Where is chess going?

by Sagar Shah
1/2/2023 – Today, ChessBase India CEO Sagar Shah wants to touch on a subject that has been playing around on his mind, and to which he has no concrete answers. Is chess levitating towards shorter time formats. Are sponsors driving this trend? And will classical chess be abandoned? "I just want to put the question out there, maybe our readers can see why I feel a bit confused as a chess fan," Sagar says.

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It's true that chess derives a lot of its value from the fact that it has a rich history attached to it. Especially the World Champion's title - it started with Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886, went to Lasker, then Capablanca, Alekhine - we know the list and the title is currently in the hands of Magnus Carlsen. It's quite amazing to think that in the last 136 years there have been only 16 World Champions! This entire history combined with the fact that every single year the qualification for the match, and the match itself is carefully curated by FIDE, gives a lot of power to this title.

However, a few months ago, Magnus Carlsen announced that he will not defend his world title. This is not the first time that someone has done that. The last champion who refused to defend his world title was Bobby Fischer. The legendary American GM had reasons which were different from that of Magnus. What happened back then was that the world soon forgot about Fischer, and Anatoly Karpov took over from 1975. Ten years later we had the beast from Baku come up: Garry Kasparov, and everything seemed to be in order. The strongest players in the world were fighting for the highest title.

What differentiates this period of Fischer from the period of Carlsen is that while Fischer boycotted his title, he also didn't play any chess. But Carlsen is not going to retire. He is keen on continuing to play! He just doesn't want to play the World Championship Match in its current format. And why does he not want to do that? The main reason is the format. The classical format of chess is getting too tedious at the highest level. Months and months are spent preparing for these matches, looking for smallest of nuances in the opening. All of this is becoming a bit too much for Magnus at the age of 32, having done it for the last five World Championship matches.

With not defending his world title, speaking about Classical chess being phased out and playing in shorter format events, even Chess960, the strongest player on the planet is making a serious case for the shorter time format. And he is not just talking about it, he is actually leading by example. Carlsen is a brand that the world follows. People love him, and he has a lot of influence on not just the fans, but also on the younger generation and the trends in the sport. That being said, he is still participating in the Wijk Aan Zee Tata Steel Chess Championships 2023, which is classical in format.

Now my confusion here as a chess lover is: what is going to be the trend in the world of chess in the days to come? The world still talks about Magnus as the strongest player on the planet based on his classical rating. If we take his blitz rating, Carlsen is already ranked no. 4 in the world. If you are, say, Arjun Erigaisi, who has just received a 1.5 million dollars sponsorship deal from Quantbox, where do you want to put in your resources? Do you want to prepare for the Candidates, the World Championship Match and this entire cycle, which quite possibly might lose some of its significance in the years to come? Or do you want to focus a lot more on shorter formats?

It's general understanding that a sport levitates in the direction where fans enjoy watching it, and where there are fans there is money, as sponsors start to pour in. Where the money flows, is generally where the players tend to go. So with all of this understanding, it feels like things will naturally levitate towards shorter time formats. But then what about the tradition, the history, the real beauty of chess which lies in classical format. What will happen to that? How will FIDE go about handling this? On one hand they have a century old tradition and history to take care of, and on the other there are chess fans, sponsors and even the strongest player on the planet wanting them to change!

What is your take on this entire thing? What do you think will triumph at the end of the day? Will classical chess be phased out? Or will World Champion's title (classical format) keeps it value? Do let me know your thoughts!

Sagar Shah

 


Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India website, the biggest chess news outlet in the country.
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fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 1/12/2023 07:13
Clearly it does not work that way. All sound openings are drawn with best play. Giving draw odds to the champion means that the challenger has to take undue risk. With that risk comes inferior positions.

And trying to get an opening advantage today means testing the opponent's memory, nothing more.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 1/6/2023 11:25
@TwoZero I also prefer the classical format, with deep thoughts, scientific preparation and razor-sharp preciseness and I also prefer a classical world chess championship match. Some people are complaining that the GMs are not taking risks during the classical games. They do not have to, because a tied match favors no-one, so they can both decide to just wait for the opponent to blunder. If the world champion would have draw odds, then the challenger would obviously be interested to take the advantage and once that's achieved, the world champion will have to equalize.
TwoZero TwoZero 1/5/2023 11:15
The 2 year cycle is just too much - and you prepare for 12- classical games just to get all that hard work wiped away by blitz games that are given equal value.

It is a horrible format for deciding a WCC. Fixing it is so simple:

Classical WCC should be on a 3 year cycle. 18-20 games played over one month, with the current Champ getting draw odds. 120 for 40 moves, 90 for game. No increment.

To be the man you have to beat the man.

This is not hard.
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 1/5/2023 09:16
Is time format the right question? Chess 960 avoids the necessity of months of opening preparation with your seconds for the world championship. I think that this is what is painful for the players, rather than the time format by itself.
genem genem 1/5/2023 11:13
I wonder what Elo level Fritz assess for the quality of play in Rapid (20 minute) games versus traditional long time-control games? If these two Elos are substantially different, it is hard to envision chess enthusiasts at home replaying & studying lots of Rapid games when the quality may be higher in long games. Or maybe the higher error rates make Rapid games less drawn-prone, and thus more interesting? Well then, maybe more Blitz game scores need to be published and made permanently available for the public to replay and enjoy.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 1/4/2023 02:26
Classical chess960 world championships with first player to win 10 games wins the match.

Carlsen played in the recent chess960 world championship (which had nothing to do with Rex, as someone alluded to. Chess960 events have been going on for a long time (Mainz, the Reykjavik match between Nakamura and Carlsen), but declined to play in the chess world championship. Chess960 does not require months of preparation on minute openings.
tauno tauno 1/3/2023 06:10
There is only one way to save the future of chess: Fide simply has to submit to Carlsen's idiosyncrasies and peculiarities and change the form of the title match to something else that is better suited for Carlsen without any greater risk that he would lose his title.
chessdrummer chessdrummer 1/3/2023 05:20
Good question Sagar. I had the same thing on my mind and in fact, was working on an article of the same topic right after the Rapid & Blitz, but did not finish. Classical will always be a fixture. It is how we all learn how to play chess. 100% of the people who learn chess, learn it the classical way. Classical will always be the home-cooked meal versus blitz which is "fast food." 960 would solve 100% of these concerns. It is the future of chess. Fischer was right again. However, it is neither one nor then other. Both will co-exist.
okanis8977 okanis8977 1/3/2023 04:42
i very much enjoy watching rapid chess but don't understand blitz- some moves past too fast (the lagging effect on internet also contributes it). i think best is in-between (rapid) but classical time control will survive and get closer to rapid one in the future.
MauvaisFou MauvaisFou 1/3/2023 04:08
When I started chess seriously (1972), there were too few tournaments. Now there are too many. I try to focus on only some of them (Wijk an Zee, Candidates, Olympiads, ...). These are said to be classical chess, but even there, the games have been shortened. Fortunately , we still have great books with great games (and sometimes wrong analyses because they were made by human beings). I think the golden age finished somewhere in the 90's. I may be a silly boomer but I do not care.
carbonlifeform carbonlifeform 1/3/2023 02:31
Thank you Sagar for a balanced and considered article. Like many here I enjoy all time formats, but for different reasons. The rapid and blitz tournaments are great entertainment, but the games are often filled with blunders. It is classical chess where strategy wins over tactics and the deep mystery of chess is revealed. But as Fischer saw, decades ago, computers are killing classical chess because of the ability of players to memorise huge volumes of opening theory - how often we see an amazing memorised opening played for 15 moves, only for the 16th human move to be mediocre and eliminate the advantage so painstakingly obtained. This sadly does become a farce, and it is understandable that Magnus Carlsen has had enough after five cycles. To retain the deep strategy of chess in the classical time format it would appear that classical tournaments of Fischer Random (960) is the best solution - eliminating the artificiality of memorised openings yet still giving human players the time needed to develop middle game strategies of beauty and poise. This perhaps enables the gorgeous history and culture of chess at the elite level to be maintained for centuries to come.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 1/3/2023 01:14
I can blunder a piece myself while having a lot more fun than watching top players do it. Quality thoughts require time. Sadly, Carlsen recently opted for quantity to replace quality. I have nothing against rapid or blitz chess, let those who like it have fun playing and watching them. But a world champion does not want to defend his title, because it takes a lot of effort to do so? Chess is a sport and saying it takes too much effort is strange. When do we see marathon runners complain that their sport is too long and boring and it takes too much effort to prepare and even suggest that it should be a 5 mile or even 1 mile run?

How can a sportsman say as a world champion, no less that his sport is boring?

Resigning the world championship is one thing. A world champion has a right to make that unfortunate decision. But complaining about the format? I consider the 12-game matches too short.

Carlsen is acting like a primadonna. When he loses against Niemann, he cries "cheater!", so he certainly is a bad loser. His whining about too long preparation suggests that he will not prepare as much, which, in my opinion will eventually lead to poor performance. Ancient Greeks believed that the gods punish hubris.
PauloSunao PauloSunao 1/3/2023 01:06
IMHO, Classical Chess is different from Rapid and Speed Chess. Like a 100 m run x 1500 m run. I prefer to play Rapid Chess due to my reduced free time. But, playing a classical chess tournament is much more incredible, when you have time enough to evaluate the problems that appear OTB. So, different ways to play and appreciate chess :-)
MauvaisFou MauvaisFou 1/3/2023 01:01
1) @Serse 1/2/2023 07:32
How do you "continue to play at the cadence you want and basta!" ? I stopped playing chess because in tournaments, individual or team, the times are shorter and shorter, there is not enough time left for the endgames, which must be played only with increment, which is ridiculous.
2) Karpov and Kasparov can smile when Carlsen says 12 games is unbearable ! And he should have said so clearly BEFORE the Candidates.
thirteen thirteen 1/3/2023 11:47
Of course 960 Random chess would kill the databases, which was the Fischer concept anyway. The exact opposite of Kasparov. I believe that weaker than Grandmaster chess players [most everybody] really do need the Classical time to think and appreciate, for serious results. If with the very much quicker rates, very much more fun and practical. A working compromise should always be, a few 960 tournaments throughout the year? Hundreds of years of historical chess beauty, science and mathematics should never be straight discarded, as just something of our past.
Has anyone even asked Carlson about his own ideas for some future Classical chess survival prospects?
Flopmartin Flopmartin 1/3/2023 09:35
This article pretty much sums up similar thoughts I've had. We could also add the issue of online chess vs. OTB chess. There is a real possibility that we are witnessing the slow dying of the classical chess format. Dying may be too strong a word, but at least a phasing out, as indicated.

And I welcome this change, as shorter time controls offer wilder encounters, allowing for more mistakes, even at the strongest level. Mistakes are mandatory to make the game entertaining, right? I mean, not horrible blunders, but inaccuracies that give opportunities and kill no-brainer play based on computer preparation.
Cajunmaster Cajunmaster 1/3/2023 09:13
Chess for the mainstream is going the way of "reality TV"... which is disappointing.
Personally, I have no interest in watching top players blunder away at fast time limits, any anonymous nerd will give you that on the internet.
As others have pointed out, chess loving amateurs still participate enthusuastically in classical OTB tournaments.
Chess is a beautiful game/hobby for a fairly confidential subset of humanity, cf. e.g. chess composition. Let's leave Mammon out of it.
To delude oneself in thinking chess could become the equivalent of soccer/football is a waste of time (think of all those bullet games you could have played instead of reading these posts!)
brabo_hf brabo_hf 1/3/2023 08:47
Same in Europe. 1000 participants for a classical OTB- tournament (9 games in 8 days) in Cap d'Agde (France) see https://www.capechecs.com/ end of last year. Organizers had to refuse participants as there wasn't sufficient place. It was a record-edition.

More than 1500 players already registered for Tata Steel Chess (again classical chess) which starts over a week. Also here many are on the waiting list and will be disappointed see https://amateurs.tatasteelchess.com/tournaments/2023/players

So above article is pure speculation. There is still a very big community interested in playing classical chess.
xadrezdequinta xadrezdequinta 1/3/2023 08:35
Great text, Sagar! I think your concern is the same of many chess fans in the world. In some way classic chess started to be seeing as a boring kind of chess. All the tradition, history and beauty are not important anymore to the new generation of chess players - who, by the way, is the main public on the internet as well. Currently everything has been measured in a "Tik Tok speed" to be considered fun and attractive. Let's see how FIDE, players and community will deal with this in the next years...
SteveCustodio SteveCustodio 1/3/2023 06:34
I just finished participating in the North American Open in Las Vegas this December with more than a thousand participants. There’s nothing like classical chess. Rapid and blitz have their own place. But nothing can replace classical chess over the board. I don’t want to participate in online tournaments - susceptible to a lot of cheating.
peter frost peter frost 1/3/2023 06:19
Of course classical chess will survive. It's actually quite healthy at the amateur level, where it is simply "played" not "spectated". There is only a problem at the elite level, where engines have made it difficult to win classical games, and where large numbers of spectators are present, who prefer to watch faster action (with mistakes and results). We may see a future where rapid predominates at the elite level, but classical in the other 99% of chess.
Peter B Peter B 1/3/2023 04:08
Carlsen is not quitting classical chess. He is quitting the current world championship format, with its inbuilt privileges to the champion, and its long match. Whether we like it or not, this will probably force a change to the World Championship format eventually.
StrongErick StrongErick 1/3/2023 03:51
What a weak player is this one.
philidorchess philidorchess 1/3/2023 03:29
We are partly slaves of tradition so classical chess will survive.Rapid and blitz chess gives you thrill so it will be common or maybe professional players favorite.
kprabha kprabha 1/3/2023 03:17
Similar questions were asked about survival of Test match Cricket, when One day Cricket and T20 Cricket was started and gained more popularity. However , the Test Match cricket has survived( although not as popular as 50-50 ot T20 Cricket). Similarly, so long as the traditional FIDE Championship and Classic Tournaments are played it will survive but as a subsidiary !
Aighearach Aighearach 1/3/2023 01:50
It's pure speculation, and a claim that has been made consistently for decades without becoming true.

Is it true that a blitz tournament attracts more fans than a classical tournament? This seems to not be true, and yet it is required for the argument to hold water.

The underlying premise seems to always be: The average person thinks chess is boring, and doesn't have a long enough attention span to enjoy it, therefore for chess to become mainstream it has to speed up and become more exiting. However, speeding up the game doesn't make it more interesting to the average person. It is still boring, and they still don't understand what is going on. So the premise is faulty. The idea that you can get mainstream sports money into chess by watering down and making it less nerdy, this just doesn't hold up to experience.

Chess tournaments will continue to be a small-money sport, and classical chess will still be where most of the tiny pool of professional money is. And most chess-related professionals will continue to actually be professional trainers, authors, journalists, or streamers. And some of these will focus mostly on fast time controls, as is already the case.
ICU ICU 1/3/2023 01:29
TRAVESTY if the Classical championship is abandoned. Historical tradition ignored because it takes too long to prepare?? There is a place for Rapid/Blitz but it certainly SHOULD NOT be the benchmark for the world's best player.
FIDE needs to insure that the best players are the participants in the WC cycle and commit to an every two or three
year cycle.
Kanenda Kanenda 1/3/2023 01:09
The solution is World Cup! Great classical chess tournament! The winner of this tournament become world champion!
tauno tauno 1/3/2023 12:01
The future of chess is that we will never again see two of the world's best players fight for the world championship title. The last time it happened was on Kasparov's era. (Carlsen was lucky when, thanks to FIDE, he had to compete for the title just against a few random top ten players. A lot of boring games without any real fighting spirit.)
LSI LSI 1/2/2023 11:26
chess960 and short time controls for pro players - longer time controls for amateurs who still need to think :-)
Terry Reeves Terry Reeves 1/2/2023 11:23
Surely if faster time controls are to become the norm, will that be a true reflection of a players
strength and will classical chess then eventually disappear?
twamers twamers 1/2/2023 08:41
I take no interest in the Blitz and Rapid competitions. When I actively played in my club in addition to classical we always played '5 minute' games or 10 seconds a move - and I was actually quite good at the faster controls - so it was quite enjoyable as a bit of fun. But in terms of Grandmaster chess I am only interested in classical. So whilst I'm generally aware of chess news (e.g. Carlsen winning 2 fast time control world titles recently) I have zero interest in following and will only log into online chess tournaments that are classical.
jvacierto jvacierto 1/2/2023 07:54
I imagine the classical format become less "prestigious" but will still exist in tournaments while blitz and rapid will be where all the viewership will be, and hence all the sponsors and money. The best parallel I can draw would be with pool/billiards. Straight pool, also called 14.1, was the main type of pool game up until the 1980's when 8 and 9 ball pool became more popular. Why? Straight pool takes way longer to play, whereas 8 and 9 ball are much shorter games. Straight pool is still played today in tournaments, but it's not nearly as popular of course. BTW, if you want to see a great movie depicting straight pool, check out "The Hustler" starring Paul Newman. Then, watch the sequel "The Color of Money" where Paul Newman comes back in the 80's to teach Tom Cruise how to be a Hustler in the 9-ball era.
Serse Serse 1/2/2023 07:32
Blah, blah, blah. I don't care about professional chess players and their problems. I will continue to play at the cadence I want and basta!
mickeydeadguys mickeydeadguys 1/2/2023 07:26
Losing classical would be like shortening operas to 1 hour. Not only should they keep classical, they should eliminate any shorter formats to determine the match outcome. Let them play 30 games!
Jack Nayer Jack Nayer 1/2/2023 06:16
Carlsen is of course right. It takes months to prepare. The result`? The last 3 WCs were sufficiently boring to induce coma. It is not Carlsen who is 'destroying' classical chess, it's computers. Computers and money.
tcbull tcbull 1/2/2023 06:16
For the 0.01 per cent of professionals playing shorter time periods and best online is what they like. But online is more close to cheating. I do not like that some top players terrorize the rest with their paranoia. That a WC decides about the time control is ridiculous. So Fide should defend traditions. This does not mean that we need no innovations. But doing new things does not mean change other formats. 960 chess is an idea which is just loved by pro players to make some extra money from Rex. No trend at all in the chess world. World Cup with it co2 emissions is outdated. Why players cannot play a Swiss instead of travelling home after two games. There is much of improvement possible.
Mamack1 Mamack1 1/2/2023 05:49
I think the death of classical chess is being rather exaggerated - again.
michael bacon michael bacon 1/2/2023 05:45
Mr. Shah,

This is a silly question because it should be obvious to anyone the Royal Game has been forced to move toward ever increasingly short time controls due to the possibility of cheating by using the superior Chess playing programs. This is not a choice but a necessity, which should be obvious to anyone involved with Chess. I wrote about this on my blog at least a decade ago, if not longer. Will it work? I have no idea, but have previously written on the blog that, "Chess is not Backgammon." The excellent game of Wei Chi (Go) has moved toward shorter time limits naturally without anyone questioning the movement. There is no choice with Chess as it must change, or be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Michael Bacon
Portlyotter Portlyotter 1/2/2023 05:34
The day classical chess stops is the day that chess dies.

Money is ruining many sports/games/arts. I agree with both the previous posts.