rounds of the Open section where players were battling for IM and GM norms or even the semifinal and final round games.

  In addition to the live game feed, the tournament had a commentated broadcast for every round. The broadcast was slickly produced with a professional studio set featuring hosts Women’s International Master Arianne Caoili and Grandmaster Robert Hess. They were joined by International Master Laurence Trent who was armed with a video screen complete with computer evaluations of the game. The broadcasts were around three hours long and didn’t start until two hours into the round.

  I watched the Saturday and Sunday shows. There were plenty of breaks in the action but there were ‘competitor profiles’ to look at and puzzles to solve which was a welcome break from the commercials and Muzak filled blank screens that other tournaments show during breaks. The commentators seemed exclusively focused on the top boards even though there were nearly 3 dozen grandmasters competing. I was wondering why until a crowd gathered during a time scramble on board 10. A cameraman was there but the commentators could only guess what was happening because they couldn’t get a good view of the board.

  I was very impressed with Robert Hess as a commentator. He didn’t rely on computer analysis but gave his impressions of the player’s mindsets and how they would approach the next phase of the game. Trent’s role seemed to be to consult the computer to show when a player had or missed a tactical opportunity while Caoili seemed to be asking Trent and Hess questions that a beginner might (“Maybe he’s upset because he didn’t win with the White pieces?”) even though she is a very strong player who occasionally would throw out variations that Trent and Hess didn’t grasp but were proved correct by Trent’s computer.

A sample of the Millionaire Chess live broadcast...

  Hess was very professional in his non-chess comments but Trent and Caoili seemed very bent on ‘entertaining’ and there were parts of the broadcast where I thought I was listening to some shock jock. I heard that tripled pawns was an ‘Irish pawn center’ and that Wesley So was not a typical Filipino player because he didn’t play tactically even though Filipino players do nothing but play blitz all the time and that the Chinese players were also blitz addicts which made them particularly dangerous in time trouble. There was one game described as having blunders than a George W. Bush speech and a position that was messier than a Sarah Palin press conference. I wasn’t offended but I was vaguely uncomfortable listening to these sort of generalizations and put downs. I mentioned this to one of my co-workers and he immediately asked if the commentators were from America. When I said no (Trent is British and Caoili from Australia) he said he wasn’t surprised because this kind of talk is normal for the sports shows he watches from other countries and that Americans were pretty thin-skinned. I wish more time was spent going over the chess games on the lower boards than the commentators trying to amuse me. The tournament climaxed with the ‘Millionaire Monday’ where the top four players from each section were on the big stage battling for $100,000 in the open section and $40,000 in the lower sections (no one was actually going to become a millionaire) and the broadcast was fast paced because the games had a quicker time limit and there wasn’t time for the silly banter of the previous days.

  Everyone that participated in the tournament has written about it in glowing terms and most of the people that were watching the games or broadcast online had many of the same comments that I did about the lack of coverage of the GM games on lower boards and the uneven commentary. The online experience was far less than the groundbreaking experience advertised. An old boss of mine had a phrase that described it perfectly: “Lots of sizzle - not a lot of steak”. Great looking graphics and web pages were combined with a minimum of content. Aside from the lack of live games to view, the game files of the tournament are incomplete (only including the top boards of the first six rounds) and two days after the end of the tournament there is no comprehensive prize list on the website or even final standings. I began this post looking for reasons why this tournament didn’t attract as many players as expected and I did come up with some reasons but then I started writing about the gaps in the online coverage and lack of post-event content. I’ve never seen an organization where the habit of not taking care of details and following up after the end of a project was limited to one section or department and I wonder now if Millionaire Chess' participation goal was undone by the same inattention to detail.