Champions Showdown: Improving the format

by Macauley Peterson
9/18/2018 – Reflecting on the Champions Showdown in St. Louis, Macauley Peterson pulls a few highlight videos from the commentary webcast and breaks down what appeals to fans of the Chess960 variant, for a look at how the next event like this from the Saint Louis Chess Club could be improved. Chess960 may have its problems gaining traction, but as Peter Svidler notes, there's plenty of space on the chess schedule to try new ideas. | ChessBase via Saint Louis Chess Club YouTube

Endgames of the World Champions from Fischer to Carlsen Endgames of the World Champions from Fischer to Carlsen

Let endgame expert Dr Karsten Müller show and explain the finesses of the world champions. Although they had different styles each and every one of them played the endgame exceptionally well, so take the opportunity to enjoy and learn from some of the best endgames in the history of chess.

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Chess960 is here to stay

Personally, I'm a big fan of Chess960 — ever since first playing it online in the late 90s — and especially after experiencing it over the board at the Mainz Chess Classic Chess960 FiNet Open in 2008. What makes Chess960 so much fun? This question was put to the players at the recently completed Champions Showdown in St. Louis.

Clearly, the main draw is the "absolute freshness" (to quote Peter Svidler) of being able to throw out opening theory. Svidler describes the appeal as "dogfights from move one" and notes that you can expect to find yourself in a "Martian landscape" from time to time. Even Garry Kasparov has been won over:

"People enjoy the best players in the world being so creative from move one...It's still the same — the same number of squares, the same number of pieces — just reshuffling the pieces on the first and last rank, so that you become an inventor again." 

Players discuss the draw of Chess960 (a.k.a. Fischer Random Chess)

Not so fast, argue the naysayers (my own colleagues and readers alike)! The unending quest for perfection in the opening is part of the scientific and artistic merit of (classical) chess. Without it, many players — especially beginners and amateurs — will be lost. The balanced nature of the traditional starting position ("position 518" in Chess960 parlance) is part and parcel of the aesthetic harmony to be found. Disconnecting from centuries of history is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. (And probably a dozen other cliches we needn't mention.)

Veselin Topalov echoes the concern for non-expert players in the video above:

"Professional chess players will adapt to Fischer Random but for the normal chess fan, who only plays on the weekends, it will be a big problem."

Chess960 positions used

All five Chess960 positions used throughout the competition | Graphic: Saint Louis Chess Club

Our February article, "the problem with Chess960", delves into these issues and sparked a huge debate which has put it atop the list of most commented articles ever on ChessBase (albeit mainly thanks to a few super-eager readers).

One proposed compromise solution is to have an "official Chess960 position" selected each year by, for instance, FIDE, that would be used in tournaments for the following calendar year. This would allow players and fans alike to get accustomed to rudimentary opening theory to a far greater extent than the 30-minutes to one hour of lead time given in St. Louis.

Of course, this could well undermine one of the other chief motivations behind the format, that Nakamura points out in the video: The increase in the number of decisive games. The average number of draws across the five 20-game matches was just 8.4 or 42% (58 decisive games out of 100), while in classical chess the draw rate is historically around 50% (see also: "Has the number of draws in chess increased?").

Having more decisive games surely appeals to some readers of our earlier Champions Showdown post (although perhaps more so to those predisposed to exaggeration):

Abraxas79 9/13/2018 07:42
Chess960 has to be the future. Way more exciting to watch than classical chess where 90% of the top games now end in draws. 

Of course, it's also partially a matter of taste:

yesenadam 9/14/2018 09:06
I don't get the "Draws=Bad" thing, at all. As if that's all that matters. You could just decrease the time allowed until the draw ratio is down to your preferred amount, but that would be ridiculous. A decisive game decided by a blunder, error, flagfall etc isn't much fun either. What is bad are boring games where there's no fight. Some players almost never play boring games, some players nearly always do.

Sinquefield is sold

The Saint Louis Chess Club founder and patron, Rex Sinquefield, seems to have embraced the format, although as an amateur player he does find it extra challenging, as this exchange with Maurice Ashley highlights:

Sinquefield: As a club player, it's much more difficult than watching regular chess because you're immediately into all tactics. You're solving tactical problems from the first or second move. And there's no repeat formations — every one is de novo. In regular classical chess you can sit back and say OK I know this opening, I know the strategy, I know what's going to happen for the next 15 or 20 moves. Here you don't know anything. The fireworks start on move one.

Ashley: Seems like the amateurs like having the crutch, having the opening theory that they can lean on, saying at least I know the French, or the Caro-Kann — that gives me some measure of comfort. With this, there are no names for the openings that are going to come out of it.

Sinquefield: Yes, fiddle-dee-diddly-dee — no two openings alike. That's true, they might like that crutch, but after a while, they're going to see how exciting this is. I think it's just wild.

Rex Sinquefield and Maurice Ashley

Rex Sinquefield, being debriefed by Maurice Ashley after the Champions Showdown | Saint Louis Chess Club webcast

Room for improvement

There were two big problems with this year's event from a spectator and webcast producer's perspective. One is just the unfortunate reality of having five rapid and blitz games running in parallel. The show necessarily focused on one game each round, for the most part, which meant fans missed quite a lot of the live action.

The flip side, of course, is you have more great players participating in total and you can always go back and review the games independently, for instance by downloading a PGN of the whole event to replay in ChessBase 14 or Fritz 16.

The other problem is that all matches were decided before the final rounds, and most were not even close heading into Day 4. During the last day's webcast, there was a discussion about how to maintain excitement in the face of blowouts that can occur with a match format:

"It's not fun for the players, obviously, who are getting killed, for the fans [or] for the commentators", said Ashley, who suggested alternatives such as mini-matches played between different players each day, or team Scheveningen style matches (e.g. "USA vs the World"). Knockout matches were favoured by Jennifer Shahade:

"We actually don't have a lot of prestigious knockouts, only the World Cup. And KO actually is that beautiful combination of a tournament and a match — it's exactly the solution to [blowouts] — that you have short matches, so it's almost impossible to get totally blown out because it's so short that if you get totally blown out the match is over".

But Ashley worried about players from abroad (or, for instance, Kasparov) being eliminated too early, noting that having a "losers" bracket is undesirable. In a team event (like the 2011 Kings vs Queens Chess960 experiment) even a lopsided individual game has no negative impact on the dynamics of subsequent games in the event.

Commentators on tweaking the format | Saint Louis Chess Club

I think there's a much simpler option: Just to have the matches end when decided, allowing commentary to focus on matches with more sporting drama. None of the players was mathematically eliminated until the last day, but some of the blitz games in matches that were not close seemed a bit perfunctory.

Picking the position

Jennifer Shahade and Roulette chessIn the video above, there's a brief back-and-forth on how the starting position is — or should be — selected. Jennifer mentions that for Kings vs Queens they actually used a "roulette chess" wheel at one point (she co-created one in 2009, pictured), which I remember well (as the producer of the webcast in those days). It was a fun, if gimmicky, solution. 

Other suggestions were to choose two positions and have players vote on which one to play, or increase the lead time for preparation by revealing the starting position 24 hours in advance. This idea would have the benefit of allowing fans to play the position and conduct crowd-sourced opening research in advance of the professionals' games, while being less extreme than the year-long position approach, which honestly strikes me as a bit antithetical to the Chess960 concept.

But there's also an opportunity to tap into the scholastic mission of the club by having the starting position chosen by school kids, perhaps in the various home countries of the players. This way the position for the next day could become known at approximately the same time each day (say 9:00 AM in the USA or 15:00 in Europe), and video recordings made on-site could document the event for use in the webcast, adding a little more global flavour to the mix.

Kasparov's final thoughts on the Champions Showdown

After getting over the shock of having the wrong initial position at the start of Day 4, Kasparov finished the blitz session of his match with Topalov on a high note by scoring back-to-back wins, which tightened the final score to 10½:9½. Of course, everyone wants to know, will we see Kasparov back at the board again in the future? When asked, he demurred:

"It's not the greatest moment to make any promises, but look it's fun, so again, I'm not here to win I'm here just to have fun...I'm quite happy that we did something I believe historic because it's the beginning of a new era. Innovations and exploration come from St. Louis." 

Kasparov suggests that the URS™ rating (Universal Rating System) should incorporate professional Chess960 games. Will that help drive adoption of the variant outside of these rare exhibition events? Hard to say, but I'd bet the odds are greater than 1/960.

"Classical chess is position number 518 in Chess960"


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Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.

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