At the Chess.com Isle of Man International, which is taking place right now, the entire chess world’s brains exploded when the first round of the Open used a random pairing system, and Caruana and Kramnik got paired.
All of this shows me the lack of imagination in the chess world.
How many open chess tournaments do we have each year? Hundreds, maybe thousands even? How many of them use the exact same pairing system? It’s pretty close to all of them.
So we have every single tournament in the world, doing the exact same thing every time. I’m going to admit that the Swiss System is a great system, and works perfectly fine as the standard pairing system for an open event. However the problem with the chess community is:
Almost any change causes everyone to freak out
Is a random pairing system unfair? Absolutely not. The results of the random draw for one particular event may be unfair, but over the long run it will turn out to be pretty fair. Everyone worries so much about Carlsen, Kramnik and how important their pairings are, but there are hundreds of players in the tournament and they matter too.
If there are 100 players, why should player 51 automatically have to play the top seeded player when nearly half the field is lower rated than her?
Why should someone ranked 70th have to play a tougher opponent than someone ranked 100th? Is that objectively fair?
This is not a closed event, and I think it’s reasonable for every player to have equal rights from the start of the event. There is nothing more equal and fair than the pairings being randomly determined in the early rounds of an event (within a scoregroup).
The Swiss System is inherently slightly unfair. Over a short sample of tournaments it will likely be MORE fair than the results of randomized pairings, but over a long sample of tournaments the randomized pairings will be fairer to all players in the event (not just the top ones).
The issue is that chess players cannot see past the one individual tournament, and therefore they are happy to accept some small degree of inherent unfairness in order to assure that any one tournament isn’t too affected by “lucky pairings”.
Let me emphasize that once again I agree that the Swiss System is a fine system, and I’m not suggesting that it gets thrown into the trash heap. It’s completely normal that most Open events should continue to use it. But while I have your attention, let me try to improve upon the Swiss System:
Computers are pretty smart these days. It shouldn’t be difficult to set up a tournament so the first round or two is random, and then the computer could go out of it’s way to “equalize” the strength of opponents that people within a score group have faced throughout the tournament. So for example, if Kramnik and Caruana play in Round 1, then the computer will do what it can to slowly make their pairings easier during the remainder of the tournament. Something like this could be even more fair than the typical Swiss Pairings. Instead of using a system that ignores any luck of the draw from the previous rounds, this new pairing system would check to see who has had easier or harder pairings, and then alter the later pairings to make it more fair for those who had the tougher draw.
So imagine you have 4 players, two who have an average opponent’s rating of 2600 and two who have an average opponent’s rating of 2500, the computer would aim to give the ones who faced a 2500 average the higher rated opponents. If you’ve had easy pairings all tournament and are tied for the lead in the final few rounds, this system will try to give you the toughest pairings they can. Can you tell me any reason why something like this would not be more “fair” than the Swiss System?
What I’m suggesting is that when someone tries something different, and one which has obvious logical merits, that everyone doesn’t freak out because maybe one of the top players in the world got an unlucky break. In an open tournament everyone matters, not just the top 5 seeds. And by trying new things, we could experiment and perhaps find a way to improve upon the way things have been done for so long, such as my idea of a pairing system which specifically tries to equalize every player’s strength of opponent as the tournament progresses.
And lastly, the players all knew what the pairing system was and they agreed to play in the tournament. At the time of this writing, Caruana and Kramnik are playing an exciting chess game.
They are possibly taking more risk than they would have if the game took place at the end of the tournament. Why are we complaining about this!