Friday, January 27, 2017

Tiebreaks Gone Bad

  Two weeks ago I watched the NFL divisional playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. The Packers burst out to a large lead which was whittled down by the Cowboys to nothing when they kicked a field goal to tie the game with a minute left. The Packers then drove down the field to kick a game winning field goal which delighted Packer fans (which I am not) and Cowboy haters (of which I am one as a New York Giants fan).

  If the game had ended tied the teams would have gone to overtime under the arcane NFL overtime rules that proscribe that each team must possess the ball once unless the team that possesses the ball first gets a touchdown in which case the game is over. College football games allow each team to possess the ball at the opponents’ 25 yard line and if the score is still tied, the teams each get to possess the ball again and again until a winner is decided.

  Every sport has different ways to break ties. I like the tiebreaks that are as close as possible to the actual game. Basketball games break ties with continual 5 minute periods and baseball games that replay the 9th inning are my favorites. I like the 30 minute mini game complete with a mini half time that follows a tie soccer match but don’t understand the need to have the shootout after the completion of a tie mini game. Sometimes I feel a tiebreak is unnecessary. When two or more players are tied at the end of a golf tournament I don’t understand why the winners can’t be called co-champions, given replicas of the championship trophy, and split the prize money.

  The world of chess had three of their championships decided by tiebreaks in the last two months. In November the ‘Classical’ Chess Championship between champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Sergey Karjakin was tied with 1 win apiece and 10 draws after the scheduled 12 classical games that gave each player 100 minutes for the first 40 moves, 50 minutes for the next 20 moves and 15 minutes after move 60 with an extra 30 seconds per move. The reason for the term ‘classical’ is twofold – the lineage of this world championship can be traced back to 1886 and has always been decided by matches between a champion and challenger in matches of games at these very long time controls. A tournament was held to determine the champion after the death of then champion Alexander Alekhine in 1946 which was the only exception to matches. FIDE (the world chess governing body) has had championship tournaments to crown FIDE champions but there is no direct line of succession and these champions are known as ‘FIDE’ champions and not the chess champion of the world.

  Carlsen and Karjakin settled their ‘Classical’ championship in a very unclassical way – they played a four game match at the time limit of 15 minutes + 10 seconds a move. Carlsen won the mini-match and kept his ‘Classical’ world championship crown. The aftermath led to a number of suggestions to avoid the classical championship being decided by a rapid chess match. Some advocated going back to the old rule that allowed the champion to keep the title in case of a tie match, which supposedly would make for more fighting chess since the challenger would know they had to win the match to gain the title. Another popular suggestion was to play the tiebreak match before the match with the similar idea of promoting fighting chess since the loser of the tiebreak match would have to win the classical match to be crowned world champion. My idea in the case of a tie match would be to declare the contestants co-champions and allow both players the right to play in the next Candidates tournament and instead of declaring the winner of the Candidates tournament the official challenger have the first two players compete in a match to be the next champion. I think the lack of drama caused by a tie match would be offset by having two champions both competing in a Candidates tournament.

  In December FIDE held their annual World Blitz (3 minutes + 2 seconds per move) and World Rapid (15 minutes + 10 seconds per move) championships. These are my favorite chess events of the year. The action is fast paced with 5 rounds of 15 minute action each day with 12 and 9 three minute rounds to view with the top players in the world battling each other in every round. The top players were Carlsen and Karjakin, top 10 players Maxime Vachier-Lagrave Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian, former World champion Viswanathan Anand, and defending blitz champion Alexander Grischuk. Carlsen had a rough start with only a draw in his first two games before winning 4 games in a row. Carlsen then lost to former top player Vassily Ivanchuck, win two in row (including a win over Grischuk) before drawing Aronian and losing to Anton Korobov. With 4 rounds to go Carsen tied for 12th place, a 1 point and a half behind Ian Nepomiachtchi. With his back to the wall, Carlsen won his last four games including a win over Nepomiachtchi to claim tie for first place with Ivanchuk and Grischuk, who all scored 11 points out of the 15 games.

  Well, actually only Ivanchuk could claim first place because instead of having games to break the tie the regulations of the tournament proclaimed the first tiebreak to be the average rating of each players opponents which was Ivanchuk, with Grischuk taking second and Carlsen third. This put Carlsen at a competitive disadvantage since he was the highest rated player and didn’t get to play himself. Carlsen was also penalized for his poor start because it meant he had to play lower rated players in the middle rounds as he worked his way back to the top. There was a small amount of drama in the final round since Carlsen won first and still could have finished first if Ivanchuk had not won his game AND Grischuk’s game with Nepomiachtchi ended in a draw but all in all a lackluster finish compared to a playoff.

  Matters didn’t improve for Carlsen in the 21 round blitz championship that followed the Rapid tournament. He lost his game with Karjakin but quickly caught up and the two world championship contestants were far ahead of the field heading into the final round with Carlsen leading by a half point. Karjakin had clinched the tiebreak by playing slightly stronger competition than Carlsen who was again at a disadvantage by not getting to play the highest rated player which was himself. In the final round Carlsen could only draw with the black pieces while Karjakin won his game to tie Carlsen with 16.5 points out of 21 games and be declared champion on tiebreaks. The result seemed more legitimate than the rapid tournament since Karjakin did defeat Carlsen in the tournament but without some sort of playoff I fail to see why the winners of the blitz and rapid tournments couldn’t have been named co-champions. Unlike the ‘Classical’ championship where being world champion carries certain privileges like skipping the candidates rounds, the rapid and blitz world championships carry no privileges except for a trophy or a different medal.

  I can see having a computed tiebreak for NFL playoff spots where playing a tie break game would play havoc with the playoff schedule but I cannot see having one for a world championship chess tournament. FIDE should either have the players fight it out over the board or declare all the leaders as champions instead of using an artificial computation. I don't feel too bad for Carlsen though. He tied for first in the Classical, Blitz, and Rapid Championships but has only one title to show for it but at least it was the most valuable of the three.