A debate has occurred as to whether too many draws in chess are hurting the game.
During the recent Candidates Tournament of the World Chess Championship 2012 cycle, held to determine a worthy challenger for reigning champion Viswanathan Anand, the format was four-game mini-matches played under classical time controls, followed by rapid and blitz games to break ties. The many draws and tepid and lackluster play at the tournament led to much disappointment and much criticism. Several of the eight players, especially Alexander Grischuk, intentionally tried to draw their games at the classical time control, feeling they would have a better chance to prevail in the rapid and blitz session. Even with the white pieces, Grischuk settled for quick draws under the classical time control. Who could fault Grischuk? He played within the rules and advanced all the way to the final before being dispatched by Boris Gelfand, who earned the right to challenge for the world title.
In an open letter addressed “both to FIDE and the entire chess playing world,” former FIDE World Champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov suggested that draws are a drag on chess and should be eliminated. “If we want success, sponsors, public (interest) and the rest of the parcel,” he wrote, “we need to abolish those draws in classical tournaments — Like a tie-break in tennis. We need a result. Every single day. And here is how it works. We play classical chess, say with a time control of four to five hours. Draw? No problem – change the colours, give us 20 minutes each and replay. Draw again? Ten minutes each, change the colours and replay. Until there is a winner of that day. And the winner wins the game and gets one point and the loser gets zero.”
The weakness of Kasimdzhanov’s argument is that it addresses the symptoms of what ails chess and not the disease itself. There are three things that have adversely impacted chess in recent years, and having a playoff after a draw in order to have a winner and loser every day will not resolve these issues.
1. The ascendency of the computer in chess. A huge turning point in chess happened in 1997 when then World Champion Garry Kasparov lost a match to the computer Deep Blue. At this point humans were outstripped by the crunching and calculating powers of a chess computer software program running on an increasingly powerful hardware device. The effect of the computer on chess has been profound in the years that have followed Kasparov’s loss. “The monster” has only grown more powerful and has ruthlessly dispatched grandmaster after grandmaster. The computer has taken the ego out of chess. The late Bobby Fischer used to take pride in being “the great ego crusher.” But the computer is the ultimate ego crusher. Today a youngster will ask, “Why do I want to put in years of effort to master this game, and spend hours looking for a move that a computer can find in a split second?” And as more people view chess as a meaningless exercise in the aftermath of the computer’s dominance, fewer players will take up the game in a serious manner, or follow the game. Kasimdzhanov cites tennis as a model chess can turn toward. Well, if a robot suddenly could beat Roger Federer, there would be far less interest in tennis. If humans are not engaged in something unique and performing at the highest level, then the interest will wane.
2. The need for greater consistency. There is no consistency in the format of the chess world championship cycle. Every time there is a world championship cycle, it is played under a different set of rules. One time it is the FIDE championship involving 128 players playing two-game elimination mini-matches, with rapid and blitz games serving as tie breakers. The next time it is a round robin involving 12 players. The next time it is eight players in four-game mini matches, with rapid and blitz games for tie breaks, and the one who comes through the field is the challenger for the title. The sport needs to follow the same rules, year in and year out, decade after decade, like the World Cup football, or the Super Bowl or the World Series. Those occur under the same format and with the same interval of time, either every four years or annually, etc.
The best format for the chess championship cycle happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were zonal and interzonal tournaments, leading to eight players playing in candidates’ elimination matches. Finally one player survived to challenge the champion in a 24-game match. Despite having the cycle shaped for his benefit and winning under the system, Fischer helped ruin the format by refusing to defend his title in 1975, and insisting on a match where the champion had to win nine games to retain his title or the challenger ten games to win the title. The great shortcoming of having to win a specified number of games was exposed during the 1984-85 Anatoly Karpov vs. Kasparov match, when neither player could win six games and the match had to be halted after 48 games due to Karpov’s exhaustion.
Not only does the cycle today jump around to too many formats but it also mixes classical chess with rapid and blitz chess. Using rapid and blitz chess to settle a classical chess match is like asking marathon runners to break a tie by running a 100-meter dash. It may be a foot race, but there the similarities end. There should perhaps be a separate rapid or blitz champion in addition to a classical champion. However, rapid and blitz chess should never be used to settle a match that was played at classical time controls.
Also, at the zonal, interzonal, candidates and championship matches, there was always emphasis on playing enough games to identify the best player. Today’s matches of two, four, six, 12 or 16 games are far too few to separate the players. These matches are so short that they are a joke.
3. Not enough different openings. If you follow the recent grandmaster tournaments, the players all seem to be in love with the same two or three openings, depending on whichever ones are in vogue at that moment. The D pawn has taken over as the opening choice for white. To eliminate the narrow opening repertoire, tournaments should start randomly selecting an opening for each round and forcing the players to display competency in a host of unfamiliar circumstances. For example, a computer might select the Alekhine Defense as the opening for round seven. After the players are seated at the table, the arbiter will make the first moves of that opening, e4 and Nf6. The players will take over from there. Players who never play the Alekhine as black, or even face it as white because they never play e4 as their first move, will already be “out of the book” and placed on unfamiliar turf. There are dozens of different openings and the players should be required to play all of them over several tournaments, as if they were dealt a different set of cards each day. Not knowing what opening will be played on a given day will reduce the home preparation that has been a stifling influence on chess.
In conclusion, having rapid and blitz playoffs to determine a winner and loser each day, in the event a game is drawn at classical time controls, will not solve what ails chess. The game suffers from human grandmasters no longer being the major leagues of the sport. People like to follow the highest level of competition, and that now means consulting the computer. Also, the world championship cycle needs consistency so people know what the format is, when the title will be contested, and that the new champion will win the title under the same conditions and format as the previous champion. Lastly, randomly selecting different openings will reduce home preparation and insipid play.
Chess Life, Special Summer Issue 1997, Deeper Blue Beats Kasparov