World Chess Championships – a great tournament?

Day two of this World Championship chess tournament in Mexico was just incredible. The two decisive games, for Anand against Aronian, and for Kramnik against Morozevich, were of the highest order, both in beauty and in complexity. The two draws, between Leko and Svidler, and Grischuk and Gelfand, were extremely interesting games in their own right too. After a very quiet opening day, the contest has now exploded into life in earnest.

This tournament has all the potential to be one of the greatest ever. It is a category 21 event, which means it has achieved an average rating for all 8 players of over 2750. Given a little rating inflation over the years however, it might be fairer to judge it by how many players in the top twenty are represented here. The eight players are all in the top 14 in the world.

Jeff Sonas has done a fantastic, well-nigh unbeatable job, of collecting the results of millions of games and then producing a comprehensive rating system he calls Chessmetrics. His statistics call tell you how strong every player has been over their careers, both on an elo-type rating system and in terms of their world rankings. It allows us to compare, for example, Capablanca to Kasparov, or Morphy to Fischer, across decades, and even for players who never actually met over the board. If you think that these statistics answer the question, who is the greatest player ever?, then you’ll be mildly disappointed. It all depends on how you phrase the question.

If you’re looking for the player who stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries, then Bobby Fischer is your man. He not only had the greatest gap between himself and the next-best player (over Spassky, in 1972) but he had the highest-ever rating achieved by anyone, in October 1971 (of an astonishing 2895).

But over a period of, say, ten years, then the top five list is: Kasparov, Lasker, Karpov, Capablanca, and only then Fischer. Surely 10 years is a better comparison than 1 year? Well, why not even longer: over 20, it is Kasparov, Karpov, Lasker, Alekhine, and Korchnoi. In fact, Kasparov was number one ranked player for 22 years overall. He is most people’s idea of the greatest player ever.

In terms of tournaments, Jeff has also tried ranking them. He produces a very interesting idea about calculating the greatest tournaments of all-time, based on how many players are from the top-ten in the world in the tournament. In those terms, Wijk aan Zee (Corus), 2001 had 8 players from the top ten, all from number 1 to number 8 in the world. But it also had 6 extra players, many ranking only 64th or 83rd on the list. Hence, it was slightly weaker overall. Arguably, Linares 1998 and Linares 1999 were even stronger, having 7 and 8 players respectively, all of them in the top ten at the time.

But with due regard to those tournaments, this is a World Championship. The prize is simply greater. However, it is missing at least three world-class players: Topalov, Ivanchuk, and Radjabov. You could argue for Carlsen too, but he was beaten fair and square by Aronian in the qualifiers. Mamedyarov, at sixth in the FIDE rankings, has not proven himself consistently enough at the highest level yet, in my opinion. Adams, Polgar, and Shirov are great, but past their best and probably not potential world champion material either. Jakovenko is at number 10 in the world, and I must confess to knowing almost nothing about him to judge him.

So, overall, the tournament is probably not the greatest ever held, in terms of pure strength. But it could rise to become one of the most memorable ever, if the players play like they did yesterday, and produce fighting, exciting chess. 

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1 Comment

  1. Derek Slater said,

    September 16, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    Hey Shazgood – good post. I have a long-standing affection for fighting players and tacticians (tho I finally realize those terms aren’t synonyms). Morozevich and Shirov tend to brighten any tournament they attend. Your three missing muskateers too. However, I wrote off Topalov after his Kramnik match, for reasons that are obvious even if you don’t agree with them 🙂


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