Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Revamp the Championship

  The World Chess Championship match was held in Moscow over the past 3 weeks. After the scheduled 12 games, the contestants, Viswanathan Anand from India and Boris Gelfand from Israel (by way of the Soviet Chess machine of the 70’s and 80s) were tied with 1 win each to go along with 10 draws and settled the championship today with 4 games at 25 minutes per player. Anand won the second game, managed to avoid defeat from a lost position in the third game, and won the championship with a draw in the fourth game. If the players were tied after the 4 games, they would have played 5 2 games matches at 5 minutes a side and if they were still tied after each of the 5 matches, the world chess championship would have been be settled in an ‘Armageddon’ game where White has 5 minutes and Black 4 minutes and if the game is drawn, the player of the Black pieces will be the world champion.

  To my mind, this World Championship match has been the dullest of any I can recall. Even the participants seem to be going through the motions of playing, with 7 of the 10 drawn games finishing before move 30. The only real drama in the match came when Gelfand won game 7 to take the lead in the match only to lose the 8th game in less than 20 moves to pull the match back into a tie. Maybe chess has evolved so much that the best players in the world have no way to play for a win after 20 moves but I think both players are so fearful of making a blunder they would rather call it a draw and try to win the next game.

  Since there’s only a World Championship chess match every 2 or 3 years, when it turns into a dramaless affair like this one, I feel like I’ve been cheated since I have to wait 3 more years for the next championship match. When the 1984 Karpov-Kasparov match had 17 straight draws (many of them under 20 moves) after Karpov won 4 of the first 9 games and 14 straight draws with Karpov holding a 5-1 advantage, at least there were the first 4 Karpov victories in the beginning of the match; the 2 Kasparov victories at the end of the match and the drama of the cancellation of the match by FIDE president Campomanes. The 14-game 2004 Kramnik-Leko had 10 draws, but Leko had a 1 game lead for the last 6 games and the struggles of Kramnik to tie the match and keep his championship supplied the necessary drama.

  FIDE, the world governing chess organization has had the opportunity to try many different formats for determining the World Championship in the period 1992 to 2006, when Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik took personal ownership of the Championship and determined their challengers until it was restored to FIDE control in 2006. The current 3 year cycle of qualifying tournaments, candidate matches, and finally the World Championship match is the traditional method of determining the title holder, but there were also knockout matches in 1999 (won by Alexander Khalifman) 2004 (won by Rustam Kasimdzhanov), and 2 World Championship tournaments in 2005 (won by Veselin Topalov) and 2007 (won by Anand).

  Just as the 24 game matches of yesteryear were deemed too slow for the modern age and were replaced by 12 and 14 game championship matches, this current 3 year cycle is far too slow in the 21st century and doesn’t capture the imagination of the chess playing public. It would help if the combatants didn’t like each other like Kramnik - Topalov, Kasparov - Karpov, or Karpov - Korchnoi but even if Anand and Gelfand were mortal enemies and played the most amazing games ever seen, we’d still have to wait 3 more years for a possible rematch.

  I’d like to see the championship have a possibility of changing hands every year, but a yearly match wouldn’t leave enough time for the contestants to play in many other events. The 64 to 128 player knockout tournaments are highly entertaining and my favorite international tournament, but are too prone to upsets to properly select a champion. A double round robin championship tournament of 8 to 12 players every year to select a champion would be a tremendous boost to chess in general and FIDE in particular.

  The 2 championship tournaments in 2005 and 2007 were both 8 player tournaments where each contestant played each other twice in a total of 14 games over 3 weeks. Both tournaments had around two thirds of the games drawn, but most rounds had at least one decisive result and with 4 games going on, the audience always had other games to watch if 2 of the players decided to make a quick 20 move draw. A yearly tournament inviting the top players would allow for the possibility of a new champion every year and likely prevent any year’s champion from claiming the championship as his or her personal property and opting out of the FIDE world championship cycle. FIDE could invite players in rating order by a specified cutoff date and tournament approaching the date would garner increased interest much as NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup where the 12 point leaders compete over the last 10 races for the championship.

  The chess purists would hate this plan since the tradition of a string of World Champions going back to the 1800’s won almost exclusively by match play would end, but I say an entirely new set of traditions would be born from the change. Instead of champions being measured by how many years they held the title, they would be measured by how many times they won the championship. In a generation’s time chess fans would be able to judge the players of today by how many times they made the championship tournament and a player winning 2 or more consecutive championships would take on historical legendary status.

  Even though the winners of the 2005 and 2007 championship tournaments were well in control from halfway through the tournament to the end, there was still plenty of fighting chess over the final rounds as the other players would try to improve their place even as the leaders ‘drew’ their way to the finish line, as opposed to this year's match, when there was nothing to watch after yet another short draw. The 2012 World Championship match was run at the same time as the US Chess Championship, which was a 12 player tournament round robin which showed how captivating a championship tournament can be. The two top seeds, American product Hikaru Nakamura and Russian émigré Gata Kamsky were expected to battle for the championship and both players were battling to rack up wins against the rest of the field prior to their matchup in the next to last round. In their game, Kamsky had the White pieces and a half point, which forced Nakamura to go for a win at all costs. Nakamura won the game in fine fashion and took a half point lead in the championship which he clinched when he won his final round game. If you think a yearly tournament for the US Championship is the norm, it wasn’t always. From 1889 to 1935 the US Chess Champion was exclusively decided by match play and even into the 1940’s would occasionally be contested in a match. The championship tournaments started in the 1940s and by the 1960’s was considered the only way to determine a champion. If FIDE would crown their champion in a yearly tournament, in 10 or 20 years it also would be seen as the only way to pick a champion.