What is the Best Way to Choose a World Chess Champion?

The recently closed World Cup in Baku provides us with an opportune moment to reflect on chess. Congratulations are in order to Sergey Karjakin who fought tooth and nail to win against fellow Russian Peter Svidler in the finals.  What is the best way to choose a World Chess Champion?  Is the old format where there were Interzonal tournaments and then Candidate matches to determine the strongest candidate who would then play the reigning World Champion in a Classical Match say over 16 games or so. Or perhaps we should have a format where everyone has an equal chance of winning the World Championship, get all the qualifying players together and let them battle it out over a marathon knockout competition as was the case in Baku.  There has been considerable debate about this over the years with pros and cons for the various options. In this short piece I will focus on the World Cup.

There were many upsets in the World Cup.  The top seeds did not make it and one would wonder why. I think the format of the matches, 2 classical games and tie break games, means there is no time for someone to recover if they have a bad day. After winning a game, a player just has to try and find a draw in the other classical game.  In the tie break Armagheddon games, black has to draw with black to win while white needs an outright victory to win the game. Ultimately it boils down to nerves and those with weak nerves no matter how strong they may be, will not last long in the World Cup format as played in Baku.

Interestingly Magnus Carlsen has spoken out in favour of the World Cup format at Baku. Why would Carlsen do that? One thing about Carlsen is that he is willing to take risks not just as a player but as a champion.  A knockout format to determine the World Champion would disadvantage him more than anyone else. Even though Carlsen may be the reigning World Champion in all 3 formats of the game (Classical, Rapid, Blitz) there is no telling what can happen in knockout tournament, especially giving his style of play.

One thing for sure is that the recently concluded World Cup left a bitter taste in my mouth. I don’t think this is the way to decide one of the important places for the Candidates Tournament. The World Cup was incredibly long and a good number of games, despite providing a good deal of drama were littered with errors. It would be reasonable to conclude that exhaustion had set in as some of the mistakes from such top players would generally be unacceptable.

Can the World Cup be held in a different format? It seems there are too many rapid and blitz games while the number of classical games are too few. It was quite clear that some players were quite happy to draw their classical games being stronger in the rapid and formats. Does this sit well with the chess players and the spectators? As a spectator my top priority would be to see quality chess so that’s a vote for classical games.  However, to increase the number of classical games would prolong the tournament as more rest days would be needed.

I guess there was a balancing act to keep costs low and thus have the tournament as short as possible. There are also sponsors who are investing in the game and need exposure for their brand. What will be the best way to go about that while ensuring a high quality competition to determine the highly coveted World Chess Champion crown?  Whatever happens going forward it will be interesting to see if the World Chess governing body FIDE takes lessons from the Baku World Cup to improve things going forward.

Bruce Mubayiwa


The Tiger Has Still Got Game, Does He Know It?

I used to think that Vishwanathan Anand must retire from chess but I feel otherwise now. Having played through a good number of Anand games I feel he is a very strong positional and strategic player who underutilizes that strength of his.  He possibly focusses too much on openings and complex positions which puts him at an distinct disadvantage against young energetic players who are very much at home in deep opening preparation and theory. Chess players tend to mature positionally as they get older. Looking at the great attacking and tactical players in history like Mikhail Tal and Alexander Alekhine and even Capablanca, shows a a solidifying of their chess style with age. They still played great games in their advanced years but the games were more solid positionally and generally the dashing attacks and flair of youth.

Age wise Anand might stand out with the current pack but I still think he is quite young looking at chess history. Look at Botvinnik and the likes of Capablanca. Botvinnik beat one of the greatest attacking players of all time Mikhail Tal at the grand age of 50! When Capablanca died at the age of 53, he was still playing chess. I think relying less on deep opening theory and preparation could free up Anand psychologically as he focusses more on positions and bringing out his understanding of chess. If you look at a good number of Anand’s very recent loses they are showing quite a few blunders or bad moves in critical positions especially against Magnus Carlsen. Critical positions used to be Anand’s forte. What happened? Age happened! Time is  hard taskmaster.  Roger Federer in tennis has shown that it’s still possible to compete at the very highest level by conserving energy in terms of strategy during actual games and matches and being very prudent in drawing up a playing schedule for the year.

Botvinnik won against Tal in the 1961 rematch by playing very solid chess. (On balance though Tal was probably not at full strength because of illness.) They were still playing great chess in their advanced years. Tactically Anand is not as sharp as he used to be but I think he can still cause many players problems with his deep understanding and encyclopaedic knowledge of the game. He needs to shift the batteground. Anand could probably play in tournaments without studying openings, I believe he is that good. Versatile in his openings, now being more rounded in his openings.

If you look at a player like Emmanuel Lasker he was competitive for a very long time. How did he do it? I believe that Lasker continued to play chess on his terms against many strong players. It has been said that he was probably the first player to really understand the impact of psychology on chess players. Lasker would vary his play a great deal depending on the player sometimes deliberately choosing a weaker move because he had carefully weighed that the specific player would not respond in the best fashion against that.

Anand’s hallmark over the years has been his incredible speed and brilliance in the game but that is now possibly a weakness rather than a strength now. Maybe tweaking his game strategy might bring about a change in results. The Tiger may be old but he is still deadly. He has still got game. The question is, can he find it!

Here Shakhriyar Mamedyarov vs Viswanathan Anand from from the World Chess Championship Candidates (2014) · Slav Defense: Modern Line. It was not the best game from Mamedyarov but Anand played with great skill.

Bruce Mubayiwa


Why Games From Opens Are More Interesting

Most  chess fans love it when there are super grand master tournaments? The very best in the world playing against each other. That should make for very exciting and instructive games in chess. Unfortunately this is not always the case. As a general rule I believe the games from open tournaments are more instructive and interesting.

Opens are becoming more and more lucrative than before. Generous appearance fees and the lure of winning big prizes is proving too much to resist from super grandmasters. The 2014 Qatar Masters is an example of a tournament where super GMs Vladimir Kramnik from Russia and Anesh Giri of Holland but were surprisingly unable to win the tournament. Both were upset by Yu Yangyi who had started the tournament as the 13th seed, rated 2705, but went on to beat the two Top Ten players,  who were both in great form by the way, to take clear first.

In super grand master tournaments the world’s elite are generally very familiar with one another’s play. There is tendency towards conservative play in Super GM tournaments which might explain the huge number of draws.  Many of them have been playing one another for a long time and they know what to expect from each other. This takes out the surprise factor out of most games at the top level unless one of the players has prepared a novelty or new move in their pet lines. It is not unusual for games at the very top level to feature deep opening lines where the players play as many as 20 moves from home preparation or theory. These kinds of games are generally of limited value to chess students. If the death of chess is ever to come about at some stage, it will more likely be from games between super grand masters than games between very strong players and their weaker counterparts.

On the other hand in an open tournament like the recently held Qatar Masters or Gibraltar Open, there is larger field of players with greater variation in Elo ratings. You can have situations where super grand masters are playing opponents who are more than two hundred rating points below them. In theory the much stronger grand master should win but practice is showing that there are plenty of upsets. The stronger player is probably more motivated to win because they have a higher rating and want to justify it. This could mean taking more risks than they would otherwise take against another player of similar rating or at the same level.

In the opens very strong grand masters are more likely to be taken out of their comfort zones, playing opponents whom they know very little about. The strong GMs have a a great deal  at stake in the form of precious rating points. Their lower rated opponents are however, much more motivated to take bigger risks. They will gain more rating points from winning the game than the rating points they lose if the game does not go their way. The games are more interesting, varied and more unpredictable. From a learning perspective when players have large rating differences, the games are likely to be more instructive because of the difference in the standard of play.

In the Opens games where much higher ranked players are upset by lower ranked players tend to be very interesting.  The lower ranked player has punched above their weight and upset their form book and probably played an inspired game in the process.

Below is a game from the 2014 Qatar Masters Open tournament between two grandmasters separated by at least 200 rating points, Viktor Bologan and Das Neelotal. And the result! The much lower ranked player won and what a game it was.

Bruce Mubayiwa


Work On Your Openings, Work Even Harder On Your Middlegame And Endgame

In a recent article I touched on the mystery of Magnus Carlsen’s dominance in chess. Grand master Nigel Davies suggested that the answer to Magnus Carlsen’s dominance may actually be very simple. He went to explain that in an age when the top players are focussing on opening preparation they are neglecting endgames. Jan Timman and Lajos Portisch have both pointed this out. Why are the top players neglecting endgames? Who knows! Carlsen then creates a moving target for his opponents by varying his opening repertoire and then uses his superior core skills being superb endgame technique, calculation and good positional understanding. In the past some of the super grandmasters were quite predictable in their choice of openings. For example Garry Kasparov as white was largely an e4 or d4 player while as black he played Sicilian Defence against e4 and King’s Indian against d4 though he abandoned that in later years in favour of the Grunfeld Defence. Carlsen has no intention of making it so easy for his opponents.

The great Alexander Alekhine once remarked”To win against me, you must beat me three times: in the opening, the middle game and the endgame.” Whether that was said in jest or in all seriousness I do not know but it contains a good deal of truth. To be a good chess player you have to be good in not just the opening, middlegame and endgame as well.


Many chess players put a great deal of time in the opening but they have to do even more work  in the middle game and endgame. The middlegame is the most complex part of chess while the endgame is the most scientific. There are now 7 and 6 endgame tablebases which means that once there are 7 or 6 pieces left on the board, with perfect play from both sides the outcome of the game can be determined. If you are very strong in the opening, you will probably get a very good position coming out of the opening but what do you do with it if you are weak in the middlegame or endgame? That is where most games are really decided. A strong player in the middlegame and endgame can rescue a bad position from the opening if given half a chance. A stronger player in the opening but weak in the middlegame and endgame is likely to throw away his advantage from the opening unless it is an overwhelming one.

Because a day only has so many hours, a chess player has to decide how best to split their day. Whatever they decide work on the middlegame and endgame should be allotted some hours as well. Working only on the openings is like only working on your serves in tennis. What do you do when your opponent returns the ball? Are you able to play long or short rallies as circumstances demand? If you were a soccer player or team, you might be very strong in attack but how do you respond to a counter-attack or how do you handle the pressures and demands of defence. An all-around ability is required to maximise your chances of winning every chess game.

So maybe by super grandmaster standards Magnus might be ok or good in the opening or even mediocre but in the middlegame and endgame he is an outstanding player. A great deal of discipline is required to ensure that a chess player does not neglect any part of the game in his development. Work hard on your openings but work even harder on your middlegame and endgames!

Bruce Mubayiwa


The Mystery Of Magnus Carlsen’s Genius And Dominance In Chess

I have been thinking more about how the World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen wins his games and must admit that it does not make sense to me. I have read quite a number of times that Carlsen just grinds out wins from drawn positions or simple positions. Let’s analyse that? In an age where computers are much more powerful that humans and it is much easier to understand the game aided by a training partner of Super Grandmaster strength, how is it that a player can dominate players with such a simple strategy.  A strategy so simple that many years ago could perhaps have been laughable?  Is such a strategy not too simple for the age we live in? We now have 7 piece endgame tablebases. Of course there is only so much that the memory can hold but Carlsen has has been holding his own with an approach to the game that would in theory be suicidal.

I propose that it should be much simpler to prepare for Carlsen than a Garry Kasparov or Fabiano Caruana. Even more mystifying for me is the fact that Carlsen is known to play many openings despite not being an opening expert. Should such a strategy not put him at a clear disadvantage playing rivals who have been using specific lines for a very long time?

Should the simpler positions from Carlsen in theory not be much easier to play than complicated positions? How then do players constantly lose their way against Carlsen? We are talking not just any players but super grandmasters, the very best in the world. They cannot play out the drawn positions against Carlsen to prove that they are indeed draws.

If we were to try and explain Carlsen in other sporting terms let’s say tennis, it could be the equivalent of a very good player whose chances of winning the match increase when he gets his ball in. Not when he serves fast or down the line, just serves a ball that goes and the play continues. Would such an approach, maybe it might but it would be just too risky.

Or let’s try and use soccer. How would a team winning with a Carlsen type strategy. Perhaps that could be, keep the ball in play. Do not aim for space advantage early on in the game. Just keep the ball in play and over time outplay the opposition. I doubt very much that any tennis player or soccer team would be comfortable with these kinds of strategies. It just gives the opposition too many options in terms of dictating.

Do players lose concentration against Carlsen as he ready to play for hours? Carlsen is not known for any kind of psychological warfare over the board or any kind of gamesmanship that could perhaps be getting him some cheap points. On the contrary Carlsen is but intimidating over the chess board. He does not seem to show much emotion in his games.

In some ways Carlsen is possibly the Capablanca of our times. Like Carlsen, Capablanca who had a very simple opening repertoire and spent minimal time on it. In fact Capablanca seemed to spend much less time on chess than say Alexander Alekhine, a contemporary of his.  However, once Capabanca got into the middle game or endgame with a simple game, most of the time he won. In fact Capablanca was so dominant in his time that when he lost a game after some years, that actually made headlines.

If you look at the last world championship between Magnus Carlsen and Vishwanathan Anand, Anand was constantly trying to complicate positions or use his deep opening preparation. Why would an Anand with all his vast experience not be comfortable with simplified positions that are probably less taxing for him calculation wise.

If we can agree that one key thing in chess strength is patten recognition. The more patterns a player recognises the higher their chances of finding the strongest move. In that case I would argue that much older and mature players than Carlsen should have an advantage as positions become simpler and less complicated. Why? Because they have been playing chess much longer and are more likely to have experience in such positions.

Then again, if it were so easy to play Magnus Carlsen, he wouldn’t be top of the rankings, world champion in three different formats of the game Classical, Rapid, and Blitz. I don’t know if such a feat has been achieved before. Perhaps we will need to dig more to solve the mystery of Carlsen’s magical play or simply admit that he is so much better than everyone else.

Bruce Mubayiwa


Finally Another Grandmaster for Africa, Kenny Solomon!

There was very good reason to celebrate in African Chess recently when Kenny Solomon of South Africa, the winner of the recent 2014 African Individual Chess Championship (AICC) held in Windhoek, Namibia was conferred with the title of Grandmaster. Solomon joined a very select group of individuals who have managed to get this title in Africa. He went through the entire tournament without losing a single game, featuring at least one grandmaster and several international masters (IMs) undefeated. His wins included a win against the top seed GM Adly Ahmed from Egypt.

The current grandmasters include One Moroccan,  One Tunisian (Slim Belkhodja), Two Algerians (Mohamed Haddouche, Aimen Rizouk), 4 Egyptians (Samy Shoker, Essam El Gindy, Bassem Amin, Ahmed Adly), one Zambian (Amon Simutowe) and now a South African (Kenny Solomon)!.

We have around 10 Grandmasters on a continent with more than a 1 billion people. How is that possible? We still have a very long way to go in Africa. By way of comparison, we have less Grandmasters in the whole of Africa than Italy. Italy has at least 12 Grandmasters, from a population of at least 60 million people according to Wikipedia. At this stage I won’t even try to compare the number of Grandmasters in Africa with the whole of Europe. In terms of Chess development we are just not at the same level.

Is it so difficult to become a Grandmaster that even after Robert Gwaze from Zimbabwe won a Gold medal at the 2002 Chess Olympiad ahead of luminaries such as Garry Kasparov, he is still not a Grandmaster?

Amon Simutowe from Zambia was the first Grandmaster from sub-Saharan Africa and the third black chess Grandmaster in history of the game, after Maurice Ashley and Pontus Carlsson. However, Grandmasters Ashley and Carlsson are based in the US and Sweden respectively and not from Africa.  It has been 7 years since Simutowe became a grandmaster in 2007 and the awarding of another GM in Sub-Saharan Africa was long overdue. There have been many false starts in this regard as a few players have managed to get the Grandmaster Norms but still need to achieve the rating of 2500 to get the converted title.

Now 35 years old, Solomon started playing chess at the ripe old age of 13 years, when most strong players nowadays are Grandmaster or are at least International Masters. Magnus Carlsen, the World Chess Champion from Norway who successfully defended his title against Vishwanathan Anand in Sochi Russia is 24 years old.

Many would have given up by now but Kenny Solomon just kept pushing the chess pieces until he achieved his life dream. Who knows what lies ahead now that he is a Grand Master. One thing for sure is there’s a lot more inspiration for African Chess players who also dream of become Grandmasters.

Bruce Mubayiwa


Introduction Bruce Mubayiwa, Kathu, South Africa


My name is Bruce Tendai Mubayiwa and I am a chess promoter, board game entrepreneur and mathematics teacher based in Kathu, Northern Cape, South Africa. A very big thank you to Grandmaster Nigel Davies for the incredible opportunity to contribute to this website. I love the game of chess and have been playing the game for at least 25 years, having learnt from a friend. Little did I realise then that chess would be a big part of my life.

I think in terms of chess rating now I would be around 1600 but as a blitz I think I am much stronger. I have generally been much stronger as a blitz player than at classical time controls in chess.  I have represented Zimbabwe as a junior player, I took part in the 1996 Africa Junior Chess Championships in Maputo, Mozambique and am a former National Chess Champion. I won the lightning chess championships in National Chess Championships in 1997.

I would love to see many more children playing chess not just here in Kathu but across the continent. I believe there is so much that the game has to offer. My main reason for wanting more children to play chess is I truly believe that chess is an enjoyable and fulfilling game that teaches a lot in the process like the need to plan.

Bruce Mubayiwa