Anand vs Carlsen: No more kings!

11/14/2013 – The World Chess Championship is a winner-take-all format which very often does not pit the world's best players against each other. It is, according to Matt Gaffney, writing in Slate Magazine, an unsatisfactory benchmark of chess skill and should be replaced by four big Grand Slam tournaments every year, just like in tennis. And Magnus Carlsen is the man to do it. Food for thought.

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For the start of the World Championship between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen in Chennai the online news and opinion portal Slate published a very provocative – or shall we say thought-provoking – piece on chess and on the institution of the World Championship. Slate is a a fine-grained, foliated, homogeneous metamorphic rock derived from an original shale-type sedimentary rock... sorry, wrong

Slate is a United States-based liberal, English language online current affairs and culture magazine created in 1996 by former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley. The magazine features regular and semi-regular columns, with short (under 2,000 words) argument-driven content. In recent years, the magazine has also begun running long-form journalism.

The article "No More Kings" is a good example. It was written by Matt Gaffney, who has a National Master title from the U.S. Chess Federation (earned in 1991). In the past Matt played tournaments in Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Ostende, Copenhagen, Budapest and Moscow, but these days he concentrated on producing crossword puzzles for a living. He wrote Slate’s political crossword from 1999 to 2003 and now writes a similar puzzle for The Week. He blogs about crossword puzzles here.

The World Championship in Chennai has the feel of a coronation, and Magnus Carlsen, who is just 22, is already spoken of in the same breath as Paul Morphy, Jose Raoul Capablanca, Bobby Fischer, and Garry Kasparov. Matt illustrates the Carlsen dominance some statistics: the gap between him and the world's number two player, Levon Aronian, is greater than the gap between Aronian and the world’s number nineteen. Anand is number eight, and the gap between him and Carlsen is a yawning 95 points. That's the same gap as Anand maintains to the 64th-ranked player in the world. He is definitely the underdog in the Championship match.

The author is not pleased with the institution of the winner-take-all World Champion format, which according to him is too crude a measurement of chess skill:

In an era of instantly updated ratings, and you get embarrassing, confusing situations where the player who is clearly the best isn’t labeled as such. Having a world champion makes sense in boxing, where infrequent matches make comparing fighters a tricky proposition. But in chess, as in tennis, the world’s two best players will meet head-to-head as many as four or five times in a year. Tennis doesn’t have a world champion, and rightly so. That sport measures greatness by elevating four tournaments (the grand slams) above all others and assessing a player’s results there. Peaks and valleys are measured by a ratings algorithm that’s updated from week to week.

Matt notes that chess has a ratings system, and it has the big tournaments. His solution: kill the world championships! For that chess needs someone with the standing to do the job. Enter Magnus Carlsen.

Here’s what Carlsen should do: Beat Anand for the title, and then work with FIDE to institutionalize four big tournaments as chess’s Grand Slams, simultaneously eliminating the title of world champion. Perhaps the grand slam tournaments could be located in three cities permanently—Moscow, Amsterdam, and a Spanish locale such as Linares would be natural picks—with a fourth that would rotate from year to year. This would give chess the same clear and predictable yardstick for greatness that golf and tennis have instead of the extremely crude world champion benchmark.

Is this a realistic option? Carlsen himself has stated: “The difference [between me and Anand] is that I’ve been winning tournaments and he’s been holding on to his title. It will be an interesting clash between two different ideas of what constitutes the best player in the world.” So:

One can reasonably speculate that Carlsen wouldn’t care for the world championship title even if he’s the one holding it. Here’s my advice, Magnus: Cement your legacy by becoming world champion, and in turn becoming the world champion who realized chess didn’t need that title anymore. Tell FIDE you’re willing to ditch the world championship for a slams system, which you can then devote the next 25 years to dominating. You’re only 22, so you’ve got plenty of time to become the Jack Nicklaus (18 majors) or Roger Federer (17 slams) of chess. You’re far too talented to settle for merely being its world champion.

Food for thought.


The games will be broadcast live on the official web site, with special coverage on the chess server Playchess.com. If you are not a member you can download a free Playchess client there and get immediate access. You can also use ChessBase 12 or any of our Fritz compatible chess programs.


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