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Melekhina on the Millionaire: Impressions from Vegas Print E-mail
By FM Alisa Melekhina   
October 20, 2014
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When the idea for Millionaire Chess was first announced in January, I was one of the first to register. While intense skepticism and the typical collective action problem stalled the participation of others, I shared the vision of elevating chess into the mainstream. Recent developments in the online broadcast and sharing of content have made the time ripe to disseminate chess to a broader audience.

Another catalyst in deciding to participate was the appeal of playing in a high-stakes tournament without the burden of qualifying. With the NY bar and a full-time law firm job approaching, I anticipated it would be difficult to qualify for the national championships and team. Millionaire Chess motivated me to keep studying.
 
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When the tournament finally took place, it boasted a strong field of over 550 players. With no choice but to compete in the Open section, I played up seven out of the nine rounds. After losing to stronger players in the first two rounds, I rebounded with an upset over an IM and went on to score 4/7. It was a moderate result that transpired into a gain of about 10 USCF and 10 FIDE rating points.  

Although my games were marred by missed opportunities, participating in the tournament itself was a memorable opportunity. Below I offer my impressions on how Millionaire Chess differs from regular tournaments. I also include a mini interview with the winner of the $100,000 first place prize – GM Wesley So. I conclude with a post-tournament interview with GM Maurice Ashley about the future of Millionaire Chess.

The Millionaire Chess Experience

I’ve participated in everything from small weekend quads held in local elementary schools, to the usual 5-day Open Swisses, to stellar conditions at the US Championships hosted by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. Before the tournament I was curious to see where Millionaire would fall on the spectrum. The unheard-of million-dollar prize fund is an obvious distinguishing feature. 

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So is the fact that the venue was glamorous Planet Hollywood in the heart of the Las Vegas strip. Yet, there are other aspects that define a tournament experience. 

- Player hospitality

In comparing Millionaire Chess to other tournaments, it is important to keep in mind the context that this is an Open tournament. It is difficult to replicate the luxurious conditions afforded to a small group of players in a Round-Robin. 

Nevertheless, the organizers did a tremendous job of welcoming all players – not just the top players. At registration, every participant was awarded a Millionaire Chess gift bag. 

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Photo Lennart Ootes


The purple Millionaire Chess accents on the boards and throughout the playing hall, coupled with MC branding on all promotional materials, also added to the professional atmosphere of the event.

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Photo Lennart Ootes


The tournament kicked off with an open breakfast buffet where the guests were entertained by a stand-up comedian. 

The tournament schedule was sprinkled with a bughouse pizza party, blitz tournament, and another comedy night.

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Titled players were given unlimited access to the Doll Lounge “VIP Room.” All participants were given a pass to visit at least once. One of my favorite parts of the tournament (and post-round destinations) was the free massages!

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Interviewer Alex Lee, commentator IM Lawrence Trent, and GM Maurice Ashley on the red carpet

Everyone was given the star treatment. There were photo opportunities on the “red” carpet. In-house photographers snapped away during the rounds. 
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One of the goals of Millionaire Chess was to showcase the unique personalities that compose the chess world. 
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The broadcast was handled by the Fat Chimp, one of the production teams that also covers events hosted by CCSCSL. Between that, three documentaries being filmed about Millionaire Chess, and BBC, video cameras were ubiquitous throughout the event. 

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The online viewers were treated to top-notch commentary by WIM Arianne Caoili, GM Robert Hess, and IM Lawrence Trent. 

Interview with GM Wesley So
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GM Wesley So − the highest-rated player going into the event− stole the show by emerging victorious with the $100,000 first-place prize. He had many things to celebrate, as he also turned 21 on the first day of the tournament. 

Alisa Melekhina (AM): What encouraged you to play in Millionaire Chess?
Wesley So  (WS): I had doubts and concerns about playing in Vegas, as I knew this was going to be a tough event. 
My coach −Susan Polgar− convinced me that I should forget about non-chess matters like my 21st birthday on October 9. She convinced me it's time for me to try and win big events.

AM: How do you feel about having to pay the $1,000 entry fee, even as a top GM? 
WS: Millionaire Chess is a unique and very prestigious event so we felt that it's worth it. In general I am also contributing to making chess more popular by supporting the MC event and very thankful to the organizer and sponsor. I hope this event will continue next year.

It's also very nice that the event is held in Las Vegas. What place could be more exciting?

AM: How seriously did you prepare for the event? What does your preparation routine consist of?
WS: To be honest I didn't have much time to do some serious preparation for this event. I was busy with college life and friends, but I've been trying to do a different kind of preparation even if not chess-wise. 

With two games a day it is very important to have lots of energy and stamina so I've been working on my physicals. If you observe, all of the top players are very fit and lean so I am trying to be like them.

Post-tournament Interview with GM Maurice Ashley
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Alisa Melekhina (AM): Did the tournament succeed in matching your vision for Millionaire Chess? What were some of the unforeseen obstacles?
Maurice Ashley (MA): The tournament was a dream come true. It had the look and feel I wished for Millionaire Chess, and the players all seemed to go home very satisfied. My favorite line that I heard from players was, "I played horribly in the tournament, but I had a great time!" Nothing says more about a tournament than that sentiment. 

As for the unforeseen obstacles, every large event will have things happen that the organizers will learn from. The biggest one for us was the lack of responsiveness from the website. There was so much interest and the website was not optimized to deal with all of it. We will address this and other concerns for the next time. 

AM: Players that are not used to American Swisses have had trouble adjusting to the double-round per day schedule, especially in such a high-stakes event. Do you plan on maintaining the current schedule?
MA: To do one game a day would mean much higher cost for the players who would have to spring for a longer hotel stay, food, and also take more days off from work. Maybe in the Open section it might be worth thinking about how to lengthen the event, but in the US it is difficult to convince players to spend 10-12 days at a tournament, especially the amateur player looking to have a good time while playing intense chess.

AM: Before the event, the NY times ran an article on Millionaire Chess, which was later syndicated nationally. Did the tournament generate any additional media coverage? 
MA: We have been very humbled and excited by the number of articles written about us. The New York Times article was a huge win for our company as it generated tremendous attention world-wide. We have had a lot of attention in the 48 hours after the event ended, including Wired, Fast Company, numerous chess online blogs and radio in Canada and Australia. A Philippine TV station wants to purchase broadcast rights to our show, given that Wesley So won the whole thing. The attention has just been amazing.

AM: What would you do differently next time?
MA: As chess players, we always look to improve, and this business is no different. There are some areas like the website I mentioned earlier. Also, we will hire more staff to help Amy and me since we took on such a big part of the work load. We want to address some issues around rating differences world-wide since we lost so many players due to rating issues. Now that so many people know about us, we will run a lot less promotions and do more outreach. On top of that, we want to partner with other events to run satellite tournaments so that more people can get involved. We are big on quality control and would give ourselves a 6 out of 10 for this first one even though our players seemed to gush that we deserve a 12. We will keep getting better as we go along. 

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Millionaire Chess partner Amy Lee handles the pre-tournament registration

AM: Will there be a next time? What does the future hold for the Millionaire Chess brand?
MA: We created this company with a vision for changing chess. We want to treat chess players like stars who deserve the royal treatment when they enter our space. Our plan extends out 3-5 years, so be clear that having only one tournament would run counter to our core and everything we stand for. There will be a next one, and maybe even two next year! We made an investment to shoot out the gate strong, and I think our brand now garners positive vibes around the world. The future looks good for Millionaire Chess.

Photo Credits: Billy Johnson

Alisa Melekhina is one of the top female chess players in the US. She graduated from Penn Law in May and is practicing as an attorney in NYC. Alisa contributes to a variety of chess publications. She previously wrote a CLO article on Balancing Law School and Chess. You can follow her on facebook and linkedin.

 
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