Next month, more than 500 chess players from 39 countries will arrive at the Planet Hollywood Casino in Las Vegas to compete in a tournament with the biggest prize fund in chess history — US$1 million. And despite all of the players paying at least US$1,000 each in entry fees, the tournament organizers will almost certainly lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.
However, they expected that.
The tournament, called Millionaire Chess, is intended to be the first step in a multi-year plan to organize and run tournaments with big prize funds, said Amy Lee, 43, an entrepreneur from Vancouver, Canada, who is financing the event.
Her business partner, Maurice Ashley, 48, the only African-American chess grandmaster, was the driving force behind the HB Global Challenge tournament in Minneapolis in 2005. That tournament had US$500,000 in prizes — the previous record for a chess tournament — and was financed by a retired businessman named Al Blowers, who was trying to promote his own charitable chess foundation. The tournament lost a couple hundred thousand dollars and, soon after, the foundation folded.
The partners expect to lose up to five times that — US$1 million — in the Las Vegas tournament.
“If we only lose US$200,000, we’ll be dancing in the streets,” Ashley said.
The idea behind Millionaire Chess is to raise the profile of the game.
“It has a 1,500-year history, and it has not been recognized at the level that I believe it should be,” Lee said.
Millionaire Chess will offer more than just big prizes. There will be a free show in the casino one night during the tournament, complimentary food and drinks, and limousine service for the top players. There will be video cameras and Internet links so people around the hotel and worldwide can watch many of the games.
Lee and Ashley met in 2009 at a personal development program at a resort in the Adirondacks. Part of the program was a chess class run by Ashley. Lee did not know how to play, but she watched him play blindfold chess — an exercise in which Ashley faces away from the board and calls out his moves and has the moves of his opponent told to him.
“I was fascinated,” she said.
They began talking, and every year Lee went back and their acquaintance was renewed. Last year, during one of their late-night conversations, Ashley told her how frustrated he had been about the state of chess in the US.
“When I became a grandmaster in 1999, there seemed to be nowhere to go with it,” he said.
Ashley described some of the projects and ideas he had tried and also wanted to do.
The next day, Ashley said, Lee came back with “about 50 questions on an Excel spreadsheet.”
Millionaire Chess was born.
Lee said that she saw Millionaire Chess as a three-to-five-year investment, which would include attracting sponsorships and holding tournaments in other cities.
She hopes to break even by next year.
“We are thrilled with what we have right now,” Ashley said. “I hope this will catapult chess to the next level,” he said.
Lee said that Millionaire Chess “may be crazy to a lot of people, but someone has to be the forward-thinking person.”