Chess is one of those things that is well-known but to which few have any hands-on exposure. Some are now trying to bring a bit of the bling and cool factor that turned poker into a lucrative past time. Recently, Jacqueline Nelson described the efforts of one grandmaster, Maurice Ashley, to raise the profile of chess:
Mr. Ashley took his first step toward that goal last weekend as he and Vancouver-based business partner Amy Lee hosted the first Millionaire Chess Open, a five-day tournament in Las Vegas, Nev. More than 560 players from 44 countries descended upon the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino to compete for the guaranteed $1-million (U.S.) in prizes, the largest prize pot on record.
Chess’s cool factor has had a recent boost from 23-year-old Norwegian player Magnus Carlsen, the “Mozart of chess” considered by many to be the best player in the world. Since becoming a grandmaster at age 13, Mr. Carlsen has posed for fashion campaigns alongside the likes of actress Liv Tyler, and become well-known for chess stunts such as playing against 10 Harvard-taught lawyers at once while blindfolded.
The 1,500-year-old game also is experiencing heightened popularity around the world. The development committee of the World Chess Federation (known as FIDE for its French name Federation Internationale des Echecs) says the number of active players it rates nearly doubled in the five years to 2013. The number of open tournaments tracked by FIDE increased by 37 per cent in the same period, and there were nearly one million FIDE-recognized games played last year.
Mr. Ashley said the idea for the blockbuster Millionaire Chess Open came to him 12 years ago. He was frustrated that his status as the first African-American international grandmaster had done little to improve the popularity or accessibility of the game.
“I thought that it would mean something, but it meant nothing in terms of being able to monetize that or broaden the appeal of chess in any way,” Mr. Ashley said. He reasoned that this was because there was no forum for him to build on his success.
Mr. Ashley conceived of the idea to host a tournament that would treat the game of chess as a sport where players and commentators would engage with spectators. He envisioned an event with the same kind of glitz and excitement that has turned poker into a multimillion-dollar industry that supports a network of professional players.
Millionaire Chess hosted its inaugural event as champions are also skewing younger, with six of the world’s top 10 players still in their 20s. “These are young players who like to have a good time, but they’re not being shown in that light,” Mr. Ashley said. “We need a rebranding of the game so that people can see it’s not their grandfather’s sport. ”
The winner of the Millionaire Chess Open was Wesley So, who turned 21 just a couple of days before scoring his $100,000 (U.S.) jackpot. When asked how he planned to spend his winnings, the precocious player said he’d start by ordering a drink.