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Players of all skill levels are expected at the open tournament and it has been billed as the strongest field of chess players assembled in Oceania.
There will be 39 titled competitors going head-to-head, including 11 grandmasters and six women grandmasters.
Players hail from Australia, England, Germany, Norway, Lithuania, Slovenia, Romania, Moldova, Greece, Russia and Israel.
A record $50,000 in prize money is on offer, with $10,000 going to the winner.
Festival promoter Murray Chandler, of Auckland, is this country's most successful chess player and was ranked in the elite world top 20 in the 1980s when he played professionally full-time.
He is the current New Zealand champion and represented his country on board one at the Chess Olympiad in Dresden.
"The festival is an extraordinary opportunity for New Zealand players of virtually any strength to play against top international players," Chandler said.
"It's a tournament when everybody plays in one big event. For example, a novice could play a grandmaster in the first game, because everyone starts with zero points.
"The top players take these early games seriously. The thing about chess is, if you make one mistake you lose."
The festival will run until January 24 at the Millennium Hotel, in Queenstown.
A total of 62 boards have been set up in the Galaxy Ballroom, the top six linked to a global audience via www.newzealandchess.co.nz.
The games begin from 3pm and entry is free to spectators.
Chandler said watching chess games was "surprisingly engrossing" for people with an understanding of the rules.
Between 6pm and 7pm was often the most exciting period, when players were short of time and each move was critical.
The tournament incorporates the 116th New Zealand Championship, the longest-running national chess championship in the world.
It will also serve as a qualification event for the Oceania world championship qualification event to be held in Australia next year.
During the festival, the Queenstown Junior Chess Classic will be held from January 18 to 21.
Players must be under 18 years old at January 1, 2009, to be eligible.
Players can stay on to compete for more prizemoney in the Rapidplay and Lightning tournaments being organised by the New Zealand Chess Federation, on January 25 to 26, in the same hotel.