Maurice Ashley: 12 Games Are Enough!

by Maurice Ashley
12/12/2016 – How to play World Championship matches? Yasser Seirawan did not like the 12 game format in Carlsen vs Karjakin and proposed a "Radical Solution". Now Maurice Ashley disagrees. After asking the top players for their opinion and looking back at previous matches he concludes that 12 games and a rapid tiebreak are enough!

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A Radical Solution: Unwarranted

Recently, my dear friend and esteemed colleague Yasser Seirawan wrote an article for this website decrying the format of the 2016 World Chess Championship. While many readers agreed with him and eagerly offered interesting proposals for change, I have to say that I think that his “radical” movement is way off track. Although I have sadly, and often disgustedly, watched FIDE shoot itself in the foot many times over the years, this is one area I feel that they and their organizational arm Agon have been absolutely trending on the right side of history.

There were two points that were essentially made in Yasser’s article. The more overt one is that the Classical Chess World Championship should be decided by classical means. No Rapid games (or, heaven forbid, Blitz) should mar the process of deciding the most important title in our game. After all, he argues, there are Rapid and Blitz tournaments expressly designed for the purpose of deciding who the best players are at those particular genres. Let the Classical Champion be decided by classical means, which usually coincides with giving draw odds to the champion. Yasser actually proposes that the match should go 13 games with draw odds given to the player who receives the extra Black, his point being that a winner should be decided at all cost but only by classical means.

Granted, in these matters, it’s impossible to prove one side wrong. Yes, classical chess does have a completely different time control from Rapid and Blitz. However, it should be noted that it was only in recent years that the title of Classical World Champion came into existence, but not initially for the reason one might suppose. The term is most often attributed to Vladimir Kramnik who, after winning the Braingames World Champion over Kasparov in 2000, ostensibly sought a way to differentiate his victory from the various title holders who had popped up as FIDE arranged their own knock-out world championships (a brave experiment that unfortunately was not implemented in a way that chess fans were prepared for). Kramnik was not looking to make a distinction between Classical and Rapid/Blitz, but to affirm that he had won the title by succession, i.e., that he had defeated the generally accepted legitimate champion (Kasparov) in a one-on-one battle. In his eyes, and many others, this is the one and only true (classical) way to consider oneself the new king of the block.

What the top players think

The objection of deciding the match by Rapid play has not, from what I know, received any vociferous objections from the many recent champions and their challengers who have played under the new rules (Kramnik, Topalov, Anand, Gelfand, Carlsen and Karjakin). When I asked Anand what he thought of Rapid tiebreaks, he said, “No problem. It’s the way of the world now.” A source close to Carlsen said that the World Champion hasn’t seen any reason to complain. Since I was in London getting ready to do commentary for the London Chess Classic, I decided to hold off submitting this article to personally ask the top players here if they objected to the current format. A full nine of the ten I questioned (Anand, Kramnik, Topalov, Adams, Aronian, Caruana, Giri, Nakamura, Vachier-Lagrave) felt that the present system of 12 games with Rapid tie breaks was absolutely fine, some even thought it was very near perfect. Only Wesley So hedged a bit, saying he saw the point of a purely classical solution of some sort. If the current titans of the game embrace 12 games plus Rapids as a good solution for deciding who amongst them is best, then one has to wonder why there is a need to gripe about it in the first place.

That said, at least one of the all-time greats has profoundly objected in the strongest terms. In an interview with SportBox, former champion Anatoly Karpov had these harsh words to say after viewing the Anand-Gelfand match:

"If evaluating the match from the qualitative and entertaining modes, I think that this was probably the worst World Championship Match played at least in the postwar period. One of the main reasons is the format of the encounter. 12 games is not that mockery on chess we observed during the knock-out system - but it is still not enough. At least 14-18 games are needed for full-fledged, creative fight: then the rivals have an ability to risk; whilst in a short match of the rivals whose strength is equal, the game is usually just hold, while the opponents are just trying to catch "a fail-safe chance." That's what we saw in Moscow and surely that made the match plain and boring... I'm firmly against of mixing different forms of chess. Determining the Classical World Chess Champion in rapid, and all the more, in blitz is just nonsense."

Those are very strong words, but one which is clearly in disagreement with his colleagues of the present generation. Granted, the quote is four years old, but I bring it up because I find interesting is that this objection typically coincides with a nostalgic call to the days of 24 game matches whereas here Karpov posits that as few as 14(!) games are adequate to have a “full-fledged, creative fight”. It’s hard to understand the profound difference between 12 and 14 games because I have never come close to playing in a match at such a rarefied level, but his suggestion is a far cry from the call of some for the good old days of much longer matches.

Historical evidence

To consider the opposition to a shorter match a bit more thoroughly, let’s look at the history of 12 game contests. Of the seven that have been held under the current format, the reigning champion or higher rated player has won them all (see the table below):

Kramnik – Topalov 2006: Winner – Kramnik 2.5-1.5 in Rapid playoff after 3 wins, 3 losses (1 by forfeit).
Anand – Kramnik 2008: Winner – Anand in 11 games: 3 wins, 1 loss
Anand - Topalov 2010 – Anand in 12 games: 3 wins, 2 losses
Anand – Gelfand 2012: Winner – Anand 2.5-1.5 in Rapid Playoff after 1 win, 1 loss
Carlsen – Anand 2013: Winner – Carlsen in 10 games: 3 wins, no losses
Carlsen – Anand 2014: Winner – Carlsen in 11 games: 3 wins, 1 loss
Carlsen – Karjakin: Winner – Carlsen 3-1 in Rapid Playoff after 1 win, 1 loss.

These matches have been contentious affairs, mostly full of stress and anxiety (for the players at least) from the very beginning. Anand-Gelfand may not have been thrilling, but that may have been due to Anand not playing up to his highest level and Gelfand playing the match of his life (Garry Kasparov himself denigrated Anand’s play more so than anything: ). The fact that the recent Carlsen-Karjakin match began with seven draws belies the fact that the players were badly trying to win, especially in games 3, 4, 5 and 9, which could all easily have been decisive if the player with the advantage had played more accurately. Over half of these matches had at least 4 decisive classical games, with 2 of them having 5 (not counting Kramnik’s forfeit loss against Topalov which would have made 6). Go back 50 years and you will find that these winning percentages compare favorably with many matches from the past. The fear of cautious play simply doesn’t hold water in the majority of cases nor, by the way, does the often stated worry that this kind of short match might somehow lead to more random results.

While there is a concern that short matches could be dull if the players choose to play things close to the vest, the data seem to support the idea that in many cases long matches can be quite anti-climactic. Kasparov-Short (1993 PCA World Championship; 24 games scheduled) was such a demolition by game 7 (Kasparov had racked up 4 wins) that some onlookers preferred that Short throw in the towel instead of having to play out the rest of the games (Final score was 6 wins to 1 loss in favor of Kasparov). Karpov vs Timman in the rival FIDE World Championship from the same year was effectively over by game 16, when Karpov held a 6-1 lead. Those were the last of the 24 game matches that more or less began the trend of shorter affairs. In the Kasparov-Anand match (1995 PCA World Ch.; 20 games scheduled), Kasparov had broken Anand’s spirit by game 14(!) - winning four out of 5 games at one point - that he was able to basically trot to the finish line. If one looks back at the history of long matches, this same pattern often repeats itself, leading to the natural assumption that a greater number of games simply isn’t necessary to prove who the superior player is at that moment in time. Even more interestingly, if we begin in the Botvinnik era (post-1951), it appears that any player who was leading a title match at the 12 game mark has gone on to win the title in the end (the lone exception I could find being Peter Leko against Kramnik in 2003).

To conclude...

The evidence strongly suggests that a 12 game match with Rapid tie breaks (no blitz) makes sense in the modern era. I realize I am biased, and here are some of my personal beliefs on which this bias rests:

  1. History has proven that the better player will usually win a match of any (decent) length with very few exceptions.
  2. Today’s general audience (and especially those age 34 and under) will not maintain much interest in a match that lasts over a month.
  3. Rapid chess is very often a reliable measure of strength (blitz may be up for question).
  4. Draw odds to the champion seems anti-sport. People want to see a clear winner.
  5. Even if the better player loses for some reason in Rapid, that in itself is a compelling storyline that suggests that the classical portion was hard-fought.
  6. Rapid chess is much more fun for and easy to explain to the general fan and media.
  7. Carlsen played one of the most beautiful moves in history to finish off a World Championship match…and he did it in a Rapid game!

Is the current system perfect? Nothing ever is. Personally, I think draws are the scourge of our game and something has to be done to deal with them (those who took a day off of work to watch the lifeless game 12 of the last match would most likely agree). I’ve written about this before, and I don’t think that Sofia rule solves the problem. My personal preference is the suggestion of Rustam Kasimdzhanov, - - but that is truly a radical solution that would have to be tried multiple times in less important venues to test the validity of the concept. For the moment, I have to say that the current format (12 games with Rapid tie-breaks) holds water, but I am open to any suggestions that increase the tension from the word go and keeps the match within a solid time window that favors organizers, players and fans alike (less rest days probably make sense as well). Both Caruana and Kramnik told me they like the idea of playing a Rapid tie-breaker beforehand in order to give one player draw odds in the classical portion. That seems like splitting hairs to me, and I am certain it would not make the proponents of the classical-only model happy to know that Rapid games actually control the entire outcome of the match. Until some other fantastic proposal comes along, I have to say that the current model, sans Blitz, is not at all bad.

See what the Top players have to say about the format:

Maurice Ashley is an International Grandmaster well known for his dynamic brand of chess commentary and effective coaching style. He was a commentator for the Anand-Kasparov World Championship match as well as all of Kasparov‘s epic computer matches.


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