Match format: Sutovsky vs Seirawan

by Emil Sutovsky
12/6/2016 – Yasser Seirawan does not like the current format of the World Championship and proposed a number of hotly debated changes. Now, Emil Sutovsky, President of the Association of Chess Professionals, counters. He offers an out-of-the box proposal and invites readers to make their opinion heard.

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The format of the World Championship - a proposal

Emil Sutovsky, President of the Association of Chess Professionals (ACP)

First of all, I'd like to congratulate Magnus for retaining the title, and praise Sergey who was a worthy opponent to the reigning Champion. The Title Match is the most prestigious and the most followed event in chess – and I believe we shall stick to the match format – there were literally millions of spectators following the battle of New York. It was thrilling from the sportive point of view, but I believe the games could have been much more exciting if a different format was used. I would like to share my views:

1. Number of games

I don't think twelve is an optimal number of games. With twelve games the match seems to be too short – and this influences the match strategy of the players, provoking them to play overcautiously as even a single loss may prove too costly. Spectators also do want the show to go on. Chess fans and aficionados did not get tired of the match in New York – the vast majority would have liked to see more games. Whereas a 24-game match might be a bit too long for many reasons, I would suggest 16 games as a number that strikes a balance perfectly. It won't even increase the costs too much, if we have a day off after every three games (and not after two as in New York).

2. What to do in a case of a tie?

I have heard many proposals. All of them have some logic behind them, but I find it unfair to award the match to the reigning Champion in case of a tie, and I also don't think that an odd number of games and an extra attempt for Challenger playing with White helps too much (having White is not a meaningful advantage on the top level anymore).

I actually like the idea of a rapid tie-break. Just not after the regular part of the match, but BEFORE it. Then, the match starts with a bang (I'd rather call it overture) - a lot of excitement and the winner gets a pole position – which makes the classical chess that follows invariably more attractive – as a tie will now suit only one of the players. But the classical games will decide the match. The World Championship matches in 2006, 2012, and 2016 were decided by a rapid tie-break and the last classical games of these matches were anti-climactic, to put it mildly. It is also important, in my opinion, to play the rapid tie-break on two days (Saturday and Sunday – with a massive audience!), which allows us have more games (3+3) while one bad day won't have a decisive impact. Let's also not forget – we don't want our gladiators to die – playing four rapid games for such a high stakes, followed by possible blitz and Armageddon is really too tough. Honestly, I don't see any disadvantages in the proposed format change – except for one thing: this solution is a bit out-of-the-box. But we are chess people - we are supposed to be capable of such things!

3. No shorter time-controls

Finally, I'd like to unequivocally stress that I don't like the idea of shortening the time-control in the World Championship Match. This idea is advocated by some impatient spectators and even strong Grandmasters who find that classical chess becomes more and more dull. In my opinion, neither rapid nor “new classic” (about an hour for each player) is good enough to replace the proper classical game. I'd like to remind the proponents of shorter time-controls that the World Championship match is watched by millions of people, and making it more spectacular (if one considers mistakes to be spectacular) on the expense of damaging the quality of play is hardly a productive idea. Actually, the stats from Norway where 5-10% of the entire population followed every classical game from beginning to end on TV clearly proves that classical chess can be attractive – we just have to present it properly. And we don't have to compare chess with other sports all the time! Chess is a sport, yes. But the main reason why there is serious money in chess is our rich history, our traditions, our image of the most intellectual sport. Speeding up is zeitgeisty and trendy, but sometimes it is wise to be anti-trend and to stick to your niche, adjusting and improving, but not rebranding it. In a few years we will celebrate the centennial of the “Classical chess is dead – it is just a draw” movement. But chess is still alive and kicking, and it is bound to outlive those who claim its death today...

Of course, every reader is welcome to disagree with me and express his/her opinion in the ACP World Championship poll. We will publish the results in January – and develop recommendations for Fide based on the results of the poll. Make your opinion heard!

Naturally many people have their own opinions about the ideal format – and let me invite you all to express your thoughts by participating in the → detailed ACP poll dedicated to the World Championship format ←



Emil Sutovsky is President of the Association of Chess Professionals. He was born in 1977 and is based in Holon, Israel. In January 2012 he reached the highest ranking of his career of 2708. His highest position in the rankings was 17th in the world. Emil Sutovsky is the 2001 European Champion as well as a winner and a prizewinner of more than 100 international tournaments. Emil has an extensive experience in participating at television and radio programs and is author of over a hundred publications on the topic of chess.
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knockingboots knockingboots 12/6/2016 04:48
Interesting idea, but I offer this alternative idea. Using The Bilbao System four board for each player, two whites and two blacks, with classical time control, without increment in the first forty moves and then from move 41, 10 seconds of increment, per move, till the end of every game, the next day would be a rest day, and the match would continue in the third day with four more games, so in one week there would have been a total 12 games played, and in two weeks 24 games including the weekend as resting days, for example it´ll start on monday, then wednesday, and friday finishing the week and it´d continue on the monday. The problem with the current system got to do with the fact that it´s becoming in some sort of final match in Champions League or other important final in football, where none is really willing to take any risk, because the fear of losing, so every game is do or die for the players. In fact Karjakin got affected for this approach, he was always more closed of losing some games than winning them(games 3-4), and I don´t think he is becoming such a bad player from March to this date, he obviously felt some kind of pressure, what I try to explain, to put it simple, 12 are very fews games where the stake is so high.

Finally I don´t write this to impose an idea, it´s just about using this chance to express some ideas that help to have a better event in the future .
Capa143 Capa143 12/6/2016 04:46
I see no problem with the champion retaining the title in case of a drawn match of classical chess games (preferably 16 games), and thus no need for a rapid 4-game play-off event. The challenger is supposed to defeat the champion. The champion, having already defeated the previous champion, should remain champion if he's still standing toe-to-toe with the challenger at the end of the match. That seems to be more the tradition of classical chess matches than having rapid game matches at the end. As someone else said, a change in world chess championship title should be a momentous event.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/6/2016 04:45
I consider it would be more logical to keep the match "all classical", by chosing "short classical" games, instead of rapid ones, for the tiebreak. The time control that I would think to be the best would be 30 mn. + 30 s. per move (from move 1). Why ? Because the 30 s. increment would ensure that no "terrible moves" could be played because of extreme time pressure (as in the Carlsen - Karjakin rapid match, where Karjakin played long strings of moves on the 10 s. increment ; I don't find this very satisfying for a "classical" World Championship) : the increment would be the same as in the 12 "long classical" games of the match.
CMPonCB CMPonCB 12/6/2016 04:40
Agree with all of this. Yasser's was a decent attempt and better than the status quo, but this front-loaded tiebreaker idea has been one of the best to emerge in recent times, and would set the tone for an exciting contest. Sixteen games is a good compromise between the 12 that we have seen doesn't work, and the 24 that would satisfy the purists. With fewer rest days, it should be doable for the sponsors, who surely will acknowledge the greater scope for excitement and therefore public interest.
reddawg07 reddawg07 12/6/2016 04:31
It doesn't make sense to have a rapid chess play decide a classical chess match. Rapid chess play has its own category and championship. Why mix the two? 15 to 17 match games is more than adequate to determine the new champion.

We've had the system for about a century of the sitting champion who just waits for the new challenger who gets chosen by a series of tournaments. Why not try it the other way, make the champion actively participate in the current cycle to determine the new champion. Just like in football, baseball, basketball and tennis.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/6/2016 04:29
"In a few years we will celebrate the centennial of the “Classical chess is dead – it is just a draw” movement. But chess is still alive and kicking, and it is bound to outlive those who claim its death today..." : So true !!! Some people completely forget, for example, the Capablanca - Alekhine (1927) and the Karpov - Kasparov (1984) matches, when they predict the "death by draw", for chess, because of the computer... These two matches featured longer series of draw than in the Carlsen - Karjakin match (in particular the 1984 match, which featured a string of 17 consecutive draws !...). And no one can question the combativeness of Alekhine or Kasparov...
fixpont fixpont 12/6/2016 04:28
I can back this idea being the best i have seen so far, rapid and blitz not only interesting but draw more audience and viewers than classical games, starting with them is a good advertisment for chess and the WC itself and this artificial imbalance can create more interesting classical games.
ChessHavoc ChessHavoc 12/6/2016 04:26
12 games is sufficient. If you look back at the first 12 games of any world championship match (I believe) of match length 12 games or longer, there have been at least 2 or more decisive games. Plenty of time to demonstrate the ability to win a match.

Give the champion draw odds, but have challenger receive the white pieces in game 12 to play for a win if necessary.

No tiebreaks, no rapid games. All Classical.
tatesur tatesur 12/6/2016 04:20
In case of a tie: same time controls, random position of the pieces at start (avoids home prep, still thinking chess, puts things really interesting) until on of them wins a hole point and gets the championship.
volna1975 volna1975 12/6/2016 04:14
Tie-breaks before the match? Brilliant idea!!!
John Sidles John Sidles 12/6/2016 04:07
Tie-break played for draw-odds?: definitely yes (tie-breaks are thrilling)

* Played at the beginning of the match? Definitely not (too early, too irrelevant)

* Played at the end of the match? Definitely not (too late, too arbitrary)

* Played four games before the end? Definitely yes (this is when the perceived gain of playing for draw odds is greatest, and also a time in the match when players most welcome a change-of-pace)
MKT MKT 12/6/2016 03:53
Leave any rapid chess out of the equation, champion has draw odds, he earned it, challenger earned his stripes by winning the candidates. You could probably throw in another 4 games and make it an even 16. Forcing the 30 move rule before draw offers has probably roven to be anti-intuitive actually, just means Grandmaster draws now carry on longer then nec. But retain that possibility for now. I point to the decisive games 23 and 24 of the 1987 match, these were exciting events brought about by the draw odds for Kasparov, the match was tied but few and even Karpov would not argue against the notion that Kasparov was still the deserved world champion. Prize money was however halved equally from memory.
flachspieler flachspieler 12/6/2016 03:36
Tie-break before the regular match: a fantastic overture.
We need that! All other details (how many regular rounds,
how many rest days ...) are of secondary importance.
mdamien mdamien 12/6/2016 03:33
Mostly in agreement here. A distinction, when you say it's not fair to award the champion the match when the score is even, is that -- I believe even historically -- the match itself is drawn, but the champion retains his title. The Kramnik vs Leko match was drawn. Lasker vs Schlecter was drawn. It might be said, that's what they're playing for, the world title. But the distinction is important: the champion should be defending his title in the match, but not playing for it. He already has the title. In the match itself they are playing for the match stakes.

I confess that I prefer seeing fewer champions -- that is, the shorter the list from Steinitz, or even further back, the more momentous the change of mantle becomes. Any spectator format that results in a new champion every few years is going to cheapen the title. Take the classical list and insert a bunch of FIDE champions and you get the idea. It is similar with boxing when the title is disputed and you have periods with fly-by-night champions, the sport is harmed.

In any case, this championship was exciting to watch and thankfully we have a world champion who is also the best (or one of the best) at rapid and blitz. I don't think the two necessarily go hand in hand, and a McDonnell as champion would be harder-pressed to defend his title in a blitz playoff. Still, I agree if we're going to have it, it would be better to put the rapid and blitz games at the start of the match.
Chessspawnvt Chessspawnvt 12/6/2016 03:33
Rapid tie breaks of any kind have no place in deciding a classical timed match. Have them play on with classical games, first with white determined by a coin toss. First player to win a game with classical time control wins the match.
ivan3ivanovich ivan3ivanovich 12/6/2016 03:06
"I actually like the idea of a rapid tie-break."

"I'd like to unequivocally stress that I don't like the idea of shortening the time-control in the World Championship Match."

Those two statements are contradictory!

Classical chess is classical chess and rapid chess and blitz are not classical chess. Rapid and Blitz both have their own tournaments and their own rating systems and their own rules.

A classical chess championship should be decided by playing classical chess NOTHING else but classical chess.