Ok the World Chess Championship System isn’t THAT Stupid

I was fired up yesterday, I admit it. I was so annoyed by the tiebreak system that my mind  spiraled out of control. I ended up writing some things that after reflecting for 24 hours, I think were wrong. But I like writing things and getting the discussion going, and without writing that it would have been hard for me to arrive at the conclusions of this blog.

I realized that there is huge merit in having the Candidates determined by one single event, in which all participants begin on an even footing. The drama and intrigue behind such an event is very hard to match.However I still think that some important changes should be made, and will lay those out at the end of this article.

There was an exciting game today but the final round was terribly marred by a horrible tiebreak system. The chess world will slightly forget about this due to Karjakin’s +3 score, but they may not remember that this score was achieved mostly because Caruana desperately had to push for a win. In any normal circumstance this game would have been more likely to end in a draw and we would have gone to tiebreaks.

Despite all of that, Karjakin played a strong tournament and is certainly deserving of a match against Carlsen (and I think that Caruana is as well). I think this match will definitely be more competitive than some people think, although Carlsen is very likely to win.

Anyone who reads my writing frequently knows that I’m in favor of some pretty drastic changes. One that Maurice Ashley announced today, which I’ve been arguing in favor of for years, is the elimination of the draw as a result in chess. I do believe that this is the solution to many problems in chess. One example way that this could work is to cut maybe 30 minutes off the starting time for each player, and if the game is drawn, reverse colors and start again with 20 minutes per side. If that game is drawn, go to 10 minutes, then to 5 and etc. I would prefer to use a very small increment throughout.

I no longer love the idea of starting the second game with the amount of time you end the first game with. The reason for this is that it would take a lot away from the quality of that one slow game, and this would upset too many of the chess purists. This is also a great way to make rapid and speed chess actually mean something. It combines all types of chess into one nice little package and eliminates the draw as a final chess result in tournament play.

So yes, I do favor eliminating draws, but I also would like to discuss some proposals to improve the Candidates Cycle in it’s current form. It will not be as drastic as my last blog on the subject, but I think these changes would have very positive and important impacts.

First let’s examine the issues with the current tournament:

  1. The Tiebreak

A huge amount of time and thought needs to be put into the tiebreak system. In a Round Robin, it makes virtually no sense to use tiebreaks and therefore a playoff format should be used. What should be the precise nature of that playoff format? It’s difficult to say, but it’s important that it’s both fair for all players who tie for first, and simple enough for the general audience to understand.

The current tiebreak system in which it came down to # of wins/losses was simply atrocious and an insult to players who fought so hard for weeks.

2. What to do with the Tail-Enders?

When you are determining something as serious as who will compete for the World Championship, someone with absolutely no hope should not be facing someone who’s playing for the title in the very final round. This is simply unsporting.

You can turn around and tell me that in all pro sports this is a thing, but that’s a drastic oversimplification. In the NFL it’s true that the final playoff spot may be determined by teams that aren’t in the race anymore, but in this case we are only talking about those fringe teams that are barely qualifying. We determine who plays in the Super Bowl by Head to Head play, and this remains true in almost every sporting contest. In this case, we are talking about who will compete for the Championship of the World. This cannot be determined by the final round play of the 7th/8th place finisher, and it’s not impossible to fix this

3. The Qualification System

The qualification system has to be clear and reliable. I love Levon Aronian and think he was a great Wild Card, but this is the World Championship of Chess. Under no circumstances should a Wild Card spot exist.

What is my Proposal to Fix this System?

I think the main issue is point #2. By the halfway point of the event, you can pretty much write off about half of the field. Yet that half of the field is still in there, playing other people, and determining who will play Carlsen for the title. My recommendation is as follows:

A: The Candidates Tournament begins with 9 players, and they play a single Round Robin.

I am using nine players as a number to ensure that all players get an equal number of blacks versus whites. I am aware that someone will have an annoying bye in every round. I would automatically assign the last round bye to the lowest rated participant, although it could also just be random.

B: At the end of this Round Robin, the top four finishers qualify for the next stage

The next stage of the event is a double round robin between the top 4/9, and the remaining 5 players have now been eliminated. Let’s face it, if they couldn’t finish in the top 4 after eight games, they probably aren’t going to win the tournament.

The final four players all retain their same scores, and after those 6 games, we now have a new World Championship contender. Whoever is in 1st/2nd place going into the second stage are scheduled to play in Game 3 of this new Double Round Robin. After the first three games of this tournament, the pairings are once again redone so that whoever is now in first place is scheduled to play against second place in Game 6. This only affects the order of the games, but does not affect the schedule or color distribution. The purpose is to maximize the chance that the top players are fighting for the spot in the final round.

C: Incentives remain in place to ensure fighting chess in the Final Four:

The runner up and third place finisher automatically qualifies for next year’s Candidates Tournament.

D: All ties at any point of the competition are broken by playoff

Why is this format better?

  1. After the first eight rounds, you eliminate the players who have very little chance to qualify. This makes it much easier for the press to digest
  2. You almost completely avoid those spots where a someone two players shooting for first place are playing people who aren’t in the running in the most important chess games of the tournament
  3. You create amazing drama in the final Round of the original Round Robin, as people watch to see which four qualify.
  4. There is no reason that someone like Topalov, who had a big negative score after 8 games, needs to keep playing. Once you are not seriously competing to make the Championship, why are you still determining the outcome of the event? It’s completely illogical.
  5. The final 6 games of the event are going to be incredible battles between the four people who are in contention to qualify. It’s possible that by Round 3-4 of this 6 round finale someone will be out of the running, but they will still be desperately fighting to keep their spot in the next Candidates Cycle.

I believe this system results in a vastly improved format that will result in very few strange situations in the final round of play. This is for the Championship of the World. If you can’t be in the top 4 after 8 rounds, you really don’t need to still be in the tournament.

Regarding Qualification for the future Cycles:

I’d propose the following:

2 spots from the FIDE World Cup

2 spots from the Grand Prix

2 spots from rating

1 spot from the previous Championship Match Loser

2 spots that go to the 2nd+3rd place finisher from the previous Candidates Tournament

While I still think that my previous blog has merit, the problem with my proposal is that it would eliminate the dramatic spectacle of the Candidates Tournament. Also it created a weird circumstance where the World Champion still has to compete. So I definitely prefer the format laid out above.

On one hand we were lucky this year that Karjakin and Caruana faced off in the final round. On the other hand we were unlucky that the tiebreak was so weird that it drastically influenced the course of play. This is the World Chess Championship, let’s take every aspect of the event seriously. Let’s make the tiebreaks fair and logical, and let’s also stop allowing people who aren’t in contention from having such a prominent affect on who will be the next contender.

I will never support a system in which 8th place could play 1st place in the final round and the result of this game determines the next World Championship Contender. You must do everything possible to try to equalize the incentives for both players when the stakes are this high.



8 thoughts on “Ok the World Chess Championship System isn’t THAT Stupid

  1. For What It’s Worth, FIDE actually says the Candidates “Tournament is traditionally considered to be the most important part of the FIDE World Chess Championship cycle.” Maybe an exaggeration (to get the Armenian head of state to show up, it’s from the invitation letter), but probably from the standpoint of drama and intrigue, it can at least be on the same footing as the Championship itself, depending on how things pan out. Also, from a player’s perspective, it’s harder to win the Candidates (in current form) than a match. (From FIDE’s point of view, they make more money off the Championship, so it must be the “most important”)


  2. At first, upon reading the headline, I thought the follow-up would say “It’s even WORSE!”
    All joking aside, when things go “well” (clear #1 faces clear #2) no one blames the system, and else it’s a free-for-all. Look at the BCS in college football. First couple of years there was a nice matchup and no-one complained, but after a decade of various difficulties, it seems that some people actually want political action (?!) on the matter.

    One niggling theoretical point about the new system. In the “amazing drama” of Round 9, do the tailenders (those who can’t make top 4) have any incentive? Also, in your 9 qualifiers, what if some persons are duplicated? Currently the FIDE GP 3rd place finisher (Jakovenko) and then go down the ratings list (Kramnik, etc.) is used. Would you even allow someone to compete in the GP if they were already qualified? These are details of course, but if history is any measure, FIDE will just pick a “off-the-rack” system they find somewhere, and not think through any difficulties.


  3. Why not return to a variation of the hybrid system – tournaments followed by matches – that determined the candidacies of Fischer, Karpov, etc.? The objective is to determine, with no extraneous issues like motivation, the best possible player to face the World Champion in a match. An incidental advantage to match play to determine the challenger is that they become historical highlights in chess history – Fischer v Taimanov, Fischer v Larsen, Fischer v Petrosian.


    • I have to agree that head-2-head is a better way, yet impractical with current funding (if the matches are to be any real length). Some of the fights would probably end up being classic (and possible rematches the next time around), though given the nicey-nicey of press confs, others wouldn’t ascend. Vince McMahon would have to be hired to do the pairings, to ensure maximum enthsuiasm.


  4. You’re basically advocating a complicated Swiss system where the bottom half withdraws after a certain point.

    Faif ’nuff, but my biggest complaint is you’d have a lot of tie breaks to finish the top 4. The middle of the pack, halfway through, is usually 4 tied players. How do you sort that out?


    • Some kind of playoff. Also it’s not really a Swiss if it’s a Round Robin 🙂

      Ideally I’d like it to be just 8 players and after one cycle you cut it in half, but then the colors aren’t equalized 😦


  5. Why not go back to matches for the quarters and semis, but hold them all at the same event?
    Look, the candidates tourney was eight players playing 14 games. That could translateto a six game quarter and an eight game semi. Rapid/Blitz tiebreaks just like the World cup. Every game matters, no one can complain that someone won by just picking off the tailenders.
    The only downside is the at the end you have two players left needing a candidates final match. But that is a positive; revenue opportunity! I’m sure you could find somewhere easy to host a ten game match. If not, then I have two spare couches and a webcam. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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