Monday, August 5, 2013

Rest Day at the British

The British Championship is a 2 week marathon tournament with a rich history. The series of Championships goes back to 1904 when William Napier became the first champion. Since then, the event has been a showcase for British talent, and at times Commonwealth talent. Traditionally (though I'm not sure how far back this tradition began) the middle Sunday of the British Championship has been a rest day, or at least a day with no Championship games. This year, extra events included a weekender, a team blitz tournament, and a cricket match against a local team. It gives the Championships a social feel as well as the tough competition that is the main event.

However, just how tough is the British Championship this year? Certainly at the top it looks pretty good with over 10 Grand Masters, but it has been suggested that the event has become one of quantity rather than quality. I remember trying to qualify for the British back in the 1990's and early 2000's and it was a tough job. Automatic qualification went to anyone over 2320 (if my memory is correct) and the rest of us had to qualify through one of the weekend tournaments. This meant that the tournaments tended to be top heavy, with the majority of players over that 2320 threshold and some under that who qualified. As an example, lets compare the current event with the first event to feature Michael Adams, the 1985 Championship. First a big congratulations to Michael for winning the Dortmund Super Tournament ahead of Kramnik among others. Michael raced to an early lead which he didn't relinquish, and his play in the early rounds seemed remarkably easy, yet deadly effective.

Anyway, in 1985 there were 76 players though one had to withdraw after 5 rounds. The 2013 event has 106, though that in itself is not an issue in my mind so long as the standard is upheld. Naturally, you'd expect more players to be achieving greater standards. So players above 2320: 42 in 1985, compared to 21 in 2013. (the 1985 figure doesn't include Guy West, now an IM but 2310 at the time, or Joe Gallagher, 2305 then, and a GM now). However, at the top level 1985 looks weak compared to 2013, with the highest rated being only 2560. But when one realises that this mere 2560 player was Tony Miles, and other players of the quality of Chandler, Rogers, Speelman, Hodgson, King, Hebden etc were playing, it would be foolish to merely look at the top ratings and assign quality because of it. In my mind, the 1985 event was far superior in terms of overall quality than the 2013 event, it was an elite closed swiss event. The 2013 is also closed to an extent, but with so many players below FM standard, it can barely be called elite.

So the question I suppose must be is this what is really wanted? I mean, I tried hard to qualify for the British, and eventually managed it in 2003, though I emigrated to Australia a few months before the 2003 tournament, so have never played. And here in Australia, a similar debate happens over our Championship, though the ACF have stuck to their guns, and kept it at an elite level, ensuring that only the top 50 or so players in the country will be eligible to enter. Personally, I believe that the National Championship should be an elite event, and whatever needs to be done to make it so should be undertaken. To me, the British Championship has become a fairly decent swiss event, but without the international flavour. Compared to the annual events on the Isle of Man (unfortunately not happening any more) and Gibraltar, the British is a bit of a joke. But I think that the British has evolved to become this tournament, and nothing is going to change it from its current trend.

What could happen, and perhaps should, is the ECF (important now it isn't the British Chess Federation) could organise an elite English Championships. The British could continue in its format and no one would worry about the drop of standard because that is how the tournament has developed. But the real Championship for English players should be an elite event, perhaps going back to the rating limit cut off and allowing for a few qualifiers and wild cards, such as talented and perhaps under rated juniors. Or even a round robin format with a swiss qulifier for the following year, like what happened at Hastings. Ok, let's go the whole distance. Why doesn't the ECF work alongside the Hastings organisers and turn the dwindling New Year tournament into an English Championship? And before anyone starts shouting that Hastings isn't dwindling, I suggest they compare Michael Admas first appearance in the Premier in 1989/90, a category 14, 8-player double round robin event where Candidate Arthur Yusupov could only finish 5th, to the latest tournament over New Year 2012/13 which was a swiss with about 20 players above 2400, another run of the mill event. I hate to point it out, but the 1989/90 challengers event was probably stronger than the 2012/13 Masters!

But to be honest, I don't know why I'm grouching so much here. It's only 42 days till I go on holiday!! And at the top level of the 2013 British, the competition is genuine. David Howell leads the event by half a point, but there is a big pack of elite players close behind. In fact, the first 26 players are separated by just 1.5 points, and another half point behind are Emms, Lane and Bates who are all capable of making a charge in the second week. The fun starts again tonight, and this week there are 5 more rounds to sort things out.


  1. The way I see it, Chess ought to follow the lead of cycling and open up these elite tournaments a little bit. Like Top 100 in England is an impressive standard. The tour de france is impressive as a commercial product and attracts sponsorship, this is despite the fact that only about ten riders are real chances to win the event.

    When English and Australian chess can guarantee 100+ fields for their elite championships they make the product more promotable. Small round robins are basically only for the purist, sure they have their place, but should it be in a National championship? After all, you want everyone within the country to believe they have a chance to play in their own national event. If you want to see a viable national scene then it is necessary to open up the competition a little bit.

  2. "And here in Australia, a similar debate happens over our Championship, though the ACF have stuck to their guns, and kept it at an elite level, ensuring that only the top 50 or so players in the country will be eligible to enter."

    It is not quite that elite here. There is a rating cutoff for automatic entry (2150), at present met by 59 players on the active list. But the ACF can also subjectively admit players who are just below the cutoff at the time if satisfied that they are of "equivalent proficiency". That caters for players who tend to bob in and out of the 2150 range, who are normally 2150+ but have lost points because of one bad tournament, who are approaching 2150 and recording 2150+ strength performances, etc. We also have an "improving junior" rule that allows strong improving juniors to be admitted even if well below the cutoff.

    There are also other qualifying pathways such as winning a state title or winning the previous Major (so that everyone in the country does have a chance whatever their rating).

    The reasons we don't open it up more are (i) we want the winner to be properly tested and not to spend the first three rounds beating uncompetitive opponents (ii) we want there to be some prospect of FIDE title norms in the event, even though that is not its primary goal. In practice we usually end up with a field somewhere in the high 20s or 30s. (Contrary to persistent myth there is no specific target number.)

  3. Kevin Bonham spends a lot of time justifying a system of selection that has changed very little in the last 30 years (in case we all didn't know this already). This conservative approach to chess in this country has seen weekend events like the Doeberl Cup surpass the Australian Championship as the number 1 elite event in the land.

    Bonham also misleads people when he says "everyone in the country does have a chance whatever their rating". Only 1 person (every two years) and people who reside in States with weak entry requirements for State titles have any real possibility of playing. Given that majority of chess players reside in the Eastern states where qualification for a state title on rating is almost as difficult as getting in the National championship then it becomes a moot point. Far from having open qualifying spots the status quo of the last 30 years maintains an insular elitism that is stifling the growth of Australian chess.

    Bonhams claim of "wanting a winner to be tested properly" is absurd. Nobody would question the validity of IM Bobby Chengs performance in the recent Australian Open. Furthermore, when was the last time a win at the Doeberl Cup was undeserved? Given that both events have lower cut offs they still produced a number of solid Fide title norms.

    It is clear that the ACF has had no real vision for the Australian championship for the last 30 years. They could quite easily have a strong field with over 100 players and at the same time generate much needed sponsorship for the event. Bigger fields mean bigger prize money. They also mean more games of chess and more promotional opportunities. Having the reserves tournament on at the same time as the Championship is simply ridiculous and shows how little things have changed.

    England, on the other hand, seems to have gotten things right. The tournament is of sufficient length to enable players to be tested. Qualification spots are numerous which means the rest of the year holds meaning for the lower rated players on the National scene. Bravo England Bravo!