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.