I am going to outline some ideas that I have for a potential Australian Open Chess event on this page. The reason for this is that I feel that the Australian Open (in particular) has been horribly underutilised, and in effect devalued by past organisers, to such an extent that it is almost seen as a 'run-of-the-mill' event on the Australian Chess calendar, when I feel it should be anything by standard.
I've had these thoughts for a while, as far back as 2006, but thought that my blog would be a better place to have these ideas in one place, as well as being able to change & modify ideas as necessary.
Ultimately, this page will hopefully serve as a starting point for potential venues, sponsors and participants to share their views & get an idea of what I (and hopefully others in the Australian chess community) would like to see from arguably one of the most important tournaments on the Australian chess calendar.
I've also added an Australian Open Images page, when you can see many of the ideas suggested here being implemented at other events, whether they are chess events, or otherwise.
Recent history of the event - [Year - City (Venue) & winner]:
2011 - Sydney (Norths Leagues) won by Xie
2009 - Sydney (Manly Leagues) won by Wohl
2007 - Canberra (Southern Cross) won by Zhao
2005 - Mt Buller (Mercure) won by Sedina
2003 - Sydney (Panthers) won by Wallace
2001 - Canberra (Rydges) won by Djuric
1999 - Sunshine Coast (USC) won by Milov
1997 - ?? won by Johansen
1995 - Perth won by Trong
1993 - Sydney (Shore Inn) won by Rogers
I attended some, but not all of these events, with my personal opinion of these events varying greatly.
I vaguely recall the Shore Inn event, although it was most memorable for me for a schools event that was run at the venue towards the end of 1993 if memory serves me correctly. Having said that, the event did feature a young Peter Leko & at least one of the Polgar sisters & this generated a significant amount of interest, both in the chess community, as well as in the media generally.
The Sunshine Coast event in 1999 was memorable for me, as it was the first time I had seen live commentary in action, which is something I know I was very keen to attend (and dutifully added my gold coin to the collection jar at the door on most days as soon as I finished my game) and learnt quite a bit from. It was also good to have a variety of players doing the commentary, with Ian Rogers being the main commentator, with any early finishing IMs or GMs joining Ian, at least to go through their own game, if not stay around to commentate on the other games in progress. Another aspect of the 1999 event that stood out for me was the use of a venue that was not only of excellent quality, but also that it was a venue that was hardly used by anyone else while the chess was on. This is something that I don't think has been properly utilised in Australia since.
The 2001 Canberra event was well run, but somewhat hastily put together & lacked the advertising lead in time available to other Australian Opens, so made little attempt to attract overseas titled players, although overseas players already in Australia at the time, such as Djuric, did play in the event.
The Penrith event of 2003 was probably the best run Australian Open I have attended, being run by Brian Jones, with the beginnings of utilising the internet for chess coverage on display, however it lacked the 'value adding' aspects of the Sunshine Coast event.
The 2005 Mount Buller event was perhaps the most disappointing of all the recent Australian Opens. I was for a short time involved on the organising committee, but could only be involved in the pre-event planning, rather than being able to attend the actual event due to work committments (the joys of working in a casino at the time meant that leave over Xmas/New Year was almost impossible to get). This pre-planning had many issues, after the initial idea was started by David Cordover. For whatever reason, Cordover pulled out of the event & it was taken over by then ACF President George Howard, who recieved some pre-event assistance from Garvin Gray & myself, before some other Adelaide people helped with the actual event itself. In theory, it could have been a great event, with a venue that was very good, and one that was underutilised at the time (in a similar manner to the 1999 event on the Sunshine Coast), but it seemed as though the various parties involved (primarily the Mercure hotel at Mount Buller & George Howard [previously David Cordover]) could not see eye-to-eye on a number of key details. This meant that the event was under-advertised & had quite a bit of negative sentiment amongst the chess community before it had even begun. This was further compounded by poor internet coverage during the event, as well as bulletins being available at the venue for only the first few rounds.
I did not attend the 2007 event in Canberra, so can not comment too much about the event, apart from the fact that there were only a small number of forgeign players in the event (although these did include GMs Bluvshtein & Antic).
The 2009 event at Manly was well run, but lacked many of the value-adding features of previous events, with no commentary or bulletins at the event. It also had a small number of foreign players and no GMs (foreign or local) playing.
The 2011 event at Norths had similar issues to the Manly event, with no value-adding features, and no foreign titled players (although GM Zhao did play, so there was a GM in the event).
In short, the event has in the last few years simply turned into a large, reasonably strong, 11-round swiss event, where there is an outside chance of IM norms (if the stars align in terms of opponents ratings/titles & players score 75%+).
In my view, this is not what an Australian Open should be ... it should be something special! It should have those value-adding touches that only a few tournaments in this country have (eg: Doeberl & Sydney International have GM commentary & bulletins now seem to be only available at the Australian Juniors [and in an abbreviated format at that]) & it should most definitely be a tournament that people remember & talk about long after the event has finished! In my opinion, the only Australian Open that satisfies this criteria is the 1999 Sunshine Coast event (the 2005 Mount Buller event is still remember & talked about, but in a negative light). This is simply unacceptable for the flagship national event!
What the Australian Open has at present that is worth keeping:
An 11 round event, which is something that is becoming more rare in the modern day (with 6-7 round events being the norm & 9 round events being rare)
New Year time period (although the dates can vary, the event is generally held sometime in the December 27-January 14 window)
Norm possibilities (apart from being able to attract foreign players, it is also the designated 'national event' with FIDE, so the usual requirements for foreign players are not necessarily required for norms to be possible)
It is an established event (in that people know it is on every 2 years)
What the Australian Open needs, that it doesn't (always) have at present:
Permanent home (Yes, this is a controversial one, but I feel that the current 'rotational' policy of the ACFs is simply not workable in the modern era. At present, the organising committees of each event need to effectively re-invent the wheel each time an event is held & need to start from scratch in terms of sorting out basics such as venue, player accommodation, tournament funding & the like. The players are never certain exactly where the event is to be held [and in the recent past, the location has only been announced about 6 months prior to the event] & as a result need to do their own organisation [in terms of travelling to the event, finding accommodation, etc] differently for each event. The lack of continuity in terms of organisers is also an issue, as in some cases the same issues arise with each new group of organisers. If the venue [or at the very least the host city] is the same, then many of these problems are removed. The players [who are often habitual in nature] can return to their accommodation of choice and their established routines [for things such as transport, food, etc], and if the event is liked by the players, word-of-mouth can help grow the number of players at future events.
Value adding features (at the Open is the de-facto national championship [the Australian Championship being held in alternate years], the tournament needs to have the value adding features that make important tournaments special. At the very minimum, there should be good internet coverage & bulletins for the players at the venue. Commentary on the games would be another aspect that should almost be an essential in this regard. If players are going to spend almost a fortnight playing chess, they should get as much for their entry fee [which is typically more than the average tournament in terms of cost per game] as possible!)
What I would like to see at the Australian Open, although these items are not (in my opinion) essential to a successful event:
Foreign titled players (This is what separates the Open from the Championship - the ability to have multiple foreign players playing in the event, so that locals aren't just playing the same people every event & overseas players can have a 'chess holiday', which they will hopefully want to repeat in two years time!)
Round Robin Grandmaster event (This is another of my controversial ideas, but I like the idea of running an invitational GM event alongside the Open. This is the type of event that can attract sponsors, players & spectators to the event, which is something that an event like this should be looking for. Yes, it increases costs, but the potential upside far outweighs the extra effort required from an organisers point of view. It also allows an opportunity to strengthen the top end of chess in this country, as those players who are on the Olympiad team [or who are aspiring to be on the team] can have the opportunity to play in a world-class event on home soil, something that is rarely the case at present).
The thing that is missing the most from the minds of present organisers is that of value-adding.
Possible value-adding features for players:
Organise events on rest days (this is particularly useful for foreign players & attracting them to the event ... this could take a number of options, including sport [plenty of tennis & cricket on at that time of year], tourism [beach, zoo, museum, winery, etc]), chess [master simul, etc] or any other form of entertainment that would get people interested in attending the event & these can often be used to generate additional income for the event)
Master Commentary at the venue (this adds value to those at the venue. It can attract spectators to the event, as well as provide some added interest for participants once they have finished their own games. It can also be another opportunity for sponsors to become involved, as they could choose to sponsor the on-site commentary for example)
Bulletins (this is a feature that has been lost with the growth of the internet & is something well worth reviving in my opinion. Bulletins add value by giving the participants [and others at the venue who may want to purchase them] a permanent record of the event, and allow for items of interest to be recorded for posterity, rather than simply being around until someone stops paying the internet hosting fee for the site. It can also provide a point of difference between the live & online coverage of the event, by including [for example] all games in the bulletin, as opposed to say only the top 20-30 boards online)
Possible value-adding features for sponsors:
Internet sponsorship (this is something that is already being used, but it is very much underutilised at present. At the moment, sponsorship online is basically limited to various clickable images from the sponsor on a number of pages, but this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of possibilities. Other ways of adding to the possibility of internet sponsorship include things such as sponsorship for particular items [eg: today's live game relays are brought to you by XYZ], or may be included in things such as video updates & the like. There is also the possibility of affiliate-type deals, where there could be some sort of benefit based on the number of visitors directed to a particular site from the main tournament site. There are a number of other ways that the internet can be utilised for sponsorship, in addition to the standard methods of advertising that are used at present)
Player-worn sponsor patches (this is something that has taken off in the world of poker, and is a common feature in the world of motorsport. The reason why it is a useful way to value-add for sponsors is that the various photos from the event [which would hopefully be published in a variety of locations & not just the official tournament website/bulletin] would feature players wearing these patches, giving extra value to the sponsor, often well after the event has finished. It also allows sponsors some choice and discretion [they may want to be associated with a particular player for example] in terms of where their logo is placed)
Possible value-adding for spectators:
Master commentary (this is particularly good for those that want to drop in at the event & have an idea of what is going on in the top board games [without the use of a chess engine & being able to figure out why for example white has a +0.2 advantage in a particular position], as well as various anecdotes from the event & additional information about the players that may not be available elsewhere [this is where someone like Ian Rogers really adds to the value of commentary, as he knows most of the top players, in the country & overseas, reasonably well]. In addition, this is a way for the organisers to generate some income, while still remaining relatively cheap to participate in [you might charge people $2-5 per day to listen to the live commentary])
Bulletins (as with the players in the event, people that turn up to spectate at the event could purchase bulletins, which could have all the games in them, as well as various interviews and anecdotes from the tournament. It also gives spectators something to physically remember the tournament, rather than simply a photo or two & a URL with information)
At present, there are a number of barriers to achieving these outcomes in an Australian Open ...
Money - this is the big obstacle! It costs money to get titled players here from overseas. It costs to accommodate these players once they are at the venue. Chess players, often by their nature, are somewhat frugal with their money, but by the same token, the amount of money that I am talking about is in the tens of thousands of dollars, not the millions of dollars that an event like the Australian open tennis would need. This is where sponsors are vital ... and sponsors want something in return for their money! Some of the ideas presented above can go a long way to attracting sponsors & giving them the type of exposure & return on investment that they could be looking for.
Organisers - this seems like a big obstacle, but isn't really. The thing that is needed is someone who is able to oversee the tournament as a whole & then designate smaller tasks to different people so that the process is more manageable for everyone. At present, the system leaves the entire event in the hands of a few people, who often have little experience in organising events of the size or nature of an Australian Open, and this small group of people do 95% of the work, often becoming burnt out & disillusioned with the chess community in the process. If structures were put in place & big tasks broken down into smaller, more manageable, tasks, then the system as a whole could work much better!
Vision - at present this is, at least to some extent, the biggext obstacle to change. Something of this nature requires both the desire to change & progress, as well as the ability to do so. At present, the ACF, which runs these national events, seems all to happy to keep the status quo. The rotational system of sharing events keeps all states & territories happy, as they all know that they will get 'their turn' to host an event such as the Open or Championship & this keeps all states interested in the event, at least from a 'big picture' perspective. There is no rush to try to find sponsors, because the 'run-of-the-mill' events can break even (or close to) financially without too much extra effort. There is very little being done to try to develop world class players in this country ... yes, there is the JETS (and its previous incarnarions) junior squad, but that is about developing kids, and at present the ceiling seems to be around the 2200 mark, with those that have gone further doing so off their own initiative (people like Max Illingworth & Bobby Cheng come to mind in this regard). The players at the top of the national rating list have to sort out their own coaching, find their own tournaments & hope to survive in the pirhana-infested waters of Australian chess (at least when it comes to FIDE ratings). There is no 'create a GM' fund similar to what was done in New Zealand when Puchen Wang was looking like he might become NZs first home-grown GM (he's a strong IM, having reached 2478, although his rating has slipped a little in recent years). There has been no push similar to that seen in the Philippines with Wesley So, who went on to become a GM at age 15. When the Olympiad comes around every 2 years, nothing new is tried. The same group of players apply & for the most part, the same people get selected for the team & play. Everything must be based on 'playing strength', whatever that means & invariably this means going with the 5 highest rated applicants year after year. No thought is given to taking a player for 'development' or 'experience', simply 'playing strength' & Australia has finished somewhere near its initial seeding for as long as I can recall, Olympiad after Olympiad ... and once again the status quo is maintained!
Imagine if you will ... Australian Open Chess Championships 20XX
GM invitational event - an 11 player, 11 round round-robin tournament, featuring players from around the world. they need not be the best in the world ... after all we want 'our boys' to be able to compete with them ... but they need to be able to play enterprising chess & attract sponsors & spectators!
Add to that some of the best Australian players ... and you have yourselves a tournament!
The 'side event' is the Australian Open, which would be no weaker than any other Australian Open in recent years, as well as other shorter events to attract players who might not ba able to devote a whole week or fortnight to a chess tournament.
A hypothetical player list (the general player rating ceiling would want to be around the low 2600s so that games could be competitive, as well as reducing the costs to organisers of having to pay players in the top 50 in the world):
GM Jan Timman (former world championship candidate & now rated around 2570)
GM Victor Korchnoi (former world championship challenger & now rated around 2550)
GM Jonny Hector (multiple time Swedish champion & attacking wizard, rated around 2570)
GM Tiger Hillarp Persson (Another attacking Swedish GM, rated around 2530)
GM Joel Benjamin (former US Champ, involved in the Deep Blue match, rated around 2560)
GM Hou Yifan (current women's world champion from China, rated around 2610)
GM Gawain Jones (English GM who lived in Australia for a number of years, rated around 2650)
GM Zong-Yuan Zhao (Australia's number 1 player, rated around 2570)
GM David Smerdon (Australia's number 2 player, rated around 2510)
IM George Xie (Australia's number 3 player, with 3 GM norms, rated around 2460)
IM Moulthun Ly (An improving young Australian, rated around 2380)
I'm SURE a tournament entry list like this would attract sponsors, players & general media interest! There's a mix of famous chess names (Timman, Korchnoi), young talents (Yifan, Ly), attacking players (Hector, Jones) & top local players (Zhao, Smerdon), though the players themselves might change, that is the sort of thing I know I'd want to see in a chess tournament in Australia! The top local players get a chance to play against world class opponents without having to leave the country, as well as possibly obtaining a GM norm (if needed), while the chess public, sponsors & media get a world class chess event IN AUSTRALIA!
I would love to hear your feedback & comments about my ideas - if you'd rather not postn th epage below, send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org
I'll update & revise this page in the future as needed, but I felt I should put an idea such as this online for people to look at & comment on ... so now its up to you readers ... what do you think of this idea?