Shipov: Chess as a sport and the three-point system

by ChessBase
8/7/2011 – Sergei Shipov is a Russian grandmaster (peak Elo 2662), trainer of many top players and talented juniors, journalist and author. His web site Crestbook is well appreciated by Russian fans, as is his live commentary in top events. Sergei sent us the following article, in which he weighs in on our recent debate, initiated by GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov, on draws in chess.

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Chess as a sport and the three-point system

By GM Sergey Shipov

For years, the chess world has fought to increase the number of decisive results in tournaments, battled against short draws and striven to promote increase fighting play. There have been isolated successes, but also setbacks.

Take, for example, the three-point system, actively promoted by many tournament organisers, under which three points are awarded for a win and one for a draw. As a professional, who knows the game from the inside, I never cease to be amazed by this attempt to import football values into our game. How can we so belittle the value of all draws? After all, a draw is often the logical outcome of extremely accurate and high-quality play by both sides, play which can hardly be improved upon. Why force players to make second-rate moves, in order to avoid a draw and try to win, risking defeat at the same time? Why destroy the logic of the battle in this way?

A farcical situation can arise: a player who has lost six games and won three ends up with the same score as one who has drawn all nine. Even more than that – the first player gets placed ahead on tie-break, for having won more games! In other words, a result of "minus three" is worth more than a score of 50%. Surely that is too much?

The ChessBase site is an authoritative publication, whose readers know what they are talking about as regards chess. As a result, there is no need to explain to them that the drawing zone in chess is much greater than in football or other types of sport. It is obvious to anyone. The conclusion is also obvious – the 3:1 scoring relationship between wins and draws is simply not appropriate in chess.

On the other hand, chess is clearly losing its position in the world. We are losing the battle against other types of sport, which are usurping the place of chess in the general and specialised sports media. The latter are now only interested in our scandals, whilst the general public do not care about our game and do not even want to support their own players. Even at prestigious tournaments, it is often difficult in many cities to attract a live audience. And one of the reasons for this is the number of draws.

Even logical and well-fought drawn games, which are full of content to a professional player, disappoint the great mass of supporters, who simply want to know who won each encounter. Of course, we can simply dismiss the opinions of such people, saying that they understand nothing of our great game, and we can retreat into our little corner of the world by ourselves. But then, we can forget about ever achieving more than we have now, indeed, we will not even be able to hang on to that.

Clearly, we need to change the philosophy behind our competitions. Chess needs reforms, directed towards improving its reception by the wider public. And the first logical step is to ensure that every pairing results, every evening, in a definite winner, just as happens in other sports. Many of them have also come to this idea gradually. For example, in ice hockey, until recently, many league matches ended in draws. Then overtime and shootouts were adopted, and the play became more interesting to the public. Other sports have adopted similar reforms at different times, and as a rule, they have benefited from the reforms. They have attracted the attention of the public, the press and the TV.

If we chessplayers want world attention, if we want chess to enter world sports bodies (including the IOC), without being a poor relation, then we need to meet the demands of our time. And instead of engaging in the pointless showing-off of doping tests, we need to introduce a system of playoffs, after the main game is drawn. That way, even spectators who understand nothing at all of chess (and these are the people we are fighting for, the ones who in their turn, are the target of the press and TV) can be pleased with or disappointed by the result. They can be emotionally involved.

How should the playoffs be arranged? Rustam Kasimzhanov suggested playing rapid games, after a draw in the main game. But imagine the sad spectacle that would result… We play a serious game, at least five hours, with at least two bouts of time-trouble – and then, already shattered, with virtually no break at all, we sit down to play two rapid games, that is, another hour to an hour and a half of hard work, and two more time-scrambles. Who is going to survive such conditions? Only the young and fit. The rest will simply drop dead! It seems to me we have to find an easier way to arrange the playoffs.

My suggestion is this: in round robin tournaments, after a draw in the main game, play two blitz games, with a time-control of three or four minutes, plus two seconds' increment, and if they do not produce a winner, then you play an Armageddon. Even those who are tired after the main game can manage this, and it also takes little time. The player who wins the main game gets three points, the winner after the blitz gets two points, whilst the player who loses in the blitz gets one point.

At the same time, in the main game, Sofia rules should be retained, or some similar prohibition on draw agreements before a certain number of moves, so that players cannot economise on their strength by agreeing a quick draw in the main game, getting to the blitz, and then heading for home. FIDE rating should only apply to the main games, which would therefore retain their status as the most important element of the battle.

In my opinion, this is a clear improvement on the football system, which is currently trying to embed itself in the chess world. In my system, players with a solid positional style, which often leads to simplification and a draw, will still be able to compete equally with the "hackers", and will not find themselves inevitably losing ground to them, as happens now in "football chess".

If one works out the average, over a number of rounds, the relative value of a win and a draw will be 3:1.5, in other words, the 2:1 ratio that has traditionally applied. But there will still be a considerable incentive to play for a win in the main game, since there it is possible to get three points at once, and also gain rating points. Meanwhile, if one makes a draw in the main game, one still has to battle further, and there is a risk of losing the blitz and ending up with only one point in the score-table. From the mathematical viewpoint, the new system is more logical and more correct – in every game, there are three points at stake, and not three or two, as under the football system.

And let us remember also the matter of entertainment. No matter how strictly one applies Sofia rules, many games end in a draw, often without any great fighting value. But in the new system, entertainment will be guaranteed, in every pairing, in every round. Guaranteed. Neither in the tournament hall, nor on the Internet – nobody need be bored, and maybe spectator numbers would be increased. This last consideration seems to me to be the most important in the attempt to make chess competitive with other sports, in the battle for the hearts and minds of the public.

And finally, by comparison with the old system, there would be no fractions in the scores, something which is also appealing to the wider public. It is by means of such seemingly minor factors that the whole overall picture is improved.

Do you object that this would make the ability to play blitz too important in tournament success? But, excuse me, does not blitz already play a role in determining the world championship candidates (remember the matches Kramnik-Radjabov and Gelfand-Kamsky), and also a key role in knockout tournaments (there are already many statistics on these)? And surely such events are more important than ordinary round robin tournaments?

Furthermore, who amongst the top GMs cannot play blitz? Look at the results of the Tal Memorial world blitz championships – there, all the leaders were elite players. True, there is not absolutely symmetry in strength between classical and blitz, but this is sport, and everyone has his strong and weak points. And the player who works on his game can improve any element of his play. At the end of the day, most chessplayers like to play blitz, both for pleasure and training, and for trying out opening systems. So why not make use of this ability and combine the pleasant with the useful…

GM Sergey Shipov in Australia, posing with his three charming sisters

There is one other objection – there may be noise emanating from the blitz, which could disturb players still playing their main games alongside. This was occasionally an issue in Kazan. There are at least three answers:

  1. Put up with it for the sake of the spectators.
  2. Hold all the playoffs together, after all the main games are over.
  3. Play the main games and the blitz in separate rooms.

Admittedly, in a large Swiss without other rooms available, this problem may be more difficult to solve, but in a small round robin, it is not an issue. If the will to solve the problem is there.

This system of blitz playoffs is more than just an attempt to remedy the deficiencies of the football system. It is an attempt to save tournaments with a classical time-control and render them more attractive. Of course, it seems paradoxical – blitz is used to save classical chess, but that is life.

Of course, the details of the system need to be worked out more fully and tested in practice. But let organisers themselves decide how best to run their events and make them attractive to spectators.

Sergei Shipov (born April 17, 1966 in Murom) is a Russian chess grandmaster with a peak FIDE rating of 2662 (#23 in the world on the January 1999 list). He is also a chess journalist and author, the man behind the popular chess-website Crestbook, where, among other services, he provides online-comments to current chess events.

Shipov has written a number of books, e.g. "The Complete Hedgehog" and coached some notable players, e.g. Vladimir Belov, Alexandra Kosteniuk, Svetlana Matveeva, Ian Nepomniachtchy, and most recently Daniil Dubov.

Previous ChessBase articles

Kasimdzhanov's proposal – our readers react
03.08.2011 – Two weeks ago former FIDE world champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov made a startling proposal, designed to lift chess out of what he perceives to be a crisis: eliminate draws by playing rapid and then blitz games if there is no decisive result. Naturally our readers commented on this idea with vigor – and many with interesting counter-proposals. Here is a (very large) selection of letters.
Kasimdzhanov: Open letter to FIDE – with a proposal
21.07.2011 – Uzbek-born grandmaster and former FIDE knockout world champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov, now a permanent second of World Champion Vishy Anand, is a profound thinker, and not just in chess openings. He has now written an open letter to FIDE, describing the current unsatisfactory situation in top professional chess and proposing a startling solution.

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