As We See It

On the scene at Vegas’ first Millionaire Chess tournament

Chin “Darren” Ko, left of Las Vegas, and Herbert Antoine of Brooklyn battle to a draw during the Millionaire Chess Open at Planet Hollywood Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014. The tournament offers $1 million in prize money - the largest prize pot in chess history. Amateurs compete for a top prize of $40,000 and pros compete for top prize of $100,000.
Photo: Steve Marcus
Stacy J. Willis

I’m looking for a chess game. Too many people are in my way: too many drunk, barefoot, swimsuit-wearing tourists, lost on their way from the casino pool to who knows where; too much noise, too many yard-longs. I ask one Planet Hollywood employee where the chess tournament might be; she says, “Chess? Like a slot machine?” No, but I stick it in the idea file. I ask a security guard. It’s up the escalator to the mezzanine level. Slowly I rise out of the din, and land in a giant poker tournament. Here, things are a little quieter, but there’s still cocktail service, and the sounds from the casino floor below echo. Onward, toward the conference center.

Down a long, quiet hallway. I’m getting warmer: Officials make me hand over my cell phone (no electronics!), and walk through a metal detector (no weapons!) before opening the ballroom door, where it all seems worth it. Here, I get to stand in total silence among rows of people dressed in business-casual attire sitting at long, cloth-draped banquet tables staring at chess boards, thinking. Just thinking. It’s a beautiful sight. It’s so quiet, the air conditioning is deafening. There are no cocktails allowed, but a woman in a purple tournament T-shirt and black slacks walks around with a tray of water cups, offering them to players with a silent eyebrow gesture. From a respectable distance. If a player happens to look up.

I’m a football fan, but this is the best sporting event I’ve been to in ages: The Millionaire Chess tournament.

Chess in Las Vegas! A million-dollar purse! Players of all levels! More than 600 players of all ages from 44 different countries signed up for the first-of-its-kind Millionaire Chess tournament. The entry fee was $2,000, or $1,000 for early registrants. The tournament—billed as “the highest stakes open tournament in chess history”—was put together by business entrepreneur Amy Lee and chess expert Maurice Ashley, in a bid to bring “the ancient sport of chess” into the new, money-making entertainment era where the masses can watch, sign up, hope to win cash, draw advertisers and become celebrities in their own right—not unlike professional poker.

Millionaire Chess Open

The business partners knew they would lose money in this first tournament, but it’s a gamble they were ready to take. They see it turning into big business within a few years, through more publicity and corporate sponsors. Vegas seemed like the natural place to take something long considered inaccessible and turn it into a splashy, entertaining, money-motivated thing.

By the final day, in the live-stream studio down the hall, announcers Lawrence Trent, Robert Hess and Arianne Caoili—all chess masters themselves—are freaking out.

“Ray Robson knows he’s going down in flames!”

“It’s just over. There are simply no moves here. Robson’s going down in flames ...”

“Wait! What? I’m shocked. Yangyi Yu didn’t make the move. I’m shocked!”

“I don’t even know how to explain that!”

“Yu was two moves from winning. I’m ... I’m speechless. Robson made his opponent cry! Well, he made me cry.”

In the game room, players Robson and Yu sit across the chess board, tiny cameras trained on them. It’s silent. Both young men wear suit jackets and button-up shirts. Neither is crying. They are poker-faced. Chess-faced.

The game ends. The players politely shake hands and walk out. Robson, a lesser ranked player, has won the $50,000 semifinal match and advanced to the final, where either he or—of all people, his former roommate at Webster University in St. Louis, Wesley So, will win $100,000 tonight.

In the end, So, who had turned 21 on the first day of the tournament, defeated Robson for the big check. When asked what he would buy with the money, he said, “A car is on the wish list. But right now, I just want to buy a drink.”

And a match was made: chess and Las Vegas.

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