CHESS Magazine: Basque Chess – does it work for you?!

2/29/2012 – Remember the tournament last January in Donostia? The players faced each other on two boards, simultaneously, with opposite colours. Initial opinions of the high-ranked players who took part in the knockout event were generally positive. But will it catch on? With the shifting of chairs is Basque chess ergonomically sound? Chess Magazine editor John Saunders raises some important questions.

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Chess Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by John Saunders. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organised the London Chess Classic. CHESS is one of most popular English language chess publications and one of the very few in A4 colour format.


Basque Chess!

John Saunders looks at a new knock-out format used in Spain over the New Year

IN RECENT YEARS several tournament organisers have experimented with knock-out tournament formats. They were rarely used for high-level chess competitions until about 15 years ago but Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s controversial knock-out (or should that be knock-about?) World Championships popularised the format. Since then some sort of consensus seems to have emerged that knock-out is unsuitable as a final decider for the title but it makes for a very entertaining early qualifier in the shape of the FIDE World Cup, and sometimes in other non-championship contexts.

One disadvantage of knock-outs is that they are not equitable where only one game is to be played. In top-level chess (and probably in low-level chess too) White has a substantial in-built advantage. An attempt was made to address this unfairness at Hastings a few years ago by providing Black with extra thinking time as compensation for moving second but the system was subsequently dropped in favour of a traditional Swiss.

This year in the Basque city of Donostia (formerly known as San Sebastián), another experimental knock-out system was tried at a prestigious tournament (held to celebrate the centenary of the 1912 San Sebastián tournament which Steve Giddins writes about elsewhere in this issue). The simple idea, attributed to the late David Bronstein, was for the players to play not one but two games at a sitting, with opposite colours.

The organisers had also been influenced by the statistical researches of a Spanish-born professor of the London School of Economics, Ignacio Palacios Huerta, who investigated sports results. His inquiry had revealed was that the team which goes first in football penalty shoot-outs had a 60-40 advantage over the team that shoots second. But he had also looked at top-level chess and came to the conclusion that there was a similar advantage for players having white in the first game of chess matches. He mentioned this in a speech during the Bilbao Grand Slam Final in 2010 and it set the Donostia organisers thinking. Before the tournament they made their announcement: “this combination of Bronstein’s old idea and Palacio’s modern analysis we have christened as the ‘Basque System’”.


“This Basque chess has got me completely confused!” He might look baffled in this
photo but this is Ukrainian GM Andrei Volokitin who ran out the eventual winner of
the first ever ‘Basque chess’ contest! [Photo by David Llada and Anastasya Karlovich

That still left the question open as to whether top grandmasters would consent to ‘wear a Basque’. But the organisers assembled an impressive line-up, with ten 2700+ rated players headed by Azerbaijani GMs Gashimov and Mamedyarov. The event was held from 28 December to 5 January. The time control was two hours for all the moves with a 30-second increment – remember, that is for two games played simultaneously. If the two games finished 1-1, there followed two simultaneous games at 15 mins plus 10 seconds, followed if necessary by two more games at 5 mins plus 3 seconds, and finally a single Armageddon game. Of course, the new system is not FIDE-rateable at the moment, but perhaps the organisers will lobby for it in the future.


Video impression of how the two-board Basque knock-out system works

The first (preliminary) round consisted of 15 pairings between lower rated players in order to feed 15 players into the 64 needed for the second round when the leading players joined battle. The preliminary round included one English FM, Laurence Webb, who was eliminated by Sarkhan Gashimov, the elder brother (and manager) of GM Vugar Gashimov. Second round victims didn’t just go home but joined the subsidiary Group B, from whence a further defeat led them to an open section, Group C.

Initial impressions after the second round were generally positive. Antoaneta Stefanova: “Actually it was quite fun to play two games against the same opponent. I can say that I enjoyed it. It went well from the beginning.” Sergey Fedorchuk: “During the game I confused moves, score sheets... I wrote down wrong moves, correcting them and of course it distracted me. At least I pushed clocks correctly. I was playing very fast at the beginning, thinking that my time would finish very soon but in fact two hours are enough even for two games.” Shakhriyar Mamedyarov: “The idea was created by David Bronstein and if I’m not mistaken he played crazy eight-board matches against Mikhail Tal simultaneously. I don’t know if this format will be popular in the future but in my opinion this event is already a big success!” Alexander Moiseenko was perhaps more candid: “I cannot say that I came here because of the new system. The main reason to participate was an impressive prize fund, of course!”

There were not too many surprise results until the round of sixteen, but thereafter the new format proved to be tough on the big names. At that stage second seed Mamedyarov bit the dust, losing 0-2 to Peruvian GM Julio Granda Zuñiga. In the same round Arkadij Naiditsch went out 1-3 to Andrei Volokitin, and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave lost 1-3 to Viktor Laznicka. Volokitin and Laznicka knocked out two more higher rated opponents in the quarter-finals: Ruslan Ponomariov and top seed Vugar Gashimov respectively.

The semi-final pairings were Laznicka (9th seed) versus Alexander Moiseenko (4th seed), and Leinier Domínguez (7th) versus Andrei Volokitin (11th seed). From this point onwards, the lower rated player beat the higher one to the end of the tournament, from which you can work out that that Volokitin beat Laznicka in the final. The score was 2-0.

Looking at the games (not all seem to be available or complete), it is hard to know whether the players took the event entirely seriously, given that it had no bearing on their ratings. The following game perhaps hints at an excess of Christmas spirit but Black certainly plays some excellent moves. The photo shows him scratching his head in perplexity but he evidently got the hang of this new-format chess better than the other players.

Basque Chess or Basket Case?

Quite an interesting experiment but will it catch on? Prospective organisers will have to remember that they need one set, board and clock for each player, not each pair of players – and twice the usual table space per person. One tricky question I’ve not seen addressed in the official press releases is that of suitable chairs. Most players like to sit right in front of the board they are playing at and it might mean a lot of chair moving (potentially disruptive in terms of noise), or leaning across awkwardly from a middle position. Is Basque chess ergonomically sound, therefore? I whisper this quietly in case those annoying Health and Safety people are listening, and decide it’s bad for chessplayers’ lumbar regions or the like. I daresay there are numerous other problems which experienced arbiters and organisers might identify.

The following scenario crossed my mind: what happens when “A Joker” decides to mirror the opponent’s moves? The games start: Joker patiently waits for the opponent to play his first white move and then simply repeats it on the other board. And so on and so forth, to the end of the games and the almost inevitable 1-1 scoreline. Does the arbiter step in at an early stage and threaten A Joker with a penalty under law 12.1 (“The players shall take no action that will bring the game of chess into disrepute”)? I honestly don’t know. Answers on a postcard, please...

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