Saturday, 30 December 2017

A brief (early) history of the Grand Prix

I tend to steer clear ChessChat, Australia's best known chess bulletin board, but occasionally I will wander by, to gauge the pulse of the nation, as it were. In my last look-in I noticed that the ACF Grand Prix Series was being discussed. While the discussion mainly concerned the distribution of prizes, a few posts showed me that the history of how the GP started, and what it was intended to do, seems to have been lost. So to correct that, here is how the GP came about (at least to the best of my recollections).
To start with, the Australian Chess Grand Prix was inspired by the British Grand Prix series. I had read about it in BCM and Chess Monthly, and wondered why the same couldn't be done in Australia. So in 1988 I drew up a basic outline of how such a series would operate and went to work putting it into practice. However there was one significant difference to the UK system, in that points were awarded in the style of Formula 1 racing, based on finishing places. At the time there weren't a large number of weekend chess events (maybe 20 or so across Australia), but I envisioned that the majority of organisers might be interested. I even pitched it to the Australian Chess Federation, as I thought a national competition might be of interest to the national body. It turns out they were not interested, telling me that "if you want to run it privately, go ahead".
The first edition kicked off in 1989, funded by entry fees from the tournament themselves. It had the 5 class structure that still exists today, although the scoring was slightly different. IIRC 6 or 7 tournaments took part (including the Doeberl Cup), and GM Ian Rogers was the inaugural winner. But despite the modest start in 1989, it really took off in 1990. This was down to the efforts of two people. The first was Ian Rogers, who had been looking for projects to pitch to Mercantile Mutual Insurance, following from their sponsorship of the Mercantile Mutual Masters. They were keen to support the GP series, providing a $10000 cash sponsorship for the prizes, as well as covering publicity costs and tournament materials (score sheets, posters etc). Part of the deal with Mercantile Mutual was the establishment of  the national junior development fund, funded out of the entry fees from the series.
The second important person was Larry Ermacora, who recruited around 40 weekend events for the second year. This meant the series was a truly national event with almost every significant weekend event involved. It also provided the impetus for a number of new events as both private organsiers and state associations became involved.
Interestingly, the Australian Chess Federation, who had little interest in the event in 1989, had a complete change of attitude for 1990. Of course the contribution wasn't in the area of extra financial support or manpower, but in the form of an extensive list of by-laws on how the series should be run. While my recollection of the exact regulations is a little hazy, I'm sure it did include the perennial ACF favourite "players and events must be approved by the relevant state association".
Mercantile Mutual continued their sponsorship for 3 years, and it only ended when the company was taken over (oddly enough by a Dutch firm). I ended my involvement around the same time, but I was pleased to see that the series achieved some important aims. Firstly, it provided a more competitive environment for top Australian chess players, by encouraging them to play in more events. Secondly it put more money into the game, not just for the top players, but for regular weekend players, in the shape of Under 2000, Under 1600, and state based prizes. And finally, it help create more weekend events across the county for players to take part in.