Yasser Seirawan: “A Radical Solution - Redux"

12/3/2016 – During the World Chess Championship match, Yasser Seirawan's article "A Radical Solution" was causing reactions from all sides. In a second article, the grandmaster is addressing his audience for a second time and specifies his criticism - regarding the format of the match. "A Radical Solution - Redux"...

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Hearty congratulations to Magnus on winning the World Chess Championship match and retaining his title.  Also happy birthday.  Congratulations too to Sergey on proving himself a most worthy Challenger.  It was a gripping match.  Bravo to you both.  My criticism, and other people’s, over Game 12 will soon be forgotten because the Rapid Chess tiebreaks brought us the joyous thrills that Game 12 so severely lacked.  Long live the Champion!

I am writing this article as a follow-up to the previous one, titled “A Radical Solution.”  Most importantly because I simply want to thank the readers, you the fans, for your feedback.  Sincerely appreciated.  Truly without your interest there would be no Championships.  It is the fans that make the game.  A fact that we should always remember.

The feedback was quite positive.  Thank you to each and every one of you for contributing to the discussion.  The radical concept of an odd number of match games with draw odds for the player who has an extra game with the Black pieces was not dismissed out of hand.  Even a majority found merit in the suggestion.  Even so, a greater majority preferred a longer match of 18 games.  I do not disagree.  I too much prefer a longer match.  In fact, I find it perplexing that in the penultimate qualifying stage, the Candidates’ Tournament has 14 rounds of play, while the pinnacle event in the whole cycle, the Championship Match itself, is merely 12 games.

Other worthy suggestions included the idea that in case of a tied match “pairs of Classical Games” should be played until a winner emerged.  The problem with such a practical-sounding solution is that it is impossible in real life for the organizers to commit themselves to the possibility of an open-ended match.  For starters, leasing space in a theater would be an enormous problem.  For how long should the organizer keep the space?  I know from my own personal experience in 1987, when Seattle bid for the WC match (Seville won the bid), that it was difficult in the extreme to get a beautiful venue, the Paramount Theater, for 24 games.  Seattle is a marvelous city with many facilities as well.  For the organizer, a fixed number of games is mandatory.

Another majority position from fans that surprised me greatly was that an even number of games was fine but that in case of a tie, after preference for an 18-game match, the defending Champion scoring 9-9 should keep his crown.  The argument in favor of giving the defending Champion draw-odds seems to be that the Challenger has to beat the Champion.  Why?  Because the Champion is the best player and if the Challenger merely ties with the Champion the Challenger has not shown himself to be superior.  An interesting viewpoint to be sure, but one I find to be bogus.

Once again I stress that I’m a critic of the current system.  I don’t like it at all.  In fact, I find the current cycle to be plainly stupid.  Why?  Please, take the following grandmasterly challenge, I double-dare you:  explain the current system to a good friend who doesn’t play chess.  Explain that the Champion, presumably the best chess player in the world, sits outside of a two-year-long cycle of events, biding his time, waiting for a Challenger to emerge.  That there is a series of four “Swiss Open” tournaments with hundreds of players, called “Continental Championships”, played at a different time-control, that act as qualifier events for a big-money event called the “World Cup.”  That it, in turn, is a 128-player “Knock-out” event featuring different time-controls, as well as tie-breakers that qualify the winners for a “Candidates’ Tournament” which is a “double-round-robin” with a different, slower Classical time-control.  The Candidates’ Tournament itself features a field of eight players.  Where the runner-up of the previous WC Match is joined by the World Cup qualifiers, some of the highest rated players in the world and a wildcard player chosen by the organizers.  Be sure to emphasize such terms as “Swiss Open”, “Knockout Matches”, “Double-Round-Robin”, as well as describing the different time-controls, and toss in an “Armageddon” once or twice to be sure that your friend is listening.  Don’t forget that tiebreaks are not used in the Candidates’ tournament.  Instead, do mention, please, that tying for first by losing more games than your rival is better than going undefeated, and I guarantee you that you will have thoroughly confused your friend.  And quite possibly yourself as well.

Even worse than the above challenge of explaining the current cycle to a friend, imagine yourself as an organizer of an event in the cycle.  You would like to have a prestigious elite event played in your home city.  How exciting.  You’d like the participation of the best players in the world.  Clear.  Who is the best player in the world?  Why, the World Champion, of course.  But the World Champion, the biggest draw in chess, is out of the cycle entirely.  Again, he is waiting for a Challenger to emerge.  It is crazy.  Why create such fantastic competitions that bar the world’s best player, the champ, from competing in any of them?  That strikes me as, dare I say it, counter-productive.

Fortunately for the world of chess, we have been lucky, blessed actually, Magnus has been a wonderful, active Champion.  He has not sat on his laurels.  Not at all.  He has played in the most challenging, competitive tournaments open to him and he has acquitted himself as a true Champion.  He has earned the admiration of all chess fans.  But let us say, for the sake of argument, that Magnus was less successful than he has been or, worse still, less active.  Imagine that Magnus takes a sabbatical from the chess tour for a year.  That would be terrible for chess fans.  In the meanwhile, the Challenger faces the whole world in his quest for a single spot.  Consider the route taken by Sergey Karjakin:  he played in the World Cup 128-player Knockout, surviving some extremely difficult, pressure-packed rounds, made it to the Finals and, incredibly, won matches by winning on demand.  This bravura performance earned him the right to be in the Candidates’ Tournament.  The strongest event in the world, which he won, undefeated, and he became Challenger.  Hasn’t he proven himself to be the World’s best player?  Especially as the Champion has been forcibly absent?  Or on sabbatical.  Why would the Challenger have to give the Champion an advantage of draw-odds?  After such a harrowing journey, hasn’t he earned fair and equal playing conditions at least?  This is why in my Radical Solution article I did not suggest that the Champion be awarded draw odds; rather, I suggested that it would be the drawing of lots that determined which player received draw-odds, as well as an extra game with the Black pieces.

To his enormous credit, Magnus himself has expressed dissatisfaction with the current cycle.  He has called for the creation of a more “modern cycle”, without offering exact details of such a vision.  One thing is definite:  such a call is most assuredly not in his own best self-interest.  In a modern cycle, he may find himself having to earn a place at the final table, not enjoying the seeding of a defending Champion.

In my view, the stakeholders in the world of chess need to sit down and rethink the cycle in its entirety.  They need to analyze ruthlessly what events would be in the best interests of chess, the fans, the players, the organizers, and which offer fair, equal conditions for every competitor.  I hope that my two articles will help kick-start just such a discussion.  A discussion for which both the World Champion and the Women’s World Champion have openly called.  The chess world moves slowly.  If the cycle is not to be reconsidered in its entirety, I do hope, at least, that a radical solution for our crown jewel, the World (Classical) Chess Championship match, will no longer feature a tiebreak.

For myself, I’d consider it a massive improvement if the next World Championship Match were a 15-game contest with the player who is given the extra game with the Black pieces at the drawing of lots ceremony having draw-odds.  At every moment in such a match a player would be trailing and would have to fight for the win.  Tame draws would favor only the player in the lead.  Victory would come only in Classical Games and not through Rapid Chess, Blitz or an Armageddon game.  Lest anyone think that I would deny the chess world the thrills of Rapid Chess, I would not.  That is why there is a World Rapid Chess Championship which is called by that name.  It is coming up soon.  Be sure to tune in to that different form of chess.  But let us keep the three forms of chess, Classical, Rapid and Blitz, separate from one another.