So this is blogging. Hmm. It’s easy enough to share your news and opinion in a blog, I suppose. The real question is not whether you can write it, but whether anyone will read it. I like to write, and as an ego-inflated chessplayer, I know I’m pretty good at it. Judging by the quality of some rather successful internet writers I’ve seen, though, being good at it isn’t really necessary. The average reader doesn’t seem to care much about the quality of the writing or the coherence of the argument. (It’s not fair to pick on internet writers exclusively, of course. The quality of many best-sellers is also abysmal.)
Ah, that’s always a good way to start: insult your readers. Guaranteed to generate positive word of mouth. But of course you, dear reader, are not the average internet surfer, but rather are chess-blog readers of distinction and erudition (there, definitely getting back on track). So rather than shoveling any more, let me explain why I’m going to write the occasional post on the NWC blog, and why you should read it.
About two years ago, as I was winding down my most recent stint as editor of the print version of NWC magazine, I began working on an editorial. This was a labor based on one of my pet peeves (a fertile subject for bloggers in general), and in order to support my arguments I asked Rusty Miller to gather some data from back issues of NWC. He kindly took some time away from his genealogical research to dig into 30-year-old issues (probably stored in 30-year-old boxes, for all I know), and in general he confirmed my supposition.
In a nutshell: tournament prize funds and entry fees in Washington and Oregon today are substantially the same as they were 10, 20, and even 30 years ago. Chess money in the Pacific Northwest has not adjusted for inflation.
Well, that wasn’t very difficult. Why didn’t I write that editorial a couple years ago? What’s the trouble here? It doesn’t seem a very controversial conclusion — it’s really just a simple fact, right?
Yes… if that was all there is to it. It’s the side-effects, the unintended consequences, the well-meaning, knee-jerk, populist tournament organizers and chess clubs, the political repercussions… (Huh? What’s he going on about now?)
Here’s what’s been happening. Adult tournament participation has been declining. One reason for this is the internet, of course. You can go online to any number of free or fee sites to play games any time of the day or night. It’s mostly blitz, but there’s always someone there to play, more or less at your level, no driving to a club at hours of their convenience, no parking, no waiting for a game. Heck, if you want you can play naked, no one will know. Go ahead and scarf that pizza, you’ll only smear your own computer, and if you just want to watch there are probably some very strong players duking it out. It’s not exactly tournament chess. Prizes are rare and difficult to win, and you can’t go out to lunch with your buddies or your opponent to post-mortem the game. Every so often you get whomped by a computer cheat… But I digress.
The point is that when fewer people come out to play at the local club tournament, the state or regional championship, or what have you, the tournament organizers try to figure out how to get the numbers back up, or at least hold onto the players that they have. And the very first knee-jerk impulse is this: lower entry fees. Yes, by making it cheaper to play chess, it becomes more accessible to more players. More people will come, right?
Wrong. For two reasons.
First, lower entry fees means lower prizes. Second, if you lower the cost, you make it more accessible… to whom? People who have little money.
Not everyone plays for prize money, of course. A vast majority really can’t expect to win prize money at most tournaments, right? So, does it matter if there are prizes? Many chessplayers play for the love of the game. Yes, but many don’t want to invest a bunch of money as well as their time just for the love of the game. As it also pertains to the lack of inflation in entry fees and prizes at relatively high-end events, it’s important to note the principle is not the expectation of winning, but the reasonable (read: optimistic) possibility of winning. And the amount your inflated ego says you have a semi-realistic chance at must be about double, or at least more than, what it would take to cover all expenses including entry fee, travel, and lodging. More on this later, complete with actual tournament data, but suffice to say that tournaments that might have seemed worthwhile to travel to a few decades ago now fail the test due to inflation.
Second, if you lower the cost, you make it more accessible… to whom? People who have little money. Like, college students, the unemployed, the homeless. People who spend all their cash on alcohol and cigarettes… (Nope, no stereotyping here.) I’m not saying there should not be events that cater to people with no money. However, keep in mind that millionaires rarely socialize at soup kitchens. (Huh? Let me elucidate.) If your club or tournament is designed to attract the dregs, don’t expect a lot of cream. (Oh yeah, sure, that was much more clear.) One last try: rich people don’t hang out with the unwashed. (Oh. So?)
Despite the large number of chessplayers who never do really amount to much in the world of business outside of chess (such as myself), there’s a small subset of players who actually get, you know, jobs and careers and the like. They usually disappear from chess for years or even decades while they make their way in the world, then they find some leisure time or start taking some of their three years of accumulated vacation time, and they look at playing in tournaments again. They are not, repeat, not, going to end up playing in the free-entry-no-prizes special at the club with 10 members who all smoke and play pinochle.
In 2011 the Portland Chess Club with their Centennial celebration tournament showed the way to bring some of these successful-type semi-retired former players out of the woodwork. They ran an event with $10,000 in prizes. The total number of players was significantly larger than a standard Oregon Open, which is normally the biggest event of the year in the Portland area, and there were quite a few faces returning to chess after extended absence.
Woo hoo! That Centennial was big, right? Huge prizes, way more than regular tournaments… Well, no, actually. Yes, it was bigger than anything seen recently (this was the year before the US Open came to the greater Portland area). But… Consider the Oregon Open. Over 30 years ago, the Oregon Open prize fund was $3000. Today, the Oregon Open prize fund is… $3000. If it had kept up with inflation, the Oregon Open would be offering something like $11,000. In other words, the Centennial was what the Oregon Open should be every year. The Centennial, in order to really be a big contrast, should have offered prizes on the order of $35,000.
The only tournaments that have, in fact, adjusted prizes (and entry fees) upward in the last 30 years (I’m not kidding) are the ones that got brief corporate sponsorship from Inside Chess back in the 1990s. Not to toot my own horn (too much), but in fact these were all events that I organized, and the sponsorship was my idea. I was wearing multiple chess hats back then, serving as WCF President as well as working at International Chess Enterprises, the publisher of Inside Chess. Starting with the 1992 Washington Chess Convention (featuring the Washington Open), and continuing with the Washington Class Championships, we upgraded these events from rather tiny local tournaments to gatherings worth traveling to play. That was the good news. The bad news is that since the mid-1990s, these events have also stagnated.
So, what’s the problem? Why don’t organizers just increase the entry fees and prizes? The risk (and every tournament involves risk to the organizer) would be proportionately the same as it was decades ago, right? Why not just go for it?