While chess is definitely having a moment — the recent release of Pawn Sacrifice, starring Tobey Maguire as eccentric chess whiz Bobby Fischer; the rock star status of current world champion Magnus Carlsen, the highest-rated human to ever play the game — I’ll admit this upfront: It does not get much geekier than sitting in front of your computer watching a chess tournament.
Even seasoned players like Nikolai Yakovenko—a former Google programmer turned high-stakes poker pro, who’s handy enough with a rook that he just missed making chess master—admits that he gets bored watching the best players battle. Nevertheless, the folks behind this weekend's Millionaire Chess are betting that a $1 million prize pool (the richest chess tournament in history) matches live-streamed from Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, and trash-talking chess hustlers will elevate the cerebral game to a World Series of Poker-style happening.
“We’re going to present it in a way so that it looks like something you’d see on ESPN,” insists Maurice Ashley, a chess grandmaster and co-creator of Millionaire Chess. “We’ll be cutting back and forth between individual games, showing critical moves, keeping it fast paced.”
We can even expect to see players jawing at each other in the heat of battle. “Heck yes, there is trash talk,” says Ashley, a Brooklyn native who’s long been frustrated about not being able to razz his opponents. “But it won’t happen across the board.”
Instead, Millionaire Chess will feature something that Ashley calls “the confessional.” It will be a booth where players can go, midgame, and express the kinds of four-lettered emotions that we rarely associate with guys who lead with Queens Gambit and deploy the Dutch Defense.
“They can go in there and talk about wanting to kick a guy’s ass or vent over a move that they made," he says.
Ashley acknowledges that top players—and this tournament, with its record setting purse, has attracted chess world superstars—may be reserved, for fear of offending people that they routinely encounter on the circuit. But lower-level competitors are more likely to let it all hang out.
“We’re expecting outbursts and hoping for them," he says. "We want this to be chess as a free-for-all with a lot of drama. People invested money in traveling here and paid a minimum of $1,000 to enter the tournament. They will react when they lose.”
If they play properly, going for wins rather than second or third place (the prize-money is top heavy), there will be tragic finishes. Plus, thanks to the rise of internet tournaments, chess is no longer just for effete kids from good schools in in the first world.
“Kids in isolated places are learning online, playing tons of games, and getting really good,” says Yakovenko, likening the current trend to that of online poker, which helped to create incredibly gifted young players.
“You get kids becoming grand masters at 14 and they can beat you with just one minute on the clock while you have all the time in the world. They play so many games online that they develop incredible instincts.”
And winning a tournament like the Millionaire can turn you into a chess star overnight. “Look at Wesley So, who won it last year,” says Ashley, referring to the 22-year-old Filipino player who took home the first prize of $100,000. “That win changed his life. He dropped out of university and turned pro immediately. Now he’s number 11 in the world."
But whether or not young upstarts like So can imbue chess with the popularity of poker remains to be seen. Even Ashley sounds a little dubious.
“Chess has cachet and wholesomeness that poker lacks,” he says. “But whether or not that is an advantage in American society, in terms of people wanting to watch the game, I am not sure.”