Features Jun 10, 2015 | 1:43 PMby Colin McGourty

Who wants to be a millionaire? The new superopens

The chess landscape has shifted in the last year, with Millionaire Chess, the Qatar Masters Open and the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters demonstrating that open tournaments can be every bit as compelling as elite closed tournaments. All are set to up the stakes – literally – in the year to come, with all three boasting multiple Top 10 players and Millionaire Chess now offering an outside chance of winning an actual $1 million.

Yu Yangyi wins in Doha, Wesley So in Las Vegas and Hikaru Nakamura in Gibraltar | photos: Maria Emelianova/Millionaire Chess/John Saunders

Open tournaments are the bread and butter of the tournament circuit for the vast majority of the world’s chess players, but in the past they’ve had something of an image problem. The best chess players would shun them as soon as they reasonably could, events weren’t broadcast live or otherwise covered in the media and low prize funds meant only constant travel and a little luck would allow even strong professionals to eke a living out of them.

We can’t say that’s entirely changed, but the bar has been dramatically raised in the last couple of years, particularly by three tournaments: the Qatar Masters Open, the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival and Millionaire Chess. All of them offer healthy prize funds, top quality live broadcasts and have managed to attract some of the world’s best players. For chess fans it’s been a breath of fresh air to see the likes of Hikaru Nakamura, Vladimir Kramnik, Anish Giri and Wesley So taking on all-comers rather than only the usual elite tournament suspects.

The three tournaments are very different, though, so let’s take them in turn:

Qatar Masters Open

Intro: The newest kid on the block burst onto the scene in 2014 with the announcement that former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik had agreed to play his first open tournament in around two decades. Anish Giri followed, with the final field featuring 154 players and 14 players rated 2700 or over (Gibraltar 2015 had 8, Las Vegas 2014 only 3). The event lived up to the hype, with Kramnik and Giri treating us to six-game winning streaks before Yu Yangyi snatched the trophy at the death.

Vladimir Kramnik may have finished below Yu Yangyi and Anish Giri, but when it came to wielding a sword... | photo: Maria Emelianova, Qatar Masters

What does it offer top players?

The $27,000 first prize from a $130,000 total prize fund is nothing to complain about, but it’s clear the best players get all their travel and accommodation expenses paid for and, in some cases, much more. After all, the main reason the top players don’t compete in opens is that they’re given such “conditions” at closed events against their elite rivals. The schedule is also standard for a super-tournament, with nine rounds and one rest day – a luxury for an open, where costs for organisers and participants are more often cut by playing every day. For 2015 the rest day falls on (the Western) Christmas Day!  

What does it offer weaker players?

GMs and WGMs don’t have to pay to compete, while other players need to stump up an affordable $150. Of course the more relevant expenses are travel to Doha and the cost of a 10-day stay in a 5-star hotel, but the 2014 attendance figures suggest spending some of their winter in the heat of Qatar appealed to plenty of players. Of course the chance to brush up against the world’s best also means a lot.

Update: we forgot to point out that the tournament's minimum rating requirement is 2300 (the lowest rated of the 154 players in 2014 was 2210), so the Qatar Masters doesn't give hobby players the chance to take on the stars.

What does it offer chess fans?

For the first edition of a tournament the 2014 Qatar Masters Open was close to perfect: dozens of games broadcast live, two talented photographers at work, a clear website and a live stream that featured star players dropping by and a sublime interview with the winner Yu Yangyi, who turned out not to speak a word of English 

Danny King and Yu Yangyi understand each other without words... | photo: Maria Emelianova, Qatar Masters

Unique selling point?

The current 2015 player list suggests the Qatar Masters is likely to keep the crown as the “world’s strongest open”, at least in terms of getting the most elite players involved. Wesley So joins a returning Kramnik and Giri to make it three Top 10 players, with 15 2700+ players already signed up in total, including the likes of Vassily Ivanchuk and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.

Millionaire Chess

Intro: Millionaire Chess is less interested in being the best open than in transforming the way chess tournaments work – breaking the wheel!

Fittingly set in Las Vegas, Maurice Ashley and Amy Lee have set out to follow the example of poker, where amateurs and professionals alike are willing to pay big entry fees in order to get a shot at taking home a huge prize. The first edition failed to pay its way, but it looks set to come back with a vengeance this year, with healthy lists of registered players and Hikaru Nakamura joining Wesley So to give some extra star quality at the top.

The organisers have also come up with a neat idea that means they no longer have to explain that although the prize fund is $1 million no-one can actually take home a million dollars! This year it could happen, though it’s a long shot… The latest newsletter explains:

Of the 36 players who make it to the final day, nine winners representing each rating division will emerge from the competition. Those nine players will match wits in a fast-paced game of strategy (details to be revealed later) to determine who moves on to get a shot at the Millionaire Square Prize. The winner will then pick from 64 envelopes filled with cash and other prizes randomly placed on a giant chessboard. If the lucky envelope is picked, the winner will walk away an instant millionaire!

What does it offer top players?

Above all a $100,000 first prize, which compares favourably with the $75,000 first prize on offer for winning Norway Chess or one of the other Grand Chess Tour events. $3,500 is also on offer for 20th place, although the entry fees and travel expenses would most likely mean a loss for top players who sank that low.

Wesley So took home $100,000 in 2014 - can someone take home much more in 2015? | photo: Millionaire Chess

The schedule is typical of the US chess scene and therefore very different from what chess professionals in the rest of the world are used to: seven classical rounds crammed into four days, with the format changing to a rapid chess knockout for the lucky semi-finalists on the last day (Millionaire Monday). That increases the chances of upsets, but on the other hand it only takes five days out of busy schedules and cuts down on expenses.

The other point to add for top players is that this event overlaps with the 2015 World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship, if that event does indeed take place in Berlin from 9-15 October. The likes of Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Le Quang Liem would no doubt have played there instead if not for the unfortunate clash.

What does it offer weaker players?

This is where Millionaire Chess really stands out, with extraordinary prizes on offer for the lower rating categories. A sub-1200 player is generally someone just beginning to learn chess, but in Las Vegas one such player will win $20,000, more than on offer for winning most professional chess tournaments held in Europe. Some chess professionals took that as almost a personal insult in 2014, though that seems patently absurd. The money is coming directly from the players who enter the competition, so it’s completely up to them whether they like the deal or not.

That’s the rub, though. To take part in Millionaire Chess you need to stake an $800 - $2,000 entry fee, depending on when you apply (it’s currently $1,250 until June 30th). Add in flights and accommodation and you’re taking a big gamble if your chess skills are as unpredictable as you’d expect them to be for a <1200 player. Of course if you’re actually much stronger than that but managed to keep your official rating at under 1200 it might instead seem like a very tempting get rich quick scheme – though the Millionaire Chess organisers have thought about that and put as many obstacles in your path as possible… plus who’s to say others won’t have had the same brilliant idea! 

What does it offer chess fans?

So far this is perhaps where Millionaire Chess falls down in comparison to its closest rivals. Despite a live broadcast with great production values and top commentators (IM Lawrence Trent, need we say more? ) there are time-zone woes for chess fans outside of America. Starts at 11 am and 6 pm in Las Vegas convert to 8pm and 3am in Paris. Double rounds make that an impossible issue to solve, while they also complicate matters for chess media hoping to report on the event.

The nerve centre of the live broadcast | photo: Millionaire Chess

Chess fans are almost exclusively interested in the top names, and having more in attendance may help this year. It would be a shame, though, if the “lower” rating categories, where much of the excitement is focussed, are left out. What we can say, though, is that if anyone’s up to the task of inspiring a worldwide audience to take an interest in unknowns shooting for life-changing sums of money it’s GM Maurice Ashley!

Unique selling point?

It’s all about the money, and the Las Vegas setting does no harm at all. If the model could catch on perhaps chess players would no longer live a hand-to-mouth existence subject to the whims of individual patrons or hard-to-secure commercial sponsorship. The risks and difficulties are obvious, but it’s great that someone is carrying out the experiment!

Tradewise Gibraltar Masters

2015 winner Hikaru Nakamura first won in Gibraltar back in 2008, when he beat Bu Xiangzhi in the play-off | photo: official website

Intro: It’s not all brash newcomers, though. The 2016 Tradewise Gibraltar Masters will already be the 13th edition of what’s become a staple of the chess calendar. As if to emphasise that fact, the organisers have not only announced the dates for 2016 but for 2017 as well. It was always going to be hard to build on a line-up that included Topalov, Nakamura and Svidler in 2015, but at the closing ceremony the organisers had a trick up their sleeves to match Vladimir Kramnik playing in Qatar: 5-time World Champion Vishy Anand will be on “the rock” to compete in the 10-round open in 2016, with Nakamura defending his title and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave another confirmed star name.      

What does it offer top players?

Apart from a Mediterranean alternative to windswept Wijk aan Zee the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters offers the traditional top tournament perks for the best players – “conditions” (hotel, travel, money) and a large prize fund, that in 2016 will rise to £185,000 ($282,000) with £20,000 ($30,500) on offer for first place – beating the Qatar Masters for declared money on offer.

As well as the then Women's World Champion Hou Yifan, future World Champion Mariya Muzychuk was in Gibraltar in 2015, here competing in the "Battle of the Sexes" | photo: John Saunders, Gibraltar Chess Festival 

Where it really leaves both the Qatar Masters and Millionaire Chess in the dust, though, is when it comes to female prizes. The top woman in Gibraltar earned £15,000 ($23,000) in 2015, while in total over £40,000 was on offer in women’s prizes. The top woman in Doha will get a respectable $8,000, with $17,500 in total prizes, while in Las Vegas there’s only a $1,000 bonus for the top woman. The prize money on offer is clearly reflected in the registrations, with Gibraltar able to boost the then women’s World Champion Hou Yifan in 2015. It’s also worth noting that women can add those prizes to overall prizes, with Hou Yifan earning slightly more than winner Hikaru Nakamura for her 3rd place finish!

What does it offer weaker players?

Again, as in Qatar, the entry fees are very affordable - £80 for the masters, and less for other events, with fees waived for GMs, IMs, WGMs and WIMs. It’s possible to get to Gibraltar by cheap airlines from most parts of Europe and then you can choose whether to stay in a beautiful beach setting in the official hotel or, if funds won’t allow, you can find very reasonably priced accommodation across the border in Spain and join the hordes walking across the runway each day.

It’s not all about money, though! You can play an awful lot of chess in Gibraltar, with the main event over 10 rounds and two 5-round weekend tournaments held in the morning, meaning you can – and some do – combine all three, for 20 rounds of classical action in two weeks! Apart from the serious chess there are blitz tournaments and masterclasses, opening and closing dinners and other great opportunities to socialise.

What does it offer chess fans?

Live commentary on all ten rounds of the tournament is streamed around the world, with the masterclasses an added bonus. John Saunders is on hand to write reports and is joined by Sophie Triay in producing professional photographs of the event, while in 2015 there was also a film crew in attendance, producing daily shows hosted by Tania Sachdev. It’s all held together by a very functional and attractive website.

Unique selling point?

The very deliberate policy of attracting the world’s best women to the event makes it a yearly social gathering that can only really be compared to the Olympiad or some other big team events. Throw in some very strong chess players and experienced organisers and you have a formula that clearly works.

China's Ju Wenjun also took part in the Battle of the Sexes | photo: John Saunders, Gibraltar Chess Festival

Other top opens

While those three tournaments lead the way, they're of course not the only opens worth mentioning. The Reykjavik Open had all the elements this year, though not quite the same star power. The Aeroflot Open, Dubai Masters and Poker Stars Isle of Man tournaments were lacking only live coverage to really make the leap to the top league!

Which open tournament would you most like to play in? Or watch? Or do you think the top players’ flirtation with open tournaments is only temporary and closed events like the Grand Chess Tour are where the future lies? Admittedly Carlsen, Caruana, Nakamura, Topalov, Grischuk, Anand, Giri, Vachier-Lagrave, Aronian and Hammer in Norway Chess from next Monday shouldn’t be too bad either

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