New World Chess Championship Cycle

If politics is the art of the possible, chess politics is the art of the impossible.

FIDE had a previous World Champion (Topalov) play and lose against the current champion (Kramnik) and somehow managed to exclude Topalov from the current cycle to find a new champion (starting with the recent candidates and to culminate in September with a World Championship tournament (WChT), also including Kramnik). Never before has a champion (Kramnik) had to face his peers in a tournament to decide his legitimate title. But a confusing situation has now got even more bizaare.

FIDE have now decided to re-insert Topalov back into the world championship cycle by allowing him a special eight-game challenge, in 2008, against the winner of a World Cup tournament to be held in Nov-Dec this year in Russia. The winner of this match gets to play the winner of another match – this time between Kramnik (if he fails to win the WChT in Sept) and the winner of that WChT.

However, if Kramnik does win the tournament in September, then Topalov gets a direct match against him in 2008. And then the winner of that match plays the winner of the World Cup 2007 tournament in another decider for the title.

This raises a couple of issues which pertain to fairness, legitimacy, and equal opportunity. Firstly, Kramnik won a title unifying match against Topalov in 2006. He now is expected to play a huge tournament against 7 highly motivated opponents to defend that title (a precedent for a chess world champion), only 18 months after his defence. Even if he manages to win out (and he might be favourite, but has to face mighty challengers), he then has to face Topalov again in 2008, and then if he wins there he has to face another strong opponent in 2009. Okay, it could be argued that this is all part of proving he is the champion, but no previous champion has had to face such consecutive challenges (three matches and one tournament) over a period of three years, to defend his title.

More importantly, Topalov gets a huge – and unfair – lift back to another chess decider. If Kramnik wins the WChT, Topalov gets a title decider in 2008, with no extra work. And if he wins that match, there is no mention of a return match for Kramnik. That’s hardly fair, both to Kramnik and to the other 7 challengers in the WChT.

If Kramnik loses the WChT, Topalov gets to play one eight game match (in Bulgaria!!) to go into a decider against the winner of a Kramnik-AN Other match! He gets to a match against Kramnik in altogether different and easier standards (because Kramnik plays a very tough opponent, such as Leko or Anand or Morozevich…while he gets maybe some top-thirty GM because these sorts of 128 person tournaments are lotteries). Is this right?

Another scenario is that, say, Leko, after winning two candidates matches already, then wins the WChT and then plays Kramnik in 2008, before meeting Topalov in 2009. Whew! After four matches and one tournament over four years, he would finally be over that cycle of world championships. He then defends it again in 2010 against someone else. Topalov, meanwhile, has lost a title decider to Kramnik and then might get a one-match head-to-head against Kramnik in 2008 as a reward.

I believe that Topalov is getting a very easy way back to being world champion, while Kramnik is facing into a huge challenge to his title over the next two years. This is unfair, unequal, and wrong. It is brutal chess politics at its worst. What is sad is that Kramnik may feel obliged to challenge FIDE over this decision. If he does, the whole rotten edifice may come crumbling down again and the legitimacy (or not) of the chess world champion will be at risk again.



  1. Tony D said,

    June 25, 2007 at 6:28 am

    Way to complicated! I dont understand it and dont want to at this stage.

    YEARS AGO there was a system.

    We had tournaments called zonals these led to interzonals and the winners of these led to candidate matches which in turn led to a 24 game match between the WORLD CHAMPION and a challenger, it was fecking GREAT!

    Really simple and easy to grasp and great for chess. WHY THE HELL CANT WE JUST GO BACK TO THAT.



  2. shazgood said,

    June 25, 2007 at 10:38 am

    I can’t agree more. The ‘classic’ system, roughly from 1948 to 1993, was fantastic. The candidates tournaments had every great player of the age competing to play the legitimate and undisputed champion. Even Fischer had to wait his turn to become champion, although he was probably the best in the world for the preceding 8 or 9 years.
    Chess is reducing itself to ridicule. These byzantine rules for the next cycle will inevitably break down very soon. I can hear all the senior players groaning in dismay.
    I favour a return to a match-based format. Let’s face it, a player barely making the World Cup tournament, maybe being ranked 150 in the world, has no legitimate expectation of becoming world champion. (e.g. imagine Baburin competing there!). And these very large swiss style tournaments can sometimes produce unusual results. That’s not to say that they are easy to win, but just that it hardly qualifies one to be called a world champion.
    So, we have to scrap the idea that winning <i>that</i> tournament should qualify someone for the title. I favour the retention of a candidates tournament every three years, with the top four players playing off in 8-game matches, followed by a 24 game match for the world championship. The candidates should be the top 16 players (or the top 16 available) according to FIDE ratings. The champion (if they lose the match) should not be given an automatic right to challenge again for three years, but should be seeded straight into the next candidates tournament.
    But simplicity was never the way in chess politics. More like money, influence, favouritism, and the perennial need to fiddle with the format to suit some passing fad. The problems afflicting the current Irish Chess Championships look simple and benign in comparison.

  3. Tony D said,

    June 25, 2007 at 8:28 pm

    Yes you are so right in what you say. It is just bloody disappointing to see international chess undermine itself and as you say bring itself ridicule in the way it goes about things.

    The Irish ch is not something we can actually blame anybody for, and as yousay is very very minor a hiccup in the overall scheme of things even just within Irish chess. I really do think Kasparov had seen the light and had enough of it all. I have tuned out of the whole world championships stuff .

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