Carlsen KO

In view of the recently published opinion by World Champion Magnus Carlsen, where he suggests going back to the knock-out format for the World Championship cycle (you can read it in full here), I would like to share a few ideas that came to mind while reading it.

In a nutshell, I think it’s idiotic. To suggest something new I can understand, but to suggest something that has already been tried and condemned doesn’t make much sense. So probably there are deeper reasons behind his suggestion. One of the first ideas that came to mind was that this was actually clever. Just imagine if the KO was implemented: unless won by a Top-5 player, the respect for the new World Champion would be non-existent. Hence the world will not recognise it as such and would still consider Carlsen (who would still have the highest rating) as the best player in the world. So Carlsen will assure himself of never losing the title in a match. Additionally he will cement his legacy as the last of “The Legendary 16,” “The Great Champions,” “The True Giants” etc. Not bad, eh?

Another point is that if Carlsen is so much in favour of democratisation then why he doesn’t practice what he preaches and plays the World Cup? Of course he won’t, for understandable reasons. I will quiote him: “Kasparov told me many years ago not to play tournaments with amateur conditions, because then you will play amateur chess.” He was referring to the Olympiad, but a big KO event is not that much different. 

The World Championship match for me is the cherry on the top of elite chess. And I am eagerly awaiting it, even though it takes 2 years to get to it. I am very excited at the prospect of a great Candidates tournament and then I imagine what the winner of the Candidates and the Champion will prepare, what their strategies will be and so on. Carlsen proposes an annual knock-out as a World Championship, but that is a degradation of the highest title – the longer you wait for something, the rarer its occurrence, the higher its value. Somebody said that the World Champion in chess has the highest value in the eyes of the public of all the world champions in the world. Carlsen probably doesn’t feel it so he doesn’t mind the degradation. I wouldn’t want our beloved game and its king degraded. Young people usually do not care much about tradition, but chess is one of the rare sports which has managed to keep the process of finding out the best player more or less intact since 1886. Why meddle with something that has worked well for 129 years?

Carlsen is scheduled to play very soon, in St. Loius at the Sinquefield Cup, which starts on the 23rd of August. I’m looking forward to his great chess, I very much prefer it to his public statements.
Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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  • Anonymous
    Aug 17,2015 at 8:51 pm

    Why can't the World Champion have an opinion on this? It's an insult to insinuate that he should keep his mouth shut and just play chess for your entertainment. Maybe you should follow your own advice…

  • Anonymous
    Aug 17,2015 at 7:42 pm

    I agree with Carlsen – the KO format done right would be a fair and extremely interesting affair.

    I also think it's disingenious by Alex to call it tried "and failed". It didn't fail at all.

  • Aug 15,2015 at 6:11 pm

    I agree with Riste, I'm also very much in favour of the matches rather than a Candidates tournament, but that's one of the compromises I can live with. As for all this talk about sponsorship and money… it's been around for so long, but no solution has been found. I think Riste's idea of playing in New York or London is a good start, but the way things stand with FIDE, it's not very probable. The hope was for the next WCh match to be somewhere in the USA or Europe, but that will depend who will be the challenger. That should push things forward. But all of a sudden Carlsen comes with a 20-year old idea by Ilyumzhinov… even writing that last sentence made me laugh!

  • Aug 14,2015 at 5:15 pm

    Chess is already too popular. There are so many chess players around. The biggest problem in chess is not the number (we already have the number), problem is sponsorship. It is easy for Carlsen to talk about all these things because he can live on chess. Not so many chess players can do that, and it is far more easy to get sponsorship in anything else but chess. FIDE should sponsor financially chess masters, instead of finding all possible ways to get money into their pockets…

    This is a fundamental problem, not the knockout format, or whatever some other supergm proposes regarding world chess championship…

  • Anonymous
    Aug 14,2015 at 9:53 am

    Ah, the good old illusion of making chess popular to non-chess players. You cannot enjoy chess, if you don't understand it.
    As for your anology with e-games. It's a good one actually, How many of the viewers are gamers you think? close to 100% ? You say it yourself, hundreds of thousands of PLAYERS tune in to watch. Non-gamers just don't care about these e-games. Just like non-chess players don't care about chess.
    The KO format wouldn't be more interesting, it would just be more random, more ordinairy. A real match between 2 giants, 2 egos battling for the crown. That is special. Also making it yearly makes it less special. Every 2 years is a minimum, every 3 years would also be ok. And 12 games is too little. Make it at least 16.

  • Aug 14,2015 at 9:37 am

    There are 16 undisputed world champions. The KO format would produce few more in one decade, which will degrade the value of the title. Seriously, look at the players who became "FIDE world champions" that way and you will see how relevant is a title obtained by that method. And also, I don't think that would increase sponsors, why would a knockout tournament be more interesting than a match between the champion and the challenger? In my opinion, to get more sponsors first they need to organize the match (and also the Olympiads and other big events) in one of the big western cities (think New York, London etc…) where world media will pick it up and bring it close to millions of non-chess people. Organizing big events in small places such as Chenai or Khanty Mansiysk will do nothing to promote chess, only the chess community will follow up.

    Anyways, a big NO to the knock-out format. I don't even like the challenger to come from a Tournament. The Candidate matches are the real deal.

  • Aug 14,2015 at 5:43 am

    The KO format may have been condemned by the chess world but the goal of the world champion is to spread the game to "the masses". The KO format is much more accessible to non-chess players because it is more interesting. If you want to increase sponsors for chess then you need viewers to make the advertising/investment worth it. Look at what e-sports has done in the last 5 years. Even though many players do not understand the strategies and concepts of certain video games a a high level, hundreds of thousands of players tune in to watch company sponsored teams or players (League of Legends, Starcraft). Your opinion is bound by the mindset of someone who fears change and can't see past prestige and honor to open the game to more people due to tradition.

    The world champion would be respected if he is able to perform consistently enough to always win the tournament. Imagine how much stronger you'd actually have to be to maintain that win percentage.Failing that, we'd see more adaptation in play with the struggle to reach the top being more open. (You can't just prepare for one Grandmaster's opening repertoire) The increase in competition should mean players have more reason to play good chess, more often.

  • Aug 13,2015 at 11:09 pm

    Another thought – maybe he's bored only playing Anand and thinks Anand will continue winning the candidates? 😉 Your idea of him purposely devaluing the title seems more likely though…

  • Aug 13,2015 at 11:04 pm

    I completely agree with you. A knock-out format would take a lot of the value out of the world champion title. Several people have noted that sports teams have KO formats, but the thing about that is that sports teams can change rapidly.

    Anyway, I suppose if done right a KO format could be decent, or at least not a total loss (e.g., no blitz tie-breaks, more than 2 games per match, etc) but I tend to think that even if the best KO format is adopted it would completely devalue the title, and I probably wouldn't be nearly as interested in following it.

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