Against All (Draw) Odds

Ever since the draw odds were replaced in the World Championship matches (starting with the Kramnik-Topalov unification match in 2006) there has been an endless debate about the mixture of time controls in the most important event in the chess world.

In the past, things were clear. Rapid chess didn’t exist and the Champion had the draw odds. The reasoning was simple – if the Challenger wanted to become a Champion, he had to defeat that Champion. He had to prove that he was better than him in order to become one. Being equal to the Champion didn’t make him a Champion. Remember Bronstein.

Things changed in 2006 because in the unification match there had to be a winner. There was nobody to give the draw odds to – Kramnik beat Kasparov in 2000 and drew Leko in 2004 (maintaining his title because of the draw odds in his favour), but he was outside FIDE, though he did follow along the traditional lineage of “a Champion is the player who beats the previous Champion in a match”; Topalov was the FIDE Champion after winning San Luis in 2005. So there was a duel between the FIDE Champion and the Champion of the traditional lineage. There had to be a winner. They decided on a rapid tie-break.

Going again back in the past for comparison, in case of a tie of a Candidates match for example, the players were playing more classical games, until one player won. The extreme case was that of Vassily Smyslov winning the match against Robert Hubner by guessing the colour on the which the roullette ball would land, following a tie after 14 games of their Candidates match in 1983.

But surely a World Championship cannot be decided by a roullete ball? In fact, it can be much worse.

Nowadays we have rapid and blitz tie-breaks in case of a tie. Magnus Carlsen won his last two World Championship matches in the rapid tie-breaks. He is also of the opinion that there should be no draw odds and that playing rapid (and blitz) tie-breaks (and an Armageddon at the end) is fine.

But there is also another camp, and I agree with it, that the classical World Champion should be decided in classical chess. We already have rapid and blitz World Championships. The question is what to do in case of a tie?

I don’t see anything wrong with the old system. The logic of “beat the king to become one” makes perfect sense to me. Now that we have a legitimate World Champion (no need for reunifications a-la 2006) the old system can be reintroduced.

The main argument against that is that it gives the Champion a priviledge, that he can play only for a draw and keep his title.

I don’t think this is a priviledge or an advantage for the Champion. Playing for a draw is never good and it puts the player in a psychologically inferior position. The draw odds in favour of the Champion also motivate the Challenger to show that he is better, to actually win the match. It creates the imbalance that is needed for an exciting match.

If taken to the extreme, to the Armageddon, today’s system makes mockery of the world title. As aptly put by GM Ivan Sokolov, one player will win because the other failed to win. Theoretically, a player can become a World Champion by drawing all the games. Imagine, a Challenger can draw all his games against the Champion and this will make him (her) a Champion! Isn’t that the same as draw odds? Only that the draw odds will be decided at the end, when one player chooses to play Black in the Armageddon, meaning that we don’t know from the start who has these draw odds in their favour.

It is too easy to accept the current situation because Carlsen is better than everybody else in all time controls. But try to imagine the chaos if he loses his title in an Armageddon game by drawing it with White. In the eyes of the public, will that player stand in the same line as the previous holders of that same title? I know (s)he won’t in mine. The point is that the current system can produce an “accidental” Champion.

It is irrelevant whether the probability of the above happening is low or insignificant. We are talking about the system here.

Chess is a traditional game and while we are trying to make it more in tune with modern times by employing faster time controls I think we should still respect the centuries-old traditions. We have more than enough rapid and blitz elsewhere, we don’t need to mix them with the classical match.

There is nothing wrong with keeping the traditions. The old system worked fine and, as they say, why fix it if it wasn’t broken?

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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