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Do you like controversy, late-night action, and a good old-fashioned flip of the coin? You needed to be in Las Vegas Sunday for Millionaire Chess 2, and you needed to call tails.
Millionaire day four did much to promote chess but also took it back a step in the eyes of the organizer. Let's start with the day's beginnings.
The players reported for the final in "regulation" before the cutoff. The round would determine which four players in each section advance to a four-player knockout final. GM Le Quang Liem led all players by a half-point.
Not more than a few minutes into the round came the big early event of the day: a disputed draw between GM Luke McShane and GM Hikaru Nakamura. The issue wasn't between the two themselves -- they both wanted their nine-move draw to stand. The aggrieved party was the tournament organizer and the rules in place.
The repetition came after neither player felt comfortable varying his moves:
None of the actions were in dispute -- the issue became whose rules took precedence. FIDE rules don't seem to preclude the game from ending drawn, but rules specific to Millionaire Chess disallow draws before move 30 (only in the open section). Players had to sign their agreement to the stipulation, which can be found in complete here.
The wording says that players won't be compelled to continue play if doing so forces players to "walk into checkmate or lose a pawn to avoid a draw." The rules invoke the interpretation of GM Maurice Ashley, the co-organizer, to decide on the viability of available alternatives (the players also cannot repeat several dozen times just to get to move 30).
After more than 90 minutes and phone calls to FIDE officials and arbiters around the world (Chicago and Canada were the two places specifically mentioned), Ashley "cajoled" them to play but when they balked he reluctantly allowed the game to stand as played. He wasn't happy about it.
"When I hear chess players talk about making draws, I know draws are possible," he told Chess.com. "What are you about? Are you about making draws or playing the game? The attitude should be to win the game."
Ashley agreed with the characterization that this was a "sporting" vs "promotion" issue. He felt especially strong that potential sponsors would shun chess due to early draws.
In the mind of McShane, there was a lot more going on than was seen in those nine moves.
"From my point of view, the intent of the rules is very clear," McShane told Chess.com. "They want us to play fighting chess. By nature both Hikaru and myself are wanting to play fighting chess. But we're also competitors. We have to do the practical thing in this situation...I completely respect the initiative of the organizers to discourage this thing. It's not a great day for chess, but what are the alternatives?"
"What's important is that I've played six games in three days," said McShane. "I'm a fighter but I'm not a lunatic. To enter into a line that I'm not comfortable with against the number-two player in the world, that's not a sensible thing to do." (See the previous in-game analysis for an explanation of his "alternatives.")
McShane had played in the World Open and D.C. International this year, so he had some recent experience with long tournament days.
"Look, it's tough playing two games in a day," said McShane. "That weighs on your nervous system. There's only so much you can cope with."
One other issue is who should vary moves if the game was forced to continue?
"From a moral point of view, you might say that I'm White, I should play on, but Hikaru is number two so maybe he should play on," McShane said.
On air he added, "You've got to know what you're doing. If you're going into a position like [sic] and you don't know what you're doing, it's not pretty...To take reckless risks, that's not necessarily for me. I played Bc1 and I certainly wasn't hoping for a draw...When I played Be3 I wasn't at all sure he would play Ng4 again."
"Neither one of us was willing to cooperate and take a worse position," Nakamura said. He explained that the first rule of playing Black is to "get equality and not get a worse position...I don't think I did anything wrong certainly."
Ashley told Chess.com he wasn't sure either. "I'm not going to begrudge the players for playing their favorite move."
He added more poignant thoughts on the tournament broadcast: "It makes chess look like a farce, that's why we wrote it into the rules...The draw rule is about making fans see real games...You don't want to make a travesty of our game by disrespecting the viewing public.
"If we're ever going to be a televisual event that garners fans from around the world we can't have these kind of games."
He repeated his admiration for both players but referred to so-called "grandmaster draws" as a "stain on our game."
What's the solution? Ashley offered two fixes.
"We're going to confer with FIDE and see if we can change these rules to see if something can be done about this scourge on our game," he said on air.
Later, he told Chess.com that he is very interested in GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov's idea: when two players draw, the players keep the clock times, switch colors, and begin a new game.
He will experiment with the format at the Marshall Chess Club's "No Draws Thanksgiving Tournament" in late November. He said he may bring the idea to a future Millionaire Chess Open, but he wants to "get the bugs out" first before bringing the idea to the "highest cash stakes open tournament in the world."
Ashley said on air that he couldn't prove collusion between the players, but he later told Chess.com his theory: "These are players I look up to. What do I think happened? I think they wanted to qualify and they thought they would be able to...They did some mathematical calculation instead of just fighting to win the game."
For even more on the controversy, click here for video interviews.
The two would now have to await a bevy of results to come in. Amidst the many hallway meetings deciding the previous issue, Le Quang Liem quietly played his 30 moves versus GM Wesley So, got a draw to move to 6.0/7, and was the first player to advance to the final four.
"I had no problem playing on to move 30," Le Quang Liem said of his risk-less position.
After that, GM Ray Robson got his usual crazy position but this time he came up short. By falling as White, he gave the next Millionaire Monday seat to his opponent, GM Aleks Lenderman.
The third player booking his ticket became GM Yu Yangyi, one of the final-day contenders in the inaugural event. He took out GM Axel Rombaldoni.
One other result mattered for a great many men. GM Evgeny Bareev was on 5.0/6 to start the day, and he was paired with GM Sam Shankland on 4.5/6. A win for the new Canadian would make life simple for all involved, and it nearly went down just that cleanly. But when he missed the strength of a potential f-file battery, the chance was gone.
Seldom has a missed chance affected so many. Bareev's half-point kept him in the fight but gave new life to nine other men who would have been eliminated! For the next six hours, a series of playoffs would be contested to grant one last spot in Millionaire Monday.
The Playoff Format
The double-digit field on 5.5/7 was reduced by one before the playoff began. Israeli GM Gil Popilski declined his invitation; as a sub-2550 player, he instead chose to be automatically seeded into Millionaire Monday for the 2400-2549 rating class (more on that playoff later).
McShane's and Nakamura's handshake didn't end their chances for first after all. They were joined by Bareev, So, and GMs Aleksandr Shimanov, Fabiano Caruana, Sergei Azarov, and Gregory Kaidanov. Lastly, GM Gata Kamsky made the elite-but-not-quaint evening event -- he would attempt to win the tournament after forfeiting a game!
The nine players were divided up into two groups, one five and one four players. The two pools took shape based on US Chess rating, and due to Caruana's ridiculous performance at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup, he was number one (although the current list shows Nakamura back on top). Nakamura admitted this was an advantage. He was placed in the other pool as the sitting number-two player, while GM Wesley So was back in Caruana's group as the third seed.
Almost all in attendance who read the rules expected this two-pool system, but the announcement that the event would be rapid, not blitz, came as a surprise. It seems the "human" reading of the playoff rules page is at odds with the intent of the wording.
For larger playoffs, which this certainly was, the third sentence reads "G/5 then Armageddon if necessary." But according to Ashley, this is only the avenue after initial rapids. The beginning sentence "Two groups 5RR and 4RR" doesn't specify a time control, but if you scroll down the page, it reads "All RR games - G/15 D/5."
Put more simply, there's no mention that "RR" means rapid until you get to the bottom, whereas "G/5" is paramount in each scenario. Further complicating the clarity, the opening paragraph almost promises blitz, not rapids, as the theoretical example nearly matched the tournament exactly (emphasis mine):
"If, for example, three players have already made it to the final four and 10 players are vying for the final spot, then most likely a blitz playoff will be used. If, however, only two players are vying for that coveted final spot, then most likely a rapid format will be chosen. The Tie-break Playoffs will end inside of 5 hours, which is the normal length of a round."
The playoffs began at about 6:30 p.m. and ended at about 11:30 p.m., so the five-hour time cap was met.
"It's a crazy playoff," Le Quang Liem said about the size. "I'm happy that I don't have to play...I will try to relax."
The final wrinkle came without any explanation from the website or methodology invoked: the winners of the two playoff pools would meet in a three-game rapid final. No one in the audience could recall hearing of an odd amount of games for a one-on-one match.
Sadly another controversy occurred in the 2400-2549 playoffs. Originally four players vied for three seats, but according to IA Carol Jarecki, after two rounds had been completed, it became clear that GM Sam Sevian should have been invited to the tiebreak. One player objected, and after an hour delay, Sevian was allowed to participate in what became a five-player round robin.
Pool A, the five-person group, was Caruana, So, McShane, Kaidanov and Shimanov. Pool B was Nakamura, Kamsky, Bareev and Azarov, and we'll start there first.
Nakamura and Kamsky won their opening games and met in rapid game two. Kamsky dropped a piece but miraculously drew. "I'll take it," he said with a smile after the handshake.
That meant the final game would decide the pool. Nakamura won the shortest game of any in the rapids, an 11-move win as Black!
Kamsky kept pace so the two tied with 2.5/3. They had to face each other again in a two-game blitz match. Nakamura won on time in a winning position to open, then didn't have trouble in game two, agreeing to a draw in a winning position to guarantee advancement. Kamsky wished Nakamura, his longtime rival and teammate, good luck.
In Pool A, everything hinged on the final game. Shimanov earned two points from three games (not counting his "bye" in the odd-number round robin) while So had 2.5/3.
Shimanov took White in their final rapid game but So won convincingly with a nice finishing tactic.
Nakamura had played So many times previously in fast time controls -- 33 to be exact! You may recall Nakamura crushed So in Chess.com's highest-rated Death Match in history. (After the playoff mini-match, Nakamura said this may have given him a psychological advantage.)
At 10:15 p.m. the two American teammates began. Nakamura opened with White and got some rough pawns before finding a way to repeat. When he got up for his short break, he joked to the arbiters, "You realize it wasn't 30 moves, right?!" It turned out that although not required, he had in fact made exactly 30 moves!
Game two looked very promising early on for So. A benign Berlin quickly paved way to a Romantic-era gambit that Nakamura somehow survived.
Everyone watching in person was surprised that So offered a draw; Nakamura accepted without hesitation.
Nakamura sniffled all playoff and drank tea between games. He admitted to being a little sick during the event.
Now came a bit of Vegas to the event: a coin flip to decide who got White in the third and final rapid game. Nakamura chose tails, perhaps his best move of the rapid match.
The arbiter's coin came tails and Nakamura played what he called his best game of the tournament.
"I bought home the bacon in the final round," Nakamura said. "Wesley, his problem was that he let me hang around."
A little past 11:30 p.m. the open section was finally determined.
"Wesley needs to work on his nerves," Nakamura told Chess.com.
He said his experience at the 2015 World Cup was "invaluable," especially his third-round extra-time win over GM Ian Nepomniachtchi.
With a tension-filled day of chess, we close with something lighter: Millionaire Chess hosted the Chess Jawa:
Millioniare Chess Open 2 | Standings After Round Seven
|2||5||GM||Le Quang Liem*||VIE||2697||6,0||30,5||22,5||25,00|
|5||8||GM||Mcshane Luke J||ENG||2674||5,5||31,5||23,5||23,75|
|13||24||GM||Kaidanov Gregory S||USA||2561||5,5||24,5||18,0||18,50|
|15||11||GM||Shankland Samuel L||USA||2656||5,0||29,0||21,0||21,50|
|17||22||GM||Ortiz Suarez Isan Reynaldo||CUB||2577||5,0||26,5||19,5||15,50|
|24||29||GM||Hernandez Carmenate Holden||USA||2533||5,0||22,5||16,5||14,00|
*Advanced to Millionaire Monday