WCC 2016: Is It Time for Change?

[Header Photograph taken by Maya Marlette]

Note: The ideas expressed in this article are based off of the author’s personal opinions and are not representative of Chess^Summit’s views.


The World Chess Championship ended in such a thrilling tiebreak format. The excitement in the venue will forever be embedded into my memory. I felt thankful and elated to be seeing a huge part of history, yet I felt like I shouldn’t have to be witnessing the tiebreak games in the first place.

I was first aware of the tiebreak controversies when Greg Shahade posted his critique of the loss of draw odds for the Champion.  In his short blog post, he claims, “Just as in the 20th century, the Champion should retain the title on a drawn match. There should be no rapid tiebreak. If you want the title you need to beat the reigning champion.”

I agree, but I think the issue is extremely complicated and it is hard to find the right balance between trying to please chess fans and the players alike. In this article, I will address the various solutions and opinions that a few relatively well known players have suggested and give a little bit of my own opinion on this matter. However, this article is overall about assessing the various arguments raised by the chess community and you are welcome to disagree and encouraged to comment your own opinions!

History of the tiebreak system

There are the initial 12 classical games (except the 2007 double round robin).

If there is a tie after the 12 games:

First are the rapid games, 4 of them, G/25 +10. That means each player gets 25 minutes and there are 10 seconds added on for every move. If no winner is produced, 2 G/5 +3 blitz games are played. Then two more. Then more sets of these 2 games until 5 sets have been completed. Finally, in the unlikely case of a continual tie, Armageddon with a drawing of lots for colors. 5 minutes for White, 4 minutes for Black who also has draw odds. At move 60, 3 second increment is added.

This information can be more formally found on the Rules and Regulations for the FIDE World Championship Match.

Since 2006 (with the exception of the 2007), a similar tiebreak system has been implemented, with some combination of rapid, blitz, and Armageddon games.

However, every tournament cycle, the controversy is raised again. Is it finally time for a change?

Grandmaster Irina Krush thinks so.

The current regulations, she argues, are not the best nor most logical, and “fall very short of ideal.” These tiebreak games “break the tradition of the system that’s trying to produce the best player.” After all, a lot of randomness comes into play. Faster time controls may not necessarily produce the best quality chess, at least not blitz. Even so, International Master Yaacov Norowitz thinks that the level of the rapid games is still extremely high, so that the system allows for high quality chess and sustains the credibility of the title.

Some may argue that the tiebreaks actually forced the players, perhaps, to play riskier chess in the shorter games, which always makes the game much more exciting to watch. This points out one of the biggest issues with the current format: in the initial 12 long games, the players tend to make many drawish positions. They don’t attack with the same vigor as they would in, say, blitz. There is too much risk in trying something when one loss can mean so much for the rest of the tournament. Greg Shahade thinks to combat this, we should abolish the tiebreaks, which would incentivize a player to fight harder in the classical games if they are losing.

However, I think that no matter what, there will always be some games that are simply not going to be “interesting.” Irina likes the idea of a longer classical match, with a minimum of 16 games, maximum of 24 games, helps to fix the issue. Each game has less importance this way and there is more room for the players to “show some stuff.” But even with the extended amount of games, there are still going to be the Berlins (notorious for fostering boring games at least in the past few years) and the general bores and some fans who go to watch the match live may still have less of an enjoyable experience.

Her proposed solution is as bold as the others I will talk about. She likes the involvement of the ACP to help determine the best format. The organization represents a lot of players and can figure out what the top 10 or so players say about the format and what the chess world at large thinks. Otherwise, every single tournament, the issue will be raised all over again due to such obvious discontent!

US Champion and Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana proposed an interesting tiebreak format, one that I had not heard until he told me his solution. It had apparently been discussed before in previous matches. He thinks tiebreaks before the match “make more sense” and would “discourage draws during the match.” Before the classical games start, there should be a playoff like the current tiebreaks now. The winner would get draw odds in the match so that 6-6 in the 12 classical games would mean the tiebreak winner wins. Of course if either player won outright, these games would not count.

I personally feel it would put a lot of pressure on the loser of this pre-match tiebreak. It sets the mood for the classical games, so much so that I am unsure that this is the best solution. Yet Fabi argues a good point: One of the players would have to play for a win. There would probably be no short draws, although there would be some in general, because the loser would always push him/herself to not just play the most drawish games. There would be an incentive to make the chess more exciting. Yet would they potentially crack under the pressure and the nerves? Is the disadvantage too big for the loser of the tiebreak?

I also asked him why the current champion should not have draw odds already. He thinks that if the defending world champion wants to continue claiming that he/she is the best in the world, he/she should prove so by not depending on draw odds.

In his own words:

“The world champ should be able to win the match, not just tie it.”

Grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez said:

“Classical should be determined by classical.”

His comment is an argument that many make. We have the World Rapid and Blitz Championships for a reason. There should just be classical games to determine the classical World Champion. I think he raises one of the strongest arguments against the current tiebreaker format.

Additionally, it is obvious that just because someone is good at classical chess, he/she is not necessarily just as good at rapid or blitz chess.

How does Karjakin fare? International Master Yaacov Norowitz thinks the playoff is fair, but that Carlsen has an advantage because “faster shows understanding of the game versus analysis.” There is no doubt that Norowitz believes Magnus is just a better player overall. I personally think Karjakin was and still is a reasonable rapid or blitz challenger to Magnus and obviously still had chances, but the overwhelming majority favored Magnus. Similarly, let’s say Caruana was the challenger and not Karjakin. He is currently the #20 rapid and #10 blitz player in the world. On the Paris leg of the Grand Chess Tour, he did not fare too well. On the Leuven leg, he was at the middle of the pack. Clearly, he is not the best in the world at fast chess. Yet no one can dispute his classical success. He is the #2 player in the world (classical) and a phenomenal chess player in general. In this rapid-blitz-Armageddon tiebreak format, Fabiano would probably lose against Magnus because the rapid difference is a bit wide (Sorry, Fabi!). I have no doubt there would be quite a fight in the classical games, but clearly this fast tiebreak format would not work for all players equally.

Before I move onto the next point, I should mention that like Greg Shahade says, I don’t think Karjakin necessarily “deserved” to win the classical World Championship for this past point. He is not who I would consider to be the strongest classical player in the world and the tiebreaks were not that even/equal in terms of player strength. While I believe Karjakin is one of the best players in the world now, if someone asked ten people who they thought the best active, classical player on the planet was, I do not believe anyone would say Sergey Karjakin. Like Irina said, on the chance that Karjakin won instead of Carlsen, there would be a loss of this best player tradition. He certainly would not really prove himself to be the best classical player in the world by winning in a series of fast games. In Greg’s words:

“He does not belong in the category of Alekhine, Capablanca, Kramnik, or any other of the number of the great champions who had to knock off someone who was thought to be nearly unbeatable.”

Grandmaster Denes Boros finds the current tiebreak system exciting although it depends on the players. Nonetheless, like Alejandro, he believes the match should just end on a classical game, no matter how many games that may be. In his opinion, the classical system was more fair and fun for the audience. He optimistically believes, “players just like to play solid when they can” and:

“Chess is a beautiful game when we give it a chance.”

Citing Tal and Botvinnik’s Championship Match, he thinks classical chess still gives room for excitement in any tournament.

– 

Grandmaster Cristian Chirila likes the current format. He focused on the thrill of the tiebreak day when I asked for his thoughts. It’s not too bad for the fans to get a final decisive day. That excitement was so clear to me. I heard the cheers every time a game ended, the gasps after Karjakin found his cool stalemate. There was some serious emotion in the game of chess that I had never experienced before. It was the level of pleasure every tournament should aim to achieve.

And yet the flaw I see in this is that the players should not be obligated to give a match that is an audience pleaser. To Carlsen and Karjakin, the match was about their chess skills. It was not about the politics the media brought to attention. It was not about popularizing the game. It was about who was the better chess player. That is the way it’s always been to the champion and the challenger.

On draw odds, Cristian questions:

“What sport has a champion that ties keep the title?”

Chess players have been trying to legitimize chess as a sport for years. Why not hold it to the same standard as other sports? There is a strong effort to make chess more exciting and spectator friendly. Would catering to the desires of the viewers be the best way to make progress? This point probably opposes the previous one which illustrates how hard it is to find a necessary compromise.

No one knows the right way to balance out all the pros and cons of a tiebreak system and overall format for the World Chess Championship. There are too many big questions such as what can the organizers do the make the match good for the fans? There will always be limitations on chess, but it is obvious that overall, the positives and negatives of the match balanced each other out quite a bit. Not many sports have the same value of chess, that games are usually long and sometimes not boring. Seeing a chess game live can be more worth the money. Regardless of the tiebreak format, there will always be excitement in chess, luckily, and fans will always be there to support the players.

I will be posting more about the World Chess Championship over the next few days on Chess^Summit and Chess Club Live. Please tell me what you think of this article in the comments!!


I would like to thank Irina Krush, Fabiano Caruana, Alejandro Ramirez, Denes Boros, Cristian Chirila, and Yaacov Norowitz for taking the time to answer my questions and give your feedback on the WCC match/tiebreak. Thank you, Greg Shahade, for being the first person on my radar to address the tiebreak issues. Also thanks to Michael Mkpadi and Chess Club Live for enabling me to have this amazing WCC experience.

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9 thoughts on “WCC 2016: Is It Time for Change?

  1. The answer is almost every sport that is a 1 on 1 competition and which ties are possible, has the champion retaining their title on a draw. MMA and Boxing are the two best examples.

  2. Kick

    Draw odds for the champion worked well and 12 games is probably enough. Games 23 and 24 in Seville 1987 show the value in the champion needing to be beaten not merely parried.

  3. JUNT.

    Sixteen (16) classical games with a 17th tiebreak game, in which the champion gets the draw odds but playing with the black pieces…?

  4. Jim Rickman

    The world champion match is about determining who is the better player. It needs to be a fair fight as far as format is concerned, each player starting out even.
    Determining a classical chess match with a tie-break of rapid and blitz games is not logical. Rapid and blitz chess is a different game than classical chess.
    At today’s level, a 12-game match is too short and needs to be extended to at least 16 games.
    The world champion should retain the crown in the event of a tie. The challenger needs to defeat the champion to prove his superiority and that he’s the better player.

    1. Kick

      I tend to agree, although 16 or 12 is of little consequence. The lesser the amount of games the quicker the players are brought to a crisis of not being able to merely play safe as the match score can never be level with the champion having draw odds.. Typically in the modern era only 1 in 6 games are decisive it seems to me…..where opponents are of very comparable strength. This match met that expectation….and as exciting as the rapid was it has no place tainting the classical format.

  5. Pingback: Are Twelve Games Enough? - US Chess

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