Gawain Jones will battle for the $30,000 top prize with Emilio Cordova, Zhou Jianchao and Dariusz Swiercz on Millionaire Monday as the 3rd and likely final edition of Millionaire Chess reaches its conclusion in Atlantic City. The top five seeds - Shankland, Adhiban, Mamedov, Iturrizaga and Xiong - all missed the cut in a dramatic 7th round and playoff on Sunday.
Let’s first address the elephant in the room. This year’s Millionaire Chess has some of the features we’d come to associate with the previous editions – brilliant photography by David Llada, a casino setting (Harrah’s Resort) and big prizes for lower rating categories – but the lack of live video from the venue is just the most obvious sign that something has gone wrong.
The gambit of halving the entry fees (to $549) and moving to the US east coast to become more accessible to chess enthusiasts has failed to boost numbers, and the planned prize fund of $510,000 has had to be cut to the guaranteed 60%, or just over $300,000.
The reduction from a $100,000 top prize to $30,000, and scheduling issues with other tournaments such as the Isle of Man International (who rubbed salt in the wound by “stealing” Caruana, Nakamura and So), have seen the very best players stay away, with not a single 2700+ rated player in the starting line-up. On Facebook Maurice Ashley admitted that his adventure with Amy Lee seemed to be coming to an end:
Having said all that, though, the 2nd prize in Millionaire Chess of $15,000 is almost exactly the same as the £12,000 prize on offer for winning the Isle of Man International, while the top prize of $30,000 is of course double (ultimately Eljanov and Caruana took home £9,000 each). This was a great chance for a host of young US stars and some ambitious foreign players to earn a big pay day and some worldwide recognition.
As in previous years Millionaire Chess started with a fast Swiss open, with two rounds on Thursday, Friday and Saturday before the final round on Sunday. The tough schedule and the need to finish in the top four to make Millionaire Monday, meant it was as much about the ability to handle pressure and play pragmatically as it was about pure chess.
You can replay all the games with computer analysis by clicking on the selector below, or hover over a name to see a player’s score:
As you can see, Gawain Jones was the only player at the top to win in the final round, and hence the only player to reach 6/7 and qualify for the final Monday without the need for a playoff. That outcome didn’t look likely when a game where top seed Adhiban had been better entered what looked for all the world to be a drawn ending.
It was, of course, and in multiple ways:
Here Adhiban could have played 75…Nxe4!, taken the other pawn next move and then simply brought his king to h8. That square is the “wrong” colour for White's bishop, so the h-pawn could never queen. Instead five moves later White was better, the black h-pawn soon dropped and on move 105 Adhiban resigned knowing he couldn’t stop White's pawn. A bitter way to lose.
There were plenty more such stories, with the likes of Shankland, Akobian, Bruzon, Troff, Sevian and Iturrizaga (who took a draw rather than playing a better position against Adhiban in Round 6) all missing out on a chance of Millionaire Monday completely.
There was also plenty more last-round drama featuring the players who ended up in a playoff. 15-year-old Jeffery Xiong could have knocked out Emilio Cordova after an impressive game with the black pieces, but he captured the wrong pawn on move 30 and could only draw. Poland’s Dariusz Swiercz, who has just moved to the US to study, let multiple chances slip. In Round 5 he was close to beating Gawain Jones:
The fearless computer says Black should just play 54…a3! here and White’s kingside assault will do no lasting damage. Short on time Swiercz instead repeated moves. It was even more dramatic in Round 7, when he’d methodically outplayed Rauf Mamedov. The Azeri player’s 35…d3 was a last throw of the dice in mutual time trouble:
The computer suggests 36.Bxd3, when e.g. 36…Bxb6 runs into 37.Qxe5! and it’s mate-in-6. Instead Swiercz played 36.Qg4, which in practical terms was a square too far, since 36…Qa2 now threatened mate-in-1. It wasn’t too late to win, but with a minute or two remaining and so much at stake the former World Junior Champion needed to sacrifice his queen with 37.Qg7+!! - the white rooks and bishop win the day. Instead after 37.Qf5 Qh2+ 38.Kg4 Qe2+ the players drew by repetition.
That meant that instead of automatic qualifiers we had a 5-player playoff with Cordova, Xiong, Swiercz, Mamedov and 28-year-old Chinese player Zhou Jianchao, who ground down Sam Shankland in Round 6 (accepting a theoretical piece sacrifice but then gradually proving a piece is a piece) and then drew in only 18 moves with Kayden Troff in Round 7.
The players competed in a five-round round robin of 7 minute + 3 second delay games, in which little went as expected:
When it came to blitz the favourite had to be blitz specialist Rauf Mamedov, and he seemed to confirm that by playing much faster and beating Swiercz in Round 1. Was Darek going to pay a heavy price for not winning the classical game? That was set to become the longest storyline of the day.
Meanwhile the player who did pay for his classical miss was fan favourite Jeffery Xiong, who is usually rock solid but committed a horrible blunder in his blitz game against Cordova:
Xiong played 20…Be4??, forgetting for a moment that the bishop was needed to defend the rook on c8. He resigned immediately after 21.Rxc8.
25-year-old Peruvian player Emilio Cordova has had an exciting couple of months, playing on top board for the overperforming Peruvian team at the Olympiad, where he beat Rodshtein and lost to Adams and a certain Carlsen on the way to a very respectable 50%. In the next round of the playoff in Atlantic City he beat Mamedov in fine style to claim his place in Millionaire Monday. Jeffery Xiong’s meltdown continued against Zhou Jianchao, when he lost on time or simply blundered and resigned against the Chinese player.
That left only two places undecided, with Swiercz and Mamedov set to play each other again in two faster games. Once more that seemed to favour Mamedov, but ultimately Swiercz got what he deserved for his high quality play. 28…Be6?? was a fatal mistake by Mamedov in a still defensible position:
Darek had plenty of time to set up one of the most common mates in chess – 29.f5! c3 (nothing else helps) 30.Qh6 resigns.
On Millionaire Monday players meet not just in the top category but in 9 different sections to decide the top four places. In both the semi-final and the final there are two 25 minute + 5-second delay rapid games that could be enough to decide the match. If not, though, they play two 15+5 games, then two 5+2 games and finally Armageddon, where White has 5 minutes to Black’s 3.5, but a draw counts as a win for Black.
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