Monday, September 14, 2015

Where Chess and Tennis Find Common Ground

  The FIDE World Chess Cup is taking place in Baku, Azerbaijan. It is both the fastest and slowest international chess tournament – slow because the tournament lasts 26 days from September 10th to October 5th and fast because the field of 128 play two day matches of two long (four hour) games until the field gets winnowed down to just two players who will play a four game match to determine the champion. If a match is tied after the two long games there is a third day tie break matches at progressively faster time limits until a winner is decided.

  Except for the World Blitz tournament with the participants playing 11 games a day, the knockout mini match format is my favorite for watching chess. In the beginning of the tournament there are dozens of games to watch with 35 of the 44 players rated 2700 or over competing. I always find it interesting to see how the top 20 players are able to grind down grandmasters in an almost effortless fashion and the tension always seems high when a mistake can cost a game and the match at any time. Super grandmasters Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana had relatively poor results in the recently concluded Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis. It is easy to forget how great these players are when they struggle against the very top player in the world and easy to remember when they steamroll lesser opposition like they did in the first round of the World Cup.

Commentators Emil Sutovsky and Evengy Miroshnichenko are professional enough but rely on a cameraman to keep up with the games...

  Like most big-time chess tournaments the World Cup is streamed live this time on Livestream.com on the ChessCast network. The commentators are grandmaster players Emil Sutovsky and Evengy Miroshnichenko who do a professional job but are hamstrung by not having access to the current positions on their computer screens and having to rely on the roving cameramen’s view of the boards. This happened last year at the FIDE rapid and blitz championships. Given that DGT chessboards that are capable of being wired to the internet are in use for the tournament it is pretty embarrassing to have the commentators be two or three moves behind the actual games when they are less than 100 yards away.

  When watching the FIDE World Cup I can’t help but think that the knockout format is the most exciting format for chess and that the tournament takes way too long with the finalists spending over three weeks in Baku battling for the championship. The FIDE World Cup is structured much like the recently concluded U.S. Open Tennis tournament in New York City. Both tournaments have 128 players (the tennis has many tournaments and has 128 players in both the men’s and women’s single events) and single elimination. The main difference is that the U.S. Open takes two weeks while the FIDE World Cup takes twice as long.

  The tennis tour has tournaments all over the world that take one week with the majors taking two weeks while allowing players a day off between most matches. I think professional chess could grow in popularity if the tournaments were modeled after the tennis tour but as it is chess tournaments take far too much time because each individual game takes far too much time. If each knockout match could be done in one day a 64 player knockout tournament could start on Tuesday and be completed on Sunday. More players could be accommodated by having 48 players seeded and let the remaining spots filled in with a Monday qualifying tournament.

  How could a chess match take place in one day? By shortening the time controls! 26 of the 64 first round matches were tied after the first two four hour games and resolved in tiebreak games on Sunday. Sunday’s tie breaks were 2 game mini matches with 25 minutes per player and if the players were tied there would be a mini-match with 10 minutes per player with one further mini-match at 5 minutes per player before a final Armageddon game with the White side having 5 minutes and the Black side 4 minutes and draw odds.

  Sunday’s tie break rounds took five hours and that was only for the one game that went to the Armageddon game. The first tiebreak match took three hours, the second 75 minutes, and the third a half hour – no longer than a long tennis match. Normal chess tournaments require up to five hours of play a day and if the mini-matches would use the FIDE World Cup tiebreak format the players wouldn’t have to play more than five hours a day either.

  The top chess players wouldn’t play in each week’s tournament just like the top tennis players don’t play every week but there would be enough top players to give each week’s tournament appealing match-ups of the top players in the world along with the occasional upset Johnny. Each week on the tennis tour there are great matchups between Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, etc. This years FIDE World Cup will have matchups between Nakamura, Topalov, Krammnik, Caruana, Ding Liren, etc… in a winner take all format.

  I’ve long felt that a chess tour modeled after the tennis tour is the future of professional chess and I believe it will happen in the next 20 years. The hang-up is the tradition of the long time controls but time controls have slowly gotten faster and faster over time and it is only a matter of time before a knockout format speeds up along with it.