The World Chess Championship is kinda not so great

As I write this, the chess Candidates Tournament is still expected to be held as scheduled, starting March 17, 2020, in Yekaterinburg, Russia. The tournament is between eight of the top chess players who aren’t currently the World Champion. The winner of the tournament will earn the right to play a match against the current World Champion, to decide the next World Champion.

It’s already off to a rocky start, with the last-minute withdrawal (or ejection?) of one of the players, Teimour Radjabov, over a dispute about Coronavirus precautions.

The Candidates Tournament is held every two years or so, and the format is not the same every time. In 2020, it will be a simple double-round-robin tournament. That’s generally not a good way to select a single winner. But on the plus side, it doesn’t take forever, and a single lost game won’t knock you out.

One problem with the format is that the winner will probably be determined largely by the players who play the worst. Perhaps the player who plays the worst will be Kirill Alekseenko, who would seem to be the weakest player in the field by some margin. He received a wildcard invitation, basically because the tournament organizers had verbally committed to nominating a Russian, and he turned out to be the only Russian eligible.

Most of the players are so evenly matched, and will be playing so conservatively, that there will be a lot of drawn games. Even the weakest player will probably draw most of his games. A player fortunate enough to win both of his games against the weakest player stands a good chance of winning the tournament. On the other hand, if the weakest player has a good day and wins a game, well, the loser of that game’s chances become slim. The only question might be how hard he’ll play in his remaining games. Will he try his best in every game, or will he appoint himself kingmaker by, well, not doing that?

But I think the biggest problem with the Candidates Tournament is not the format; it’s that it exists at all. It’s the year 2020, and the World Chess Championship is still an old-school king-of-the-hill contest. The format gives the reigning champion a massive advantage over everybody else. If everyone were equally good, he’d have a 50% chance of retaining his title, and each of the eight Candidates players would have a 6.25% chance of winning it.

A king-of-the-hill format probably made more sense a long time ago, when the best one or two players were often considerably better than everybody else. But that’s not the case anymore.

I will admit there’s something compelling about a one-on-one champion-versus-challenger match. But in the interest of fairness, I have to say I’m not the biggest fan.

Any change in the format would inevitably result in more different people becoming World Champion. It would reduce the prestige of being World Champion. I think that’s okay. Use it as an opportunity to try to increase the prestige of winning other big tournaments, and of other titles like the blitz champion.

The thing is, this has already been tried.

From about 1993 to 2006, there was a schism in the chess world championship. During that time, FIDE (chess’s main governing body) used a different format that generally did not give an advantage to the defending champion. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of different FIDE World Champions in that era. I think they went too far — it was too easy for an unheralded player to become champion.

Plus, there was the tiny little problem of the existence a rival chess championship, started by a organization called PCA (largely influenced by Garry Kasparov). The PCA championship used a king-of-the-hill format like the former FIDE format. To a lot of people, it became the real world championship.

(Just so I don’t give the wrong idea: It was evidently the schism that led to the change in format, not vice versa as one might suspect.)

The chess championship was reunified around 2006, settling on the traditional king-of-the-hill format.

So, the thing I’m advocating for has been tried — badly, I’d say — and it failed. I suppose that makes it pretty unlikely to be tried again in the foreseeable future.

I guess what I’d prefer is close to what exists now, except that the Candidates Tournament would choose both of the finalists, instead of just one. It’s a tough call as to whether to keep the high-stakes one-on-one match for the Championship much like it is. It’s an interesting format that we don’t see enough of. But it really is kind of boring (lots of draws), and since much of the time it wouldn’t feature a defending champion, it might not be prestigious enough to justify taking it so seriously.

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