Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tournaments and Formats

The recently concluded Candidates Matches should have just set the world alight with top competition, games and matches to remember, and a challenger to the World Champion. But since the finish of the event, all the talk has been about how boring the event was, or how bad the format was. And on a micro level in my home patch of Victoria, Australia, we have just seen a weekender in Geelong have disappointingly low numbers. So what is it with the chess tournament World at the moment?

Speaking from a personal view, and as a spectator, my favourite tournament format is a middle size elite round robin event. I like to see a minimum of 12 players, but probably no more than 16 players. I don't think I'm alone in this as the tournament that seems to pique the most interest worldwide is the annual January event in Wijk aan Zee. This is an elite event with top players competing in a 14 player round robin format. In my opinion, tournaments that are bigger than 16 players don't keep my interest for the whole event, while those with less than 12 players seem to be over too quickly. As an Englishman, I was brought up on the traditional New year's event at Hastings which again was a 14 player round robin event. Hastings organisers played about a bit with the format, first changing things round to an 8 player double round robin, which is also an excellent format. Then in the 1990's, things changed again to a mini-match knock out, which was also tried at other events such as Tilburg.

I never really liked the knock out format for chess, especially over a short number of games. If a match is to be played, then let it be over a reasonable number of games to let players show their creativity, their stamina and their will to win. In the recent mini matches of the World Championship Candidates tournament, the main focus for the players seemed to be to avoid losing. In this respect the tournament produced a high amount of draws, and needed to be settled by rapid and blitz tie breaks, which almost defeats the purpose of having a long play event.

The Candidates didn't retain my attention. I would much prefer to see a candidates tournament, or longer matches. Of course, the pinnacle of chess has been seen in the great World Championship matches such as the epic Kasparov-Karpov struggles, or Fischer-Spassky, Tal-Botvinnik, Capablanca-Alekhine, to name but a few. And even the candidates matches of the 60's and 70's were great...Fischer-Taimanov/Larsen/Petrosian springs to mind. Here the battle went on for long enough to determine the best player, and that's the way it should be. But I would still prefer a tournament format to match format. My preference is based on the fact that back in the 'good old days', there were only a few matches each year. Now, with a proliferation of tournaments, there are lots of matches some of which are more interesting than others. For instance, Anand and Shirov are about to start a match in Leon and Ponomariov and Nakamura have just finished a match in the USA. To me, this makes for too much of a good thing and the prospect of Candidates Matches lessen in the special nature of the World Championship and qualifier matches. So therefore my own preference would be for a Candidates tournament, possibly double rounded with each player having black and white against each of the others.

The issue of too much chess is one that is probably at the heart of why the Geelong Open in Victoria had a rather small turn out. We have here a huge amount of faster rate tournaments (mainly 15 minute tournaments), clubs hold tournaments on their club nights (as averse to social evenings), and there is always the weekend circuit that Geelong is trying to be a part of (we are still chessed out after the Easter serving of chess at Doeberl and Sydney and Queensland and MCC), as well as the teams event that clubs are busily getting involved in. I must say, I find it rather bizarre that players can't find a tournament to their liking in Melbourne at the moment as there is chess 6 days a week and every weekend. Perhaps too much chess?

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