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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Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 12/12/2016 07:10
Maurice does implicitly propose modifications to the current system. He proposes the elimination of blitz and, even though not explicitly mentioned, Armageddon, as a tie-break. If you do not want blitz, you should more so not want Armageddon.

Hence, the change implicitly proposed by Maurice (I hope I do not distort his thought) is that, in the case of a tie in the first 4-games tie-break Rapids mini-match, the following tie-break(s) should be also by Rapids. In which case, there are some possibilities.

Should we repeat 4-games Rapids mini-matches until we have a winner? Or, have a certain number of 4-games mini-matches and, if still draw, pass to 2-games mini-matches? Go directly to 2-games mini-matches if the first 4-games one is a draw?

Does Maurice eliminate one-game tie-breakers in the chain, because we want each player to have the chance to play with each colour for all tie-breaks?

Maurice may just have wanted to submit the idea of keeping Rapids as tie-breaker, and to eliminate blitz and Armageddon (implicitly). And if the principle is accepted, then we will see later for the details.

This is just a little reminder that, even if Maurice's principle is accepted, there still would be choices to be made.
DPLeo DPLeo 12/12/2016 06:43
How about a 12 game match at classical time controls. If it is tied, instead of draw odds for the current champion or rapid/blitz tie breaks, perhaps an Armageddon game at classical time with the current champion playing black. It seems better than just giving the crown back to the champion after a 6-6 tie. The champion my have an advantage being black in the Armageddon game but at least the challenger has one last chance to win. Many traditions could be upheld this way because the champion remains the champion is he is not defeated and all the games are at classical time control. It's also easy for organizers because the match cannot continue indefinitely with draws.
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 12/12/2016 05:26
The only truly objective measure of the best player among players playing in the same time period is Elo rating, when players have played a sufficient number of games in a given time period. But, going on that alone would not give us the drama, the excitement and the suspense of a Championship match, which is a subjective preference, that I do share.

By situation, no championship match can determine who is the best player in a totally objective manner. By situation, any formula for determining the Championship necessarily implies arbitrary choices. And many proposals have objective and subjective valid pros and cons. And the weight to give to these pros and cons may also be influenced by subjective preferences.

A long debate in perspective...
vibi vibi 12/12/2016 05:22
I agree with Maurice Ashley. I had come to this conclusion independently as well.

It would be better to have much more rapid games for tie breaks and then eliminate the blitz section.

mdamien mdamien 12/12/2016 04:31
Some very good points by Maurice Ashley. There is certainly a distinction between rapid games and blitz, as to their legitimacy. Interesting that Caruana too is on board with the format, since he is a good example of someone who might be disadvantaged by it, given his relative strength in classical versus blitz games.

The point about the top players' own preferences is hard to dispute. On one hand, it seems that Carlsen's view, as World Champion, to drop history altogether in favor of tournaments, is a clear indication that their views should not be given automatic preference. On the other hand, from a classical perspective (and I use "Classical" World Champion in a redundant sense, to distinguish the Kramnik lineage from FIDE tournament champions) the champion holds the title and frankly acquiesces to FIDE's regulation of it. This was, of course, the gripe against the classical system: that champions called all the shots and could essentially name their own challengers, before FIDE inserted itself after Alekhine's death left the throne vacant. Still, there was always some restraint on the champion's whims. Lasker could not just bequeath the title to Capablanca without a match, for instance. But even Capablanca's London Rules -- a golden standard in a way for classical integrity sans FIDE -- by its consensus among top players of the day, serves as precedent for Maurice's point. I cannot argue against the top players' own preferences too much without undermining my own viewpoint on classical succession.

It is worth noting that a huge part of elite preferences, historically or otherwise, centers around the purse. For all their talent, they rightly want to make some money. If suddenly Apple declared that they wanted to run the chess world championships for the next 20 years at $20 million stakes per match, these same top players would drop FIDE like a hot potato.

The championship: 14-16 games of classical chess, followed by a day of rapid for a potential tiebreak. In the event the rapids are drawn, the champion retains his title.
KevinC KevinC 12/12/2016 04:04
Asking the top players if they are OK with the current system is not the same as asking if the current system might be better with 16 or even 20 games, an then a tiebreak. All Ashley's question does is lead them to confirm what he, clearly, wanted confirmed in the first place.
Denix Denix 12/12/2016 03:54
Nicely put GM Ashley! Your balanced ideas are always sought after by the chess world.
ashperov ashperov 12/12/2016 03:28
If you a purest. Then draw odds to the champion. If the challenger can't beat the champion ,then they need to try again.
Modern world rapid works better I suppose. Might I suggest somthing nuts.. Seeing that every article that has a good point seems to have a flaw lol. If you are deciding the candidates by a tournament and not matches... And the world champion by match and not tournament you are already contradicting yourself. So... Two world titles.

The world tournament title same format except top 3 in candidates progress to a final tournament with the world champion. So the world title gets decided by a tournament with 4 players. Here you can debate on the rounds etc.

Then the classical match world champion candidates play matches like they used to. Perhaps here the world champion needs to take part. The world champion sitting in the final each time seems to me a bit dated. It's not like boxing where he will defend often. So the candidates stage should include the world champion. Where they will play matches against each other. Quarters 6 game match? Semis 8? Finals 10?

Anyway I think im onto somthing here. I think the above is a true test. Think about how exciting the football champions League is each year. The Champs are in the group stages where they prove their worth each year. Discuss and make it happen!
A7fecd1676b88 A7fecd1676b88 12/12/2016 03:28
The goal is to determine the best player.

1. We have 7 historical,12 game matches, a small sample size. In 3 of those 7 the match was a tie in classical games. That means in roughly 48% of the matches the higher rated player/champion did not win the classical games match. This isn't climate science. You don't get to fudge your data. 52% (4 out of 7) does not support the claim, unless you define "usually" to mean 52% of the time. I googled it. I found 80% as a cutoff for the percentage equivalent of "usually".
Great. You want a tie? Go with the 12 game match format. 48% of the time your wish is granted.

3. See 1. In the small sample size we have, it could be strongly argued in 48% of the time it does not.

4. is a strawman. No draw odds are needed. Co-champion or no champion in case of a tie was suggested by more than a few people.

2, 5,6,7 are irrelevant for the goal of determining the strongest player, and require no rebuttal.