Las Vegas gambit aims to transform chess into high-stakes global event

Chess

The richest tournament in chess history takes place in the gambling capital this week offering $1m in prizes and stressing the cerebral game’s visceral thrills

Sin City is not known for extended periods of silent concentration, or pawn stars, but that may be about to change: chess is coming to Las Vegas.

A tournament offering $1m in prize money, the richest in chess history, is gathering hundreds of players in the world’s entertainment capital this week along with all the attendant hoopla of sponsors, advertisers and showbiz.

From Thursday to Monday, 50 grandmasters will compete with professionals and amateurs from more than 50 countries at the Planet Hollywood Casino, a venue better known for playing host to the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears.

Organisers are gambling that they can transform a game in which players move little pieces of plastic, wood or ivory on an eight-by-eight grid, each move accompanied by deep deliberation about complex strategy, into a televised, global spectacle.

“We’re trying to take chess to the next level,” Maurice Ashley, a grandmaster who is organising the event, told the Guardian. “We’re using every trick in the book to show that it’s ready for television.”

Ashley launched the tournament, known as Millionaire Chess, last year with his business partner, Amy Lee, an entrepreneur from Canada, in the hope of gradually building a global audience and turning the game into a lucrative entertainment business, just like poker.

Over four decades the World Series of Poker, a series of tournaments held annually in Las Vegas, has grown into a glitzy jamboree covered by ESPN. This year’s prize pool exceeds $62m.

The Vegas chess contests will be live-streamed with dramatic music, graphics and commentators to explain what is happening and convey suspense. A computer programme called Deep View will use algorithmic tools to visualise and explain match dynamics. It will also detect unusual and interesting matches among hundreds taking place simultaneously.

About 600 players have each paid a $1,000 entry fee to compete in nine different divisions, each with prizes totalling $1m, including a $100,000 pot for first place in a division open to all.

In a twist from last year, this tournament will also pit the nine division winners against each other in a game-show-style contest. The winner will get to choose one envelope from 64 placed on squares of a giant chessboard. One of the envelopes will contain a $1m prize. “If they pick it they’ll become a millionaire at that moment,” said Ashley.

Ten of the US’s top 12 players have registered, including Hikaru Nakamura, currently the world No 2, so organisers are billing the tournament as “USA versus the world”. The Americans will be up against Russia’s Evgeny Bareev and China’s Yu Yangyi – but not Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, the reigning world champion, who is not attending.

Ashley, who was born in Jamaica, made his first foray into tournament organising with the HB Global Challenge in Minneapolis in 2005, which offered $500,000 in prizes, the then record.

This year’s tournament will have more contestants than last year’s but will, again, lack live television coverage, which means another financial loss for organisers. They hope that will change next year.

“Our model is based on TV and sponsorship. At the moment TV executives are not convinced it’ll make good television,” said Ashley. “The real win will be when it hits TV. Hopefully we can weather the storm until then.”

Transforming the image of a 1,500-year-old board game that tends to be sedentary, static and silent will be a challenge. Some players exhibit flair, aggression and killer instinct on the board but show few emotions off it, barely smiling, let alone whooping and punching the air, after victory.

On the upside, chess attracts youth – many top grandmasters, including Carlsen and Nakamura, are in their 20s – and Hollywood just released a biopic, Pawn Sacrifice, in which Tobey Maguire plays chess legend Bobby Fischer.

“It’s slow, four or five hours to play one game, so it may not have the same appeal as poker,” said Frank Guadalupe, events director of the US chess federation, who will act as the tournament’s chief arbiter.

But enthusiasm in schools, clubs and elsewhere suggested potential for a much higher profile if effectively marketed, he said. “I think the traction could be much bigger than people realise. This event will make people realise that chess is more than two old guys playing in a coffee shop.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 7th October 2015 12.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010