FIDE Grand Prix: A call for a fair player selection process

by Peter Zhdanov
9/27/2012 – How are the participants of the FIDE Grand Prix chosen? Why are some top players not invited, while some of their less distinguished colleagues are taking part? Is there anything we can do about it? Peter Zhdanov reflects on the topic and pays special attention to women’s chess, which is relatively neglected compared to that of their male counterparts. What do you think?

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FIDE Grand Prix: Call for a fair player selection process

By Peter Zhdanov

Women’s chess is relatively neglected as compared to men’s. If you ask a typical chess fan what the Women’s Grand Prix is and who qualifies for it, the answer will usually be silence.

As of now, the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix is a series of round robin tournaments with nice cash prizes and opportunities to increase one’s mastery by facing other strong grandmasters. One of the main goals of holding these events is to determine the Challenger, i.e., a female player who will face the winner of the Women’s World Cup for the Women’s World Chess Champion title. Therefore, in some sense the Grand Prix is the semi-final of the World Championship, because winning it entitles one to play the final match for the crown.

It is hard to follow the Women’s World Chess Championship Cycle, so here is a quick reminder:

  1. The current champion is Hou Yifan from China. She has also secured the first place in the Women’s Grand Prix series.

  2. The Women’s World Chess Championship will take place in November 2012 in Khanty-Mansyisk, Russia. If Hou Yifan defends her title there, she will play in 2013 a match against the lady (Challenger) who finishes second in the Women’s Grand Prix series. If Hou loses her title in November, she will challenge the new champion, because she has qualified for the match via the Grand Prix series.

Naturally, one would expect only the best of the best players to qualify for the Grand Prix circuit – on the basis of their career achievements and playing strength. However, let’s take a look at the list of the participants and indicate on what grounds the players have been invited:

1. Hou, Yifan (World Champion 2010)
2. Ruan, Lufei (Finalist, World Championship 2010)
3. Koneru, Humpy (Semi-finalist, World Championship 2010)
4. Zhao, Xue (Semi-finalist, World Championship 2010)
5. Kosintseva, Tatiana (by rating 2566,00 / Jul 2010 & Jan 2011)
6. Stefanova, Antoaneta (by rating 2553,00 / Jul 2010 & Jan 2011)
7. Kosintseva, Nadezhda (by rating 2551,50 / Jul 2010 & Jan 2011)
8. Muzychuk, Anna (by rating 2528,00 / Jul 2010 & Jan 2011)
9. Lahno, Kateryna (by rating 2526,50 / Jul 2010 & Jan 2011)
10. Cmilyte, Viktorija (by rating 2526,50 / Jul 2010 & Jan 2011)

Six nominees from the organizers of each tournament:

11. Ekaterina Kovalevskaya (Rostov)
12. Ju Wenjun (Shenzhen)
13. Alexandra Kosteniuk (Nalchik)
14. Alisa Galiamova (Kazan)
15. Elina Danielian (Jermuk)
16. Betul Cemre Yildiz (Istanbul)

Two nominees of the FIDE President

17. Zhu Chen
18. Batkhuyag Munguntuul

In Shenzhen Tan Zhongyi (2447, CHN) also participated.

Furthermore, the current list has four more new names in it: Monika Socko (2481, POL), Nino Khurtsidze (2456, GEO), Lilit Mkrtchian (2450, ARM), Kubra Ozturk (2296, TUR). As far as I know, the reasons for their inclusion have not even been stated officially.

Now let’s do a bit of elementary Math. Only ten players were invited to the Grand Prix on a competitive basis, thirteen more were granted wild cards of some sort. Summarizing, about 57% of the players are participating in the Grand Prix not due to having great chess skills, but simply because a certain FIDE official likes them, or because someone has the money and the desire to stage a stage of the Grand Prix specifically for them! Can you imagine another reputable sport where one has the option of paying a few hundred thousand dollars and entering the semi-final of the World Championship Cycle, no matter what his international ranking is?

Don’t get me wrong, I have no intentions of hurting the feelings of any of the participants. The one thing I am protesting against is that sports are supposed to be fair, while modern top-level women’s chess isn’t. Of course, everyone has different training conditions. For example, some athletes can afford top-level coaching and travelling a lot, while other can’t. Nonetheless, one would typically expect the players to have equal legal chances to fight for the crown. The way the system is working now, talent and skill matter only to a certain extent, because quite often you won’t be invited unless you have powerful sponsors or FIDE connections. On the contrary, if you have them, your chances to succeed are greatly increased. Unfortunately, professional women’s chess is becoming a “pay to win” sport.

A notable example of prevalence of personal relationships over chess mastery is that IM Ekaterina Atalik (2448), who along with her husband GM Suat Atalik has a conflict with FIDE Vice-President and President of the Turkish Chess Federation Ali Nihat Yazichi, is not taking part, while two significantly weaker Turkish women rated in the 2200s-2300s got wild cards. Moreover, one can question oneself: why are some even higher-rated players than Ekaterina Atalik not participating?

ChessBase is usually kind enough to publish interesting feedback from the readers. Let me try to anticipate at least some of the remarks and try to address them in advance:

Who cares if some relatively weak players get a wild card? They won’t affect the final standings anyway.

First of all, not all of the players who received wild cards are weak in the sense of not being able to compete for the Challenger title, or at least affect the final standings. Secondly, if you check the FIDE women’s rating list, you will notice that quite a few of the strongest players are not competing. Why? Thirdly, I have no problem with some players having organizer friends and sponsors. That’s absolutely great! But why don’t they just offer them endorsement fees and/or stage private super tournaments instead of trying to affect the official World Chess Championship cycle?

Your opinion is biased, because a conflict of interests is in place. Your wife is a well-known grandmaster and a potential participant of the Grand Prix series, so you are simply disappointed about her not having received an invitation.

Believe me or not, I am trying to be objective and criticize the things that I find unfair, no matter if they benefit or harm me and my friends. Of course, like any human, I am more likely to notice that something wrong is going on if it affects me personally in a negative way. Nevertheless, if Natalia Pogonina gets a wild card next time, my opinion about the situation won’t be any different. In fact, when we were discussing this situation with a top manager of a well-known IT company, he half-jokingly suggested we hold one of the next Grand Prix stages so that grandmaster Pogonina qualifies for it automatically. Naturally, I waived his generous offer off, because I don’t want to play by the unfair rules that are common practice in chess nowadays.

Anyone can criticize the system. But where are you going to find the funds to stage the events if you don’t allow the organizers to distribute wild cards?

This is a tough question. In my opinion, FIDE should either finally find a business model that would allow it to earn money promoting chess, or at least cooperate only with chess patrons who are genuinely interested in keeping the competition fair as opposed to benefitting their favorites. After all, FIDE can create a list based on rating/tournament results and then use it to persuade certain cities/sponsors to host the events, not vice versa, the way it is done now (“sell a few vacant spots to the bidders”). Yes, Andrei Filatov, the main sponsor of the Anand-Gelfand match, is a friend of Boris. However, he has only funded the Championship, while Gelfand has fairly earned the right to play for the title. It’s not like Andrei has paid the organizations costs and demanded that his friend gets a direct shot at the chess crown.

Meanwhile, what do we see in women’s chess? Wouldn’t it be great to know in advance how one can qualify for the Grand Prix cycle? Isn’t chess supposed to be a fair sport where one’s skills are more important than having rich relatives and/or influential benefactors among chess officials? Will we witness a transition from nepotism and plutocracy to meritocracy? What do you think?

Copyright Zhdanov/ChessBase


Peter Zhdanov is an IT project manager, debate expert and author of two books on parliamentary debate, BSc in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science and final year PhD student in Sociology. In chess he is a Russian candidate master, author, husband and manager of grandmaster Natalia Pogonina. You can read more of his articles at the Pogonina web site, which he edits.

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Peter Zhdanov is an IT project manager, expert and author of two books on parliamentary debate
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