Tournament I

by zenquaker

There was a post on one of the internet Chess sites I frequent about the World Chess Championships. I responded to the thread, and got flamed pretty hard, mostly because I think people were misinterpreting my position. I got out of the conversation when it became a willful misinterpretation of my position, because there’s no point in dealing with that sort of “conversation.” Unfortunately, the probability that an internet conversation will turn into that sort of thing is approximately the number of posts divided by 32. Which is part of why I made this blog, so I could just post my rants without the flame wars, I just forget the wisdom of that from time to time.

First, let me give some background for the non-Chess types (serious Chess types can skip to here). The world Chess championship is run as a match between the current champion and the person who won the candidate’s tournament. The candidate’s tournament is invite only, but most of the invites are won by winning certain prestigious tournaments. Others are given out to the highest rated player, the previous winner of the candidate’s tournament, and by the host of the tournament.

The current world champion is Viswanathan Anand, and the winner of the last candidate’s tournament is Boris Gelfand. Gelfand has been finishing in the bottom half of tournaments consistently since he won the candidate’s tournament, and is currently ranked 40th in the world. The prospect of the 40th best tournament player being the challenger for the world championship is making the whole thing look dumber than the Bowl Championship Series.

One subtle distinction here is that you become the challenger by winning tournaments (one or two games each against a bunch of players) but you become the world champion by winning a match (a dozen or so games against a single person). Many players much better than I am maintain that match play is much different than tournament play. I don’t know, I’ve never played a match (except playing one of my high school friends after school two or three times a week for a couple years).

This is what I find odd about the whole system. If match play is different than tournament play, why does tournament play figure so heavily in the world championship cycle? It seems like you should go for one or the other. Or, if you are trying to measure the best in both skills, that match play should have a greater emphasis. Currently it only applies in the World Championship itself. The latest Candidates tournament tried to adjust for that by making the contests between players more match-like. However, to make it fit into the time constraints they were short matches, and if they weren’t resolve quickly the time controls changed, to the point of many “matches” being decided by blitz games (where each player gets less than 15 minutes to make all their moves). I may not know about match vs. tournament, but blitz vs. classical time controls definitely involves different skills.

The paucity of match play actually refutes an argument some of the proponents of the final contest being match play. They argue that the current system produces someone good at both, since you have to be good at tournament play to get into the final match. But that doesn’t mean you have to be good at match play. You could easily get two players who are great at tournament play but stink at match play fighting for the world championship.

In some sense it comes down to how you define “Chess.” Is it match play or is it tournament play? Unfortunately I tried to start a conversation on what the definition of Chess is by referring to how Chess is played. The vast majority of (competitive) Chess is played in tournaments. This led people to think I was claiming the right to define Chess as tournament play. If no one plays matches, why have it be part of the World Championship cycle? If it is important in judging who is the best Chess player, why isn’t there more emphasis on it?

I could see a world where there was more match play. At the major tournaments you usually have the players in groups, with the best in the A group. These are the guys who are potential contenders for the World Championship. Why not take two of those guys out at every tournament and have them play a match while everyone else is playing a tournament? Then you could get more information on the match play skills of the top players. You could use that information to make a world championship cycle that really did test both skills.

Or you could set up a two world championship cycles, on for match play and one for tournament play. There is currently a separate world championship for blitz Chess, why not separate ones for match and tournament play? If you go back to looking at how Chess is actually played you will see that there is a lot more people playing blitz out there than there are people playing matches.

As an interesting side note, one of the Chess sites I’m on has started hosting “death matches:” 3 hour matches of blitz/bullet chess, with time controls starting at about 6 minutes for each player to make all their moves to about 2 minutes.