The Format for the Chess Olympiad is Stupid

I don’t know why the chess community can’t get the following extremely simple concept through their head:

“Major chess events should conclude with a climactic showdown between the two top players or teams”

This extremely basic concept, which is used in nearly 90-95% of all major sporting competitions, is seemingly lost on the chess community. In fact to even suggest that “hey, maybe instead of Team 1 playing Team 4, and Team 2 playing Team 7 in the final match, how about they just play each other?”, you’ll be treated to a litany of people spamming your blog post to inform you that you’re the biggest idiot in the world.

Will these people write to MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, the Olympic Games, The World Cup, The Champions Cup, The Euro Cup, The NCAA and basically every major sporting competition except for National Soccer Leagues, to tell them how dumb they are?

We just witnessed the Olympiad ending in ridiculous fashion, with USA playing Canada, while Ukraine played Slovenia. Neither team had any chance of getting first place, yet here they both are, determining which team will be Champions of the world. But that was not the most ridiculous part of the final round. The most ridiculous part was after the USA and Ukraine unsurprisingly dispatched their much lower ranked opponents, the result then came down to the match between Estonia and Germany.

Germany and Estonia came into the final round of the event in 54th and 70th place. All eyes were on them as because of some absurd tiebreak format, the USA needed Germany to win in order to win the gold medal.

Let me counter the normal argument that the chess fans all scream in unison:

“But wait Greg, in the NFL there are dumb tiebreaks all the time that determine what teams make the playoffs, so how is this not the exact same thing”

It’s not the exact same thing because we aren’t talking about which borderline teams just squeak into the postseason. We are talking about which team will win the gold medal! You don’t determine who wins the Super Bowl by watching the Cleveland Browns play the Tennessee Titans.

Here is exactly how the Olympiad should work:

There should be 9-11 rounds of play. At the end of these rounds, the top four teams go into a four team playoff, with 1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3. Do I care that the fifth place team didn’t quite make the cut because of a tiebreak? Of course not! I’d rather see a tiebreak affect 5th place than 1st place! Let the teams fighting for first battle it out head to head.

If the playoff matches are drawn, there is a team tiebreak match at rapid time control. If it’s drawn again, speed up the time control again. Eventually someone will win. Then the two winners play in a grand championship match.

What I have just proposed above is exactly how any sane sporting organization would run an event like this. But it’s not the way chess does it, and they haven’t for years, so people will complain about how the current system is better. The current amazing system in which the final round consists of a bunch of mismatches and then sitting around and watching the 70th place team to see who’s the champion, if we can even figure out the tiebreak system to begin with.

Can the chess world for once just admit that the rest of the world isn’t insane or delusional, and actually knows how to run sporting events? Ukraine and USA should have played today. They both went through the tournament with a 10-1 record! And the winner of their head to head match should have been champion. This is absolutely basic.

But at least for all the U.S.A fans, the tiebreaks fell on our side this time.

 

Amazing Comment from my Last Blog Post

I’m reposting this comment as a blog post because I believe it’s all pretty much the truth and I don’t think I could have said it better myself. I have very little to add to it. It’s referring to blitz and rapid time controls for chess. While I definitely think there are some obvious ways to improve blitz and rapid tournaments like this one, the event still seemed like a big success. Thanks for the great thoughts “A French Chess Player”

“The actual numbers of viewers turned out to be way greater than Dailymotion’s (Vivendi group) best expectations. The same phenomenon was noticed for the world rapid and blitz championship in Berlin and in the Zürich chess tournament. In my opinion, rapid should replace classical as the main time control, for several reasons :
* It will make chess more popular, and more people will watch top events (they outnumber the advocates of classical chess), because the games will be shorter and less games will be drawn.
* The importance of the preparation will diminish. In rapid chess, obtaining an advantage in the opening does not matter as much as in classical. Pure chess skills will prevail.
* The best chess players in classical are the best chess players in rapid. Carlsen won both last rapid championships. Anand finished undefeated in Dubaï while Kramnik finished undefeated in Berlin, in 15 rounds. Other top players finished in the top places, and not the 2600s.
* It helps fighting against certain forms of cheating (going to the toilets at each move, talking with a stronger player during when the opponent is thinking, …).
* Those who point out that the quality will greatly diminish should be reminded that chess tournaments are competitive, and not about theoretical chess. You play your best chess under time constraints. By the way, top players can still play amazingly well in rapid.
* More amateurs will play in chess tournaments. I know many people who stopped chess when they started working, because they do not have much holidays as before and cannot spend 8 consecutive days playing chess. We need tournaments lasting around 3 days (they exist, but being >2200, I cannot play them …)
Fortunately, some top players are of the same opinion. Anand said this week-end that “the old wisdom of playing classical chess is dated”.”

Can We Please Start Formatting Chess Tournaments So People Will Watch Them?

I love blitz and rapid chess, and think that it’s a great idea to have serious top level tournaments with faster time controls.

As we speak there is a rapid/blitz hybrid tournament taking place in Paris for the Grand Chess Tour. Sadly it seems that the organizers have done everything in their power to make this tournament as unfriendly as possible for the chess fan to watch.

First let’s talk about a few important features to a live show:

1. It should not be unreasonably long.

No one except for the most die hard fans are going to sit and watch a 5-7 hour show from beginning to end. I know it may sound crazy, but my goal would be to put together a product that people will want to watch at the start, and stay until the very end. With blitz and rapid this is your chance to make this a reality.

My feeling is that a 3-4 hour show is ideal, although I’d try to lean towards the shorter side of that window. For the Ultimate Blitz Challenge in St. Louis, which was incredibly well run, I set aside the time every day to watch the show. I was able to do this because it had a reasonable running time of about three hours.

2. There should not be constant prolonged periods with zero action

After a few blitz games it makes some sense to have a break of 10-15 minutes. However to do this after every game is suicidal to your viewership, and is just going to result in large throngs of your viewers stopping to do something else.

One great thing about rapid and blitz chess is it’s the perfect way to normalize chess events. Instead of these ridiculously long 5-7 hour coverage of slow chess games, that you will never convince people to watch and stay engaged with from beginning to end, you actually have a chance to engage chess fans nonstop for 3 hours.

Instead the schedule for this tournament is:

Day 1 – 7 hours

Day 2 – 5.5 hours

Day 3- 5 hours

Day 4 – 5 hours

It could have EASILY been at least 2 hours less every single day. It’s almost as if the organizers are begging people not to follow the tournament live.

Let’s talk about what I think the key mistakes are:

1. Rapid chess should be a little faster

Something in the range of 15+3 seems much more appropriate than 25+5. The key is that if you need to have five games in a day, you should make it so that you never expect a game to go longer than 40 minutes. Then you can start the next round after the 45 minute mark.

So if you have 5 games in a day it should be something like:

Game 1 – 2 PM

Game 2 – 2:45 PM

Game 3 – 3:30 PM

now the players will get a 15 minute rest after their games…

Game 4 – 4:30 PM

Game 5 – 5:15 PM

This results in a playing day of under 4 hours, minimizes downtime, and makes it a digestible package for fans to follow at home while still using a rapid chess time control.

Instead the Grand Chess Tour is using a crazy schedule where the first round is at 2 PM and the final round is at 8 PM, for what turns into a 7 hour schedule. This is just an insane amount of chess in one day that no one can even dream of following.

Even worse, it’s absolute torture for the players. Players don’t play well or appreciate it when they are forced to suffer through such barbaric playing schedules.

2. Nine games of Blitz should not take 5 hours!

When you look at their blitz scheduling it’s even more laughable. For some insane reason, they decided there should be 30 minutes in between every single blitz round! With a time control of 5 2, the games should take about 10-15 minutes on average. Why in the world do they want 8 periods every single day where there is 15 minutes of nothing? What do you think your fans are going to do every time there’s nothing happening for 15 minutes?

The Ultimate Blitz Challenge, which was widely hailed as one of the most thrilling chess events in modern history, was a 3 hour show every day with nine blitz games per day. The Paris event is somehow a 5 hour show every day with nine blitz games per day. This is complete lunacy.

What should the blitz schedule be?

5 minutes to start with a 3 second delay, just like the extremely exciting Ultimate Blitz Challenge.

How should the schedule work?

Round 1: 2:00 PM

Round 2: Begins 2-3 minutes after Game 1 ends

Round 3: Begins 2-3 minutes after Round 2 ends

10 minute break after Round 3 and then continue on.

Chess players are capable of playing blitz game after blitz game, anyone who has played chess knows this. I would argue that the long breaks actually make it more tiring for the players.

By giving this unnecessary rest time, you are severely damaging your show and you are basically begging everyone who’s watching at home: “please find something else to do, because there’s going to be no action for the next 15 minutes, and will repeat this process 8 times during the show”.

3. It’s exhausting for the commentators!

Do you know how hard it is to talk about chess for 5-7 hours in a row? It’s absolutely mind numbing. It’s a testament to the great commentators in St. Louis that they still manage to put on a good show with such insanely long running times, but I guarantee you that they are suffering. The quality and energy level becomes so much better if you manage to make it a 3 hour show.

Especially in blitz+rapid, the games should be shorter, the rest times condensed, and the show running times reduced. Players and fans alike will appreciate three hours days.

I’m just so tired of chess organizers making no effort to make their events fan friendly. Let’s please just try to ask ourselves before a chess event “What can we do to actually encourage people to watch our show”, and then after asking that question, let’s do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Common Sense Loses to Slow Time Controls

I have just finished attending three National Championship Scholastic Chess Events. One thing I’m generally pretty good at is thinking to myself “if I wasn’t a chess player and wasn’t already immersed in this community, what would I think about things?”

Here’s what I’d think:

“What kind of insane person decided that a child in 3rd grade should be playing chess from 9:00 AM until 11:00PM?”

I know that as American chess players most of us are obsessed with making the game as slow as possible and squeezing in as many hours of chess as possible in a given day. It fits in with our culture of fetishizing those who work 10-12 hour days. But you know what?

THESE ARE CHILDREN!

I don’t care what values you have or how important you think having two hours on the clock is. The moment you tell me that an extremely young child should have to stay up until 11 PM in order to play chess, I stop listening to you as a rational person.

Jason Wang, the #2 ranked 9 year old in the nation, rated 2120, has a bedtime of around 8pm. Of course Jason is one of the most talented kids in the country. Now we are asking him to stay up 3 hours past his bedtime? This is complete lunacy. His father agreed and therefore Jason took a half point bye in Round 5.

How much sleep should children get? From the age of 7-12, ten to twelve hours of sleep is recommended. This is made completely unrealistic with the schedule we currently have in place.

The father of Maximillian Lu, the #2 ranked 10 year old in the nation at 2180 USCF, asked me “why do they use these time controls? It’s too much chess in one day”. On day 3 Max played multiple consecutive four hour games. Needless to say he was completely exhausted for round 5. After the tournament Max’s father wrote me an email to point out that “Max played 22 hours of chess over 7 games”.

The parents of Nate Shuman, the #3 ranked 9 year old in the country at 2050 USCF, were very passionate about how cruel the time control is. Nate’s mother gathered opinions from other top players who agreed and presented them at the Scholastic Meeting. GM Max Dlugy and GM Alex Lenderman were some of the most vocal opponents. Max said “absolutely no professional player would play under these conditions, why are we forcing children to do so?”

I’m telling you about the personal opinions of most of the parents of the top 9-10 year old players in the country. But I shouldn’t have to. Because any person who has common sense should realize that you shouldn’t ask anyone, much less a child, to play chess from 9AM until 11PM.

At the National Junior High Championship one player took a draw in Round 5. I asked why in a post game interview and he said “I’m just so exhausted, I can barely think”. This is a chess tournament, not a contest to see who can stay up the longest and focus without proper sleep.

If you asked Magnus Carlsen to play in a tournament like this, he’d look at you like you were crazy, and then laugh you out of the room. We can’t keep doing this to children.

There has to be a limit to what you force people, especially children, to endure in order to preserve this mythical “quality of chess” obsession. To ensure that kids feel like they got enough bang for their buck in the National Championships, it’s required to have seven games over three days. So since reducing the event to six rounds isn’t an option, this simply means we MUST speed up the time control. Here is my proposal for the time control and the games on Saturday.

The time control would be 90 minutes to start with a 5 second delay.

The schedule would be:

9 AM – Round 3

1 PM – Round 4

6 PM – Round 5

I added an extra hour break in between Rounds 4+5 because that is when kids will be most exhausted and this way they can be assured a decent dinner break and maybe even a short nap. Note that in general I would always try to ensure a full two hours rest in between rounds, but I think an exception probably should be made for one round on Saturday to ensure that kids expect to finish their games no later than 9:15 PM.

I admit that this schedule is still likely to be the most demanding schedule in the nation of any serious tournament and I would never dream of using it for any tournament I organized, but let’s use the baby steps method to end this madness.

The good news? When this topic was brought up at the Scholastic Meeting, it was met with unanimous support. The bad news? There is some overly complex and strange process needed to make the most obvious common sense change one could imagine.

Stop making children play chess until 11 PM! This is not rocket science. We are trying to promote something that’s good for children, not look like out of touch, one dimensional weirdos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Highlights from the Ultimate Blitz Challenge

It’s time for blitz to step out of the sidelines and become just as popular and respected as “classical chess”. The blitz event we saw this past week in St. Louis showed what an incredible spectacle a well organized blitz tournament can become.

You can see how little attention is paid to blitz by looking at the so called “World Championship”. The World Championship is a 21 round Swiss that lasts two days? This is not a real championship, this is a weekend Swiss.

While Kasparov definitely had some part in it, the blitz tournament was the most popular event in the history of St. Louis. This event got the most unique viewers online in the history of all events St. Louis has organized, and this is despite running the Sinquefield Cup and U.S. Championships for many years.

I have already thought of many great formats for serious top level blitz tournaments, but for now I’d like to talk about something else that’s important: The quality of the chess.

Watching someone play blitz is like peering through a window into their soul. Their raw chess instincts are on full display and you get to see which moves are the first ones to pop into a top player’s head. I was consistently impressed by the decisions they made under intense pressure. You get to recognize Kasparov’s unbridled aggression. You get to see Nakamura’s extremely cool defense under pressure.

We also got to see a game that is one of the most talked about games in years. I’m of course referring to the incredible “immortal blitz game” by Wesley So against Garry Kasparov.

What we are going to do in this blog piece, is find one key moment from every single round. In each of these moments you’ll be asked to come up with a move or find a plan. What I hope to demonstrate is that even in such fast time controls, the players come up with great moves and great ideas. Meanwhile there are also moments where they miss things that should be instinctual to them. I hope that these 18 moments will be helpful learning examples for you, and will also help you to respect the beauty and skill that goes into a speed chess game:

 

Round 1 (Nakamura vs Caruana) – Black to move

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In such positions there is always a clear plan, and this plan should be instinctual. Black’s idea should be to blockade the passed pawn with the king, so that the queen can roam free. Someone of Caruana’s level should be able to process this even with just seconds on the clock (he was down to about 5 seconds with the delay), but unfortunately his nerves were too great, he failed to realize this plan (instead playing …Kc6), and even ended up losing the game.

Black’s simplest way to win is 1…Kc7, with the idea of checking the white king and then placing the king on d8. If white plays 2. Kd2, black can continue with simply 2…h4 and eventually the white king will have to allow a check.

Round 2: (Caruana vs So) – White to Move

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How should white continue here? A standard idea would be to simply move the d2 knight, then develop the c1 bishop. This type of idea is totally fine. However the plan that Caruana chose is one of those “window into the soul” moments.

Caruana realizes his bishop on g2 no longer has such a great future. He decided that he wasn’t 100% sure which direction his knight wants to go. For instance, if the b5 pawn ever moves, the knight has an incredible home on the c4 square.

Therefore Fabiano decided to activate his bishop via 1. h4, with the idea of 2. Bh3. Top players are always looking for ways to activate their pieces, and this is a very typical idea. With an extensive chess education, such ideas can come easier. For example here is a bonus puzzle for you, and one that I have come across multiple times in my career. I bet Fabiano has also:

Bonus Puzzle: Korchnoi vs Penrose – White to Move

korchnoipenrose

White clearly has a good position, but how to make progress? Well the bishop on g2 isn’t doing that much, so Korchnoi found the strong idea of 1. h4 followed by 2. Bh3, putting unbearable pressure on the black position. This should have been very easy for you after seeing Fabiano’s move!

A strong knowledge of classical puzzles such as this one (it’s in one of the Dvoretsky books and I think it’s also in an Aagaard book), will result in the ability to play such ideas even in a very fast game.

Round 3 (Wesley So vs Hikaru Nakamura) – White to play

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In such positions there are many well known plans, however Wesley played the most common one.

Wesley played the move 1. h4. It’s important to notice that this pawn can be captured by black’s bishop. This is a very important thematic idea in this opening. Typically 1…Bxh4 fails to 2. d5, but in this instance it turns out that 2…exd5 3. Bh6 black can simply sac the exchange with 3…Bf6 and retain excellent compensation (in more standard lines like this, Bxh4 is a horrible move due to the d5 idea because the moves Bh6 and Re8 are already thrown in). Instead Wesley turned it into a pure pawn sacrifice after 1…Bxh4 2. Nxh4 Qxh4 3. Re3, retained excellent compensation, and won black’s queen after a nasty little trap

Another idea here is to play 1. Bh6 first and only after 1…Re8 play 2. h4. In this case 2…Bxh4 3. d5 is more annoying since if black captures they lose a whole piece.

Other typical ideas are to reposition the c2 bishop as it’s now hitting a wall on g6. For example 1. Bh6 Re8 2. Ba4, pinning the c6 knight, can be annoying for black.

I’m sure that Wesley knew about all these options and chose the one that he felt was best at the time. The main point is it’s important to know about all of these typical plans.

4. (Wesley So vs Garry Kasparov) – White to Move

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White is down a pawn and unless he does something serious, he’s just going to have a worse position. Unfortunately for Wesley, his instincts let him down here.

Wesley played the move 1. Qe2 but after 1…Nc7, black now had the advantage. What should Wesley play instead? It’s clear that Wesley should be playing for some kind of attacking formation. Two reasonable ideas would be 1. Qf4 or 1. Ng5 with the idea of a king side attack.

What’s the main lesson here? In positions where you have sacrificed a pawn, you need to play in the spirit of the position, otherwise you will simply find yourself down a pawn for nothing. Black’s king is clearly a bit compromised and I can guarantee you that Kasparov would have never retreated with Qe2 as Wesley did, as his feel for such positions is too strong.

Time and time again during the tournament, Garry Kasparov would find ways to “move forward” in such positions and maintain the initiative. The great players can process this stuff extremely quickly (and even Yasser Seirawan in the commentary booth was baffled by So’s Qe2 decision).

Round 5 (Kasparov vs Nakamura) – White to Move

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It is in this position that we get to see the “always moving forward” side of Garry Kasparov.

When you take a look at this position, it’s clear that the d5 square and d6 pawns are weak, and therefore white has an advantage. I don’t think I would hesitate long before playing the natural 1. Nc3, controlling d5, and simply maintaining my advantage. This move was also expected by GM Yasser Seirawan, and it’s certainly a fine move.

Garry Kasparov however doesn’t simply play the normal looking moves. He seems to find ways to go about things in a somewhat more aggressive fashion. He played the strong move 1. Ng5 with the idea of invading on e6. This definitely moves the knight further away from the key d5 point, but it still causes serious problems in black’s camp. After 1…Qf6 2. Rxe8 Rxe8 3. Re1 Rxe1 4. Qxe1 it now became a pure queen+knight vs queen+ knight position in which white had a clear advantage. Kasparov’s slightly more aggressive knight sortie helped him to simplify things into a position that’s very easy to play in blitz, and he ended up winning the game.

Is 1. Ng5 much stronger than 1. Nc3? I’m not sure it’s that big of a difference, but I did appreciate the fact that Kasparov didn’t just settle for the more natural looking move. Although perhaps to him, Ng5 is more natural than Nc3.

Round 6: (Caruana vs Kasparov) – Black to Move

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It’s positions like this where you really get to see the essence of how Garry Kasparov plays. White has just attacked the pawn on c6, but Garry doesn’t even consider the possibility of passively defending his queenside.

Instead Garry instantly lashed out with 1…Bd3 2. Qa4 f4, with the idea of a kingside attack. After this strong practical decision the game became complex and Garry achieved a winning position with his attack.

What is the point? The idea is that with very low time on the clock, these players have to skill to recognize when it is the right moment to attack, and when it’s the right idea to sit back and defend. Garry is especially good at finding the right times to counter with an attack.

Round 7: (Kasparov vs So) White to Move

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I found this to be one of the most incredible moments of the tournament, and one of the most instructive as well.

White has some very dangerous ideas involving 1. Nxf6. In fact, according to computer analysis, they turn out quite well for white.

Garry spent a long time thinking here, well over a minute, and the entire world expected that maybe he was thinking about this sacrifice. Eventually he played the move 1. Rd1, and it looked like he had decided against the sac. Black quickly replied with 1…a5 and almost immediately Kasparov responded with 2. Nf6!

What the heck happened here? Why did Garry think forever, ignore the sacrifice, and then play it almost instantly a move later? It all comes down to very important chess concepts.

Garry knows that Nf6 might be good, but aside from sacrificing his pieces for the attack, he also has other strong urges. What is that other strong urge? It’s to get all your pieces into the game before mounting your attack.

It was obvious that Garry was calculating these lines, and figured they might be good, but let’s develop the rook first to increase the power of the move Nf6. Every single variation is going to be much stronger when your rook is on d1 than a1.

Garry had to quickly weigh the importance of rushing with the attacking move or first completing his development, and in a blitz game, and being the legendary classical player that he is, he decided to bring his last piece into the game first. In my opinion this is an extremely refined decision and one that all chess players should internalize. When the clock is running, the great Garry completes his development first of all.

Round 8: (Nakamura vs Kasparov) – Black to Move

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Kasparov made this decision quite quickly as well. White is planning the move 1. f4, causing problems for the e5 knight. There are quite a few ways to fight against this plan, but true to his style, Garry chose most aggressive and combative move.

With very little hesitation, Garry played 1….Nc5, sacrificing a pawn. After 2. Bxc5 dxc5 3. Qxc5, black’s dark squared bishop now has no opponent, and black has adequate compensation for his pawn.

After engine analysis, all moves aside from 1…Nc5 leave to a miserable and passive position for black. Kasparov doesn’t need an engine for this type of stuff though, he just feels it, even in a blitz game.

Round 9: (So vs Nakamura) – White to Move

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The best players in the world are good at many things. One of those things is they are great at piece harmonization. By this I mean that they are very skilled at putting their pieces on the most effective squares.

A few things are obvious here:

  1. The black king is somewhat weak
  2. The bishop on g2 is not very active in it’s current position

These factors made it easy for Wesley to come up with the bishop manuever 1. Bf1. The idea behind this fine move is simply to play Bd3, Qd1 and mount a kingside attack.

Round 10: (So vs Kasparov) – White to Move

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This is the immortal blitz game that the entire world is talking about. When you look at the position you see that white is down a pawn, but in return black’s pieces are a little funny. The knight on c8 is a bit awkward, and black is still two moves away from castling.

What does this mean? It means that we must act quickly, there is no time to waste or the black king will get to safety. Wesley found the incredible move 1. b4! The idea is to simply open lines at all costs. After 1…cxb4 2. Rc1, Garry was already in trouble and was shaking his head in frustration. After 2…Nge7 3. Qb3 the black king cannot castle and is stuck in the center. Wesley went on to win in incredible style. I highly recommend taking a look at IM John Bartholomew’s video analysis of the game.

Round 11: (Kasparov vs Nakamura) – White to Move

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How would you play for white here? There are lots of different ideas, most of them involving the bishop on g4. For example we could play 1. Re4 Bh5 2. g4 Bf7 and continue from there.

However Garry shows his class again. One thing that top players do is they don’t rush when they have an edge, and this remains true even in blitz games.

We saw Garry do this a few rounds ago in an aggressive position against So, and in this case he started with the calm, but very useful move, 1. a4. Such moves are automatic for strong players, but the idea is to simply secure the knight on c4 by stopping any kind of ….b5 ideas. Now that our position is more secure, we will begin our more aggressive play on the following move.

If your urge was to immediately try something like Re4, or h3, I believe that there’s a lot to be learned from the initial 1. a4 played by Garry.

Round 12: (Caruana vs Kasparov) – Black to Move

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There’s a little talked about concept that top players are very good at. I like to call it “keeping the tension”.

I believe that the move Garry played here is unlikely to be one of the first instincts for most players. Most people would just play 1…Bxh3 and continue from there. However top GM’s are much better than lower ranked players at not automatically leaning towards captures, and instead playing moves that maintain the tension.

Garry played the move 1….Be6! His idea is that if white wants to capture on e6, it will be on Garry’s terms and the f7 pawn will capture towards the center of the board. It’s not so obvious that this move is superior to 1…Bxh3, but it’s important to stop and recognize how the top players think and how their instincts work. If you don’t consider such moves easily, it’s something to work on, now that you’ve seen Kasparov play this move in a blitz game.

In my opinion 1…Be6 is the best practical move, and Garry ended up winning this game in crushing style.

Round 13: (Kasparov vs So) – Black to Move

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Even in blitz, these guys can make quick and important calculations.

The position looks very dangerous after 1…Rxe5 2. Nxe5 Qxe5 3. Rfe1, with the idea of doubling both rooks on the 8th rank. However Wesley had already calculated the key zwischenzug of 3…Bf5, after which black was able to simplify into an even endgame and the players drew shortly thereafter.

It’s one thing to accurately calculate this in a tournament game, but it takes much more skill to do so under time pressure.

Round 14: (Nakamura vs Kasparov) – Black to Move

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Once again Garry shows us why he is the legend. A normal looking move would be to simply castle and get on with things, but it actually turns out that the move 1…0-0 2. g4 is quite annoying for black.

When your pieces are backed up on the 1st rank, Garry doesn’t like to let you breathe. Garry lashed out with 1….f5!, which led to a vicious attack for black.

When I saw the move I was like “wow cool move, but was that really necessary?”. Turns out it’s by far the engine’s number 1 choice!FullSizeRender

Garry’s instincts are simply incredible.

Round 15: (So vs Nakamura) – White to Move

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Wesley So has to be careful here, as the black pieces are invading white’s position. The simplest move is just to play 1. Ra1 with the idea of some massive trading operation, and the position should be relatively equal.

Instead Wesley made a serious positional misjudgement by playing the move 1. Nxe4. As I mentioned before, top players are great at keeping the tension and not making mindless trades, but in this case Wesley wasn’t up to task.

What’s wrong with this move? It simply gives the d7 knight, which currently has no great place to live, a permanent home on the key d5 square. After this black had an advantage and Nakamura took advantage of Wesley’s first misstep:

Bonus Puzzle: (So vs Nakamura) – Black to Move

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Nakamura doesn’t miss many tactics, and he was up to the task again here as he found the crushing 1…Nxb4! White can’t play 2. Nxb4 due to Qd1# and if 2. Qxb4 Qxc2 and black should win.

Round 16: (Caruana vs Nakamura) – White to Play

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Caruana was having a really rough day and it showed in this game. There is only one important thing that white should care about here: Queening the pawn. White was very low on time and played the horrific blunder 1. Be4 in this position. This allowed 1…Ke5 gaining a tempo on the bishop, and shortly thereafter the black king went to d6 and was now in range of the pawn.

Of course white had to play something like Bh1 and the position should be a draw due to the fast a-pawn, as in this case the king is still too far away to catch it. Caruana was having such a rough day that it likely really affected his ability to think clearly under pressure. When things are going badly, it’s almost as if the brain finds ways to lose.

Round 17: (Kasparov vs Nakamura) White to Move

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Once again Garry demonstrates his incredible attacking feel. There is some tension in the center and the black king is still uncastled. Until that king gets castled, white can consider very ambitious moves.

Garry found the ultra strong 1. Qd2! The idea is that black can capture on e4 with both the pawn or the queen. However if 1…Qxe4 2. f3 is strong, and if 1…dxe4 2. d5 is powerful. Meanwhile white also threatens to simply capture on d5. This is not an easy move to find, especially in a blitz game, but Garry is able to do so due to his tremendous feel for how to play against an uncastled king. (EDIT – The following was pointed out to me by Yasser Seirawan: “You failed to mention a third choice by Naka in the 17th diagram.  He should have played …Bf3, Bg3 Bxe4, Nc3, when white has compensation for the pawn but would be hard pressed to show an advantage.  Naka’s Bishop sac was just bad.“)

Nakamura should be given huge credit for how he defended this game down a piece, even though he eventually lost. Of anyone in this tournament, Nakamura plays with the most “computer-like” style. His defense in bad positions is so tenacious, and it’s probably what helped him to eventually win this tournament.

Round 18: (Caruana vs Kasparov) – Black to Move

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Once again we see Garry Kasparov with an attack. How should he improve his position?

One of the keys that I mentioned earlier, is how good top players are at harmonizing their pieces. Garry knew that in order for the attack to succeed, he needed to bring more pieces into play. Therefore he played the move 1…Nh7! with the idea of 2…Ng5. The pressure was too much for Caruana and he lashed out with 2. g4.

In his true ultra aggressive style, Kasparov immediately sacrificed his bishop with 2….Bxg4 and gained an overwhelming attack.

What a fantastic way for Kasparov to end his tournament, but it’s important to notice that it all begins with moves like 1…Nh7.

I hope that you enjoyed the highlights from this tournament. It should demonstrate to you that yes, there are some blunders and serious mistakes, but there are also some very important ideas being played. The ideas that are so instinctual to top players that they appear in blitz games, these are actually the ideas that are most important for lower ranked players to assimilate. I feel quite strongly that positions like this are actually more instructive to 99% of the chess community, than some of the unbelievably complex and long calculations that occur during classical chess.

I hope that the popularity and wild success of this tournament leads to more events like this in the future. In my opinion the blitz World Championship should be a week long affair with at least 50-100 games being played by each of the top players in the world.

 

Please Chess World: Speed up the Time Control!!!

I am in the middle of watching the Ultimate Blitz Showdown in St. Louis, with Garry Kasparov, Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So.

It is BY FAR the most entertaining and interesting chess event I have seen in my life.

I watched 11 rounds of the U.S. Championship coverage, and there was a good amount of commentary and people watching.

In this one blitz tournament, there has to be at least 5 times as much commentary in the chat box on chess24. People are going absolutely bonkers over this event.

The world needs to wake up and understand the extremely simple truth “People love blitz chess and it’s more exciting than regular chess”.

What are the reasons why this is true:

  1. It’s much more fun to watch. It’s so fun that I actually clapped out loud on numerous occasions during the show. I just couldn’t help myself when Kasparov would find some unbelievably strong move with just a minute left on his clock.
  2. The results stay very consistent in blitz and slow time control games. (the best player will usually be the best in this and in slow games)
  3. Blunders happen, and the players have very little time to process them so you see a lot of emotion. Right now, as I’m writing this, Kasparov has just achieved a winning position against Caruana and is rocking back and forth in his chair in satisfaction. Kasparov eventually didn’t get the win after one of the most intense time scrambles I’ve ever seen. After the game he sat back in his chair, staring at the ceiling for a good 15 seconds. It was simply incredible to watch and this was just one of 36 games!

4. It’s much less unnecessarily grueling. In fact I don’t think that Kasparov would have ever retired if this was the standard.

5. You can have a tournament with a huge number of games. For instance with two rivals, you can easily have a 50-100 game match. With four players you can easily have a tournament that includes 50-100 or so games. In St. Louis they are doing 18 rounds over 2 days. You could easily make that 54 over 3 days, and the playing schedule is not so grueling at all, despite the ability to play such a large quantity of games. For a ten player super tournament, you could simply have one round robin every day for 5-9 days. This would be somewhere between 45-81 total games played. It would be simply incredible.

6. You get to see the incredible intuition that the best players have. It is absolutely incredible to me at the natural attacking and dynamic feel that Garry Kasparov has. The moves he’s finding in such a fast game are simply out of this world. (Although he needs to manage the clock a little bit better)

7. A lot of credit has to go to the commentary team. Their enthusiasm and the production team in St. Louis is doing a lot to add to the excitement of this incredible event.

Do we have to get rid of standard chess? No of course not. But blitz chess, and especially this time control of 5 minutes with a 3 second delay, needs to be more popular. In fact there need to be attempts to make it as popular as classical chess. This is real chess. The best players win. They play interesting and powerful ideas with just seconds on the clock. There’s raw emotion. When Kasparov loses a game he goes into the hallway and gesticulates wildly. It’s not like watching paint dry for a casual non chess player.

How do we make it popular? We simply have to make it important. How do you make it important? You need someone who has money and has a vision to put up serious prize money for a series of speed tournaments, and also a Speed Chess World Championship Match.

I would do anything to help this be considered “real chess”. Because it is real chess, and anyone who says it isn’t because every move isn’t perfect and occasionally there’s a blunder, is doing their best to stop the progress and popularity of the game. I could watch this all day.

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.