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Rethinking top level chess – a mandatory move

12/5/2010 – Who is the strongest player in the world? Does the World Champion win his title in the most effective way? How much should we depend on the Elo rating system, and are there better alternatives for determining world rankings? After three years spent writing a PhD thesis on games and sports at the Paris-Sorbonne Manouk Borzakian turns his attention to chess in this thought-provoking paper.
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Rethinking top level chess – a mandatory move

By Manouk Borzakian –
Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV)

A world top-ranking based on the Elo rating is today's chess main handicap. I have just spent three years writing a PhD thesis about games and sports (at the geography’s department of La Sorbonne) and have been playing chess for now about fifteen years, and I naturally spent a lot of time comparing chess with other games and sports, reaching that conclusion.

I of course do not claim to have come out with a perfect and genuine recipe for the designation of the world's best player. However, Magnus Carlsen’s decision to retire from the next world championship cycle, which probably came as a serious disillusion for many chess fans, made me feel that it was probably time to make a move, even a modest and not entirely satisfying one, if only to launch a constructive debate on the future of chess. Such a debate actually never really took place, as it was focused most often on a single issue: determining a world champion. That is actually a marginal question, if one fails to insert it in the larger question of top level tournaments. Here are therefore a few reflections on the way professional chess might be reshaped.

1. Should the World champion be the World best player?

Media coverage, though in a wide sense, is definitely the main issue. Even for the sake of the already pretty numerous chess fans around the world, the question of having an easily readable hierarchy, at least for the very best players, is central.

However, having such a hierarchy does not at all mean having an undisputed world champion. Tennis fans, for instance, seem to have a very happy life without a world champion and even without a world championship – the Masters Tournament, at the end of the year, which could be considered a kind of world championship, is actually a far less popular event than any Grand Slam tournament. Ski, Squash and Fencing, just to pick up a few other examples, follow a hardly different logic: there is a world championship every year but it is just another important event – with maybe a somewhat bigger symbolic charge – while the really crucial issue is to have a number one at the end of the year and this number one is far from always being world champion too.

Then, how is it that chess fans can’t live without an undisputed world champion? I guess it has to do with a long tradition, starting with Steinitz and looking somewhat like a “lignée” of kings, with so many myths and great souvenirs attached to it. A good start might be to deconstruct a few of those myths, particularly the idea that all the fifteen champions deserved their crown during their whole reign. The amazing end of the Lasker-Schlechter match and Lasker declining so many challenges, the fact that Alekhine avoided a return match against Capablanca, the return match rule that favored Botvinnik, the 12-12 result of the Seville match between Kasparov and Karpov… I could list many other border-line cases, showing that the chess world champion tradition did not rely on a flawless system.

That leaves us with another passionate question: should the world champion (if we consider we have to have one at all cost) be the winner of a match (or a series of matches) or of a tournament? Once again, tradition seems to lead chess fans to overestimate the importance of matches. I agree that I myself had a huge pleasure following Anand-Kramnik and Anand-Topalov, but not more than San Luis and Mexico, or more recently Nanjing or Moscow. Meanwhile, I don’t remember Kasparov-Anand as a very exciting event (more a rather boring psychological war), not to speak about Kramnik-Kasparov. Of course, it does not mean that I have no respect for the result of both events, but they show that a match is in no way a guarantee of excitement.

But a match is more likely to see the (truly) best player win, perhaps? Well, honestly, I doubt that. Did we really need Seville and Lyon/New-York to know that Kasparov was ahead of everyone and Karpov right on his heels? Did we really need Reykjavik to know that Fischer was simply the best player at the time? Did we really need San Luis, Elista, etc. to know that Anand, Kramnik and Topalov were more or less of equal strength, far ahead of the other players (well, after Kasparov retirement, of course…)? All in all, a tournament system would certainly have seen the three of them catch the title at one time or another.

2. A chess professional circuit: the main priority

Far more important than this world championship topic, it seems to me that chess currently has a pretty serious problem to solve: it badly needs a reliable way to establish a top level ranking, an aim what the Elo clearly does not achieve. Of course, I don’t speak for common mortals like myself, who play according to their work, family, and so many other things that have nothing to do with chess. We definitely can live with the Elo, if only to satisfy or egos. Top level chess, however, cannot.

2.1 Equal chances

A first flaw, and not a marginal one, is the fact that players are invited to play this or that tournament. That means that, theoretically speaking, I might be number three in the world (just dreaming a bit…) and not being able to play a single top level round-robin tournament for several months (the dream becomes a nightmare!), just because organizers would decide so. On the contrary, I might be number fifty in the world and be invited as the organizers would be my friends or relatives… This is a completely insane situation – making the Elo rating a mere nonsense – and, on this very point, chess would get a lot of credibility by applying a fundamental rule of sport: equal chance to take part for everyone. A world ranking makes sense only if players are given the same chances and face each other several times a year.

That means that being allowed to take part to the world’s finest tournaments should be decided by a qualification system, whether via less prestigious tournaments or considering a player’s rating/ranking. Mixing both is probably best, as was showed by the outstanding performance of Le Quang Liem in the latest Dortmund edition. (Would he have the slightest chance to be invited? No. His result shows how unfair this is.) On that respect, the fact that the reigning world champion is allowed to quietly wait on his throne for a challenger to go through a long and demanding qualifying process is, to put it simply, an amazingly unfair privilege. And the argument that the previous ones had to do it as well is like saying: “it was bad before, so let's not change...”

2.2 Time to forget about mister Elo and to reward great performances

A second problem, just as important, concerns the way you gain points. I’m totally convinced that the logic adopted by tennis and many other sports is by far superior to the one of chess: you can earn points but you cannot lose any. The same works for car racing: winning a Formula One Grand Prix gives you twenty-five points, but a withdrawal at the first lap does not imply any kind of minuses (except for the points you might have won otherwise, of course). What is the difference? It is that the player who tries hard to win a tournament – instead of thinking about saving some precious Elo points – or simply to improve his position in the final standings (after a bad start, for instance), will get a concrete reward for his efforts. It is totally insane that a player should be able, say, to win Linares and then to finish the year beyond the tenth place in the world, after losing twenty points in a nightmare Olympiad. What must count, when trying to establish a world hierarchy, are the players’ achievements, not their failures. (Thanks to Mister Carlsen, who was nice enough to demonstrate my point, losing his number one spot by dropping points at the Olympiad, precisely, and despite dominating the chess world during the rest of the year. And greater thanks to Mister Ivanchuk, who spends most of his time giving the same demonstration.)

Chess players’ attachment to Elo rating is probably linked to the fact that it theoretically relies on a scientific basis. Actually, if you want the Elo to be indeed scientific, all the players involved should face each other the same number of time with both colors. At least, they all should play the same number of games. Therefore, the mathematical aura of Elo points is mainly an illusion, linked to the fact that many chess players are convinced they have an intrinsic level: in other sports, most players are very well aware that your level is nothing but your results, the rest being mere philosophy. Therefore, let’s think up a system that rewards fine results.

Another strong point of such a system is that it makes the I-won’t-play-for-a-while strategy highly dubious, but seems absolutely fair for top level professionals: does it not sound totally mad that I could remain one of the world's top five (still dreaming…) by playing, say, two Bundesliga games per year, winning one and drawing the other? I might even gain one or two places by achieving 9/9 in a third class open, while the guy ahead of me would be kind enough to drop a few points with a 50% score in Linares!

2.3 Rationalization is the word

The ACP has tried something like what I have just described, using a classification of tournaments and thus the number of points to be won in them. I find the idea correct, but there is a serious defect in it: this classification was based on the Elo rating of the players. Actually, it should be the exact opposite: some tournaments should first be assigned a certain number of points – according, for instance, to the prize pool offered by the organizers, the number of players and rounds, etc. Then, on that basis, world’s best players would be more or less forced (in order to gain a maximum of ranking points) to take part.

It is time to admit that what I’m describing is very close to the FIDE Grand Prix that took place in 2007-2009. Right, but the idea should be extended to a complete professional circuit, on a one or two-year basis – depending on the number of potential organizers and on how many players should be included. Then we would have several groups of tournaments, according to their level (with perhaps less strict conditions for the lower levels, as discouraging organizers would just be the wrong way to go). I strongly believe that tennis “ATP tour” offers a pretty convincing model, with an easy-to-read pyramidal system: four “Grand Slam” tournaments (with 2,000 points going to the winner, which is usually enough to finish the year not far from the top 10), nine “Masters Series” (1,000 points), eleven “500” tournaments and, at the bottom of the scale, about forty “250” tournaments. Thus, the idea is to rationalize the situation. Though it is probably impossible to apply the whole logic of the tennis professional circuit, due to a much less important available amount of money, top level chess – say the first 100 players in the world, for instance – may very well reproduce something similar to the top of the tennis pyramid.

Equally important, there should be a qualifying system for each of the tournaments included in the circuit, allowing to have three types of contenders (the way it works in tennis, once again): players “invited” due to their place in the world ranking, players having won their ticket by winning a less important tournament and, possibly, one or two spots might be kept in order to allow the organizers to choose some of the players.

Though the details of such a circuit go far beyond the scope of this paper, it seems obvious to me that there already is a group of famous tournaments that would easily make it for a first division circuit (Linares, Wijk aan Zee, Dortmund, etc.). But what are now several independent and, more important, very differently organized competitions (that is one of the defects of what has been built by the Grand Slam association), have to be unified in a larger contest and, once again, not based on invitations.

Now what would we see at the end of this one or two years story? We would see a clear and undisputed world number one, easy to identify even for non-chess players – that is papers, sponsors… and my friends who ask me “Who is the world champion? Kasparov is his name, right?” And why not organize a world championship as well to satisfy the “traditionalists”? It might gather the four best performers of the period, fighting in a four time round-robin, or even a match between the first two, in an improved “grand slam final”. Does it not sound like a nice final firework?

Copyright Manouk Borzakian/ChessBase

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