ACJ Extra

Some Thoughts on the World Championship

Mark Dvoretsky

The system of competition for the World Championship proposed by the new president of FIDE, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has provoked contradicting responses. I would like to share my opinions, analyze the merits and drawbacks of the new plan, and propose some possible improvements.


If Ilyumzhinov succeeds in providing the financial standards which he promised to provide for the World Championship, it will truly herald (and not merely in words, like the activities of the PCA) the transformation of chess into a professional sport. Clearly, a significant increase of the prizes in this most important competition of the year will gradually influence the entire pyramid of tournaments and matches -- prizes will increase everywhere. Respect for chess will grow quickly, the status of players and trainers will increase, and the game will become more attractive to the young. I am no expert in financial questions and cannot judge how realistic are Ilyuminzhinov's plans, but I sincerely wish him success in these endeavors. All of my further comments will proceed from the hypothesis that the FIDE President will successfully realize his ideas in life.

I believe that an important virtue of the proposed system is its democratic character -- the laudable principle of distributing cash prizes among a sufficiently wide circle of chessplayers. A sensible division of prizes will be followed, along a chessplayer's progress to the top of the hierarchy, compared to what is usual in, let us say, professional tennis. The Champion should receive more than the runners-up, but not twenty, fifty, or a hundred times more!

Naturally, I am not referring to his income from advertising, business, or participating in exhibition events -- obviously a well-known player will and should receive a handsome dividend. I am speaking only of the excessive financial rewards in official competitions. Is it really proper that the champion, having played in only a single decisive match out of the entire championship cycle -- and, let us say, losing it -- should receive far more money than all the participants in the Interzonal and Candidates' Matches, taken together? In whatever other kind of sport does this situation occur? Only throughout the corrupt world of professional boxing.


The critics of Ilyumzhinov's idea, as a single voice, point out that it goes against the age-old tradition of competition for the world chess championship, thus changing the very meaning of the title of World Champion. This cannot be denied. But this does not at all mean by itself that the new system is faulty -- the traditions themselves may well be unhealthy, or fail to conform of the realities of today. In my opinion, this is precisely the case. I believe that discarding the outmoded tradition will be of singular benefit to the system, as proposed by Ilyuminzhinov. I will stop abruptly to consider this key question.

Mikhail Moiseevich Botvinnik once declared that the World Champion was merely the first among equals. In the last decade, Anatoly Karpov, and, to an even greater extent, Garry Kasparov have determinedly cultivated a diametrically opposite image of the Champion as significantly superior to all his rivals, thus holding an inalienable right to his singular place in the world of chess. Admittedly, there is a measure of truth in this claim, except that in the present situation it arises from their immediate interest, these fantastic organizational and material privileges which they have enjoyed and continue to enjoy.

Let us examine history. The first World Champions were sovereign rulers who could play with whomever they wished, on terms they themselves chose. On the other hand, there were not many serious chessplayers then, as money was too scarce; one could only dream of a regular system of organized competition.

Such a system first appeared toward the end of the forties because of the initiative of Botvinnik. Because of him, FIDE became the repository of the title, while the Champion's power diminished. He proposed that the Champion be given definite sporting responsibilities, the refusal of which could entail the loss of his title (as occurred with Robert Fischer). It goes without saying that this was a step in the right direction -- the chess world should not be subject to the will and caprices of a single player, not even a genius.

Yet having lost on one front, the Champion gained a great deal (apparently imperceptible to those around him) on another. Before, the entire struggle for the World Championship had revolved around a single match; now, a strong grandmaster with his sights on the ultimate title had first to emerge victorious from a long and grueling series of candidates' events. On the other hand, the champion played but a single match, in which he needed to score but 50% to retain his title. To better understand the absurdity of this state of things, imagine a world championship soccer tournament in which the winner is not immediately acknowledged the strongest, but merely obtains the right to play a game (or games) with the previous champion -- who receives a half-point edge into the bargain! (Botvinnik, very seriously, took out further insurance by reserving for himself the right to play a return match in the event of a loss. Later on, this rule was decided to be completely unfair and was abolished.)

When Kasparov says that he won his title after a hard fight (this is of course true) and will recognize as the new champion only one who defeats him on the same terms, his words appear to be psychologically authentic. But only because we habitually assume his historical point of view. In actual fact all this depends completely on the fact that he won the title this way from the former champion. Look at the problem differently. Suppose year after year the strongest chessplayer in the world were to be recognized. Why should the system of competition not produce the champion, but instead the challenger to his title? Why should the previous champion not participate on an equal footing with the other competitors? What is proper for the weakest should be proper as well for the strongest.

However, it should be noted that in the fifties and sixties the champions did not reap direct financial advantage from their title, insofar as the prize funds for the World Championship matches were modest. Moreover, comparatively few strong tournaments were organized at that time and the Champion was faced with the problem of finding sporting practice of full value at the highest levels, whereas the challenger inevitably obtained such practice. Finally, during the three-year cycle a Candidate had enough time to renew his strength after the exhausting battle and prepare for the World Championship. All of these factors contributed to reducing the advantage of the Champion, and if they did not equal the chances, they at least reduced the discrepancy.

In our times, the stated factors no longer apply; in fact, they have become their exact opposites. The Champion is able to make his own plans for tournaments at the highest level (and, as we know, sometimes hinders his future rivals from competing in these events), the Challenger does not have enough time for recuperation and meaningful preparation, and the Champion's financial preeminence is great.

Why do I keep returning to the financial state of affairs? Simply because today it is one of the most important contributing factors to the sporting and creative growth of a chessplayer. The leading young grandmasters of today earn quite a comfortable living, but not enough to support an extended collaboration with highly qualified trainers, much less to establish a "team."

Karpov and Kasparov, it goes without saying, are extraordinarily talented, but in recent years other exceptionally gifted chessplayers have appeared on the scene. No one has the benefit of "champion's" conditions any longer, while the government nurtured both Karpov and Kasparov from childhood and satisfied all of their requirements of material and organizational support, the assistance of many trainers, even various specialists: psychologists, doctors, chefs, administrators, lawyers, KGB officers (now replaced by "strong men", as they are politely called). I am convinced that without such professional, organized preparation over many years, neither Karpov nor Kasparov would ever have achieved their supremacy. Therein lies the foundation of their strength and stability.

In the last twenty years, the "political" influence of the Champions has increased. Karpov has been able to seriously influence decisions of site and sporting conditions, even the selection of participants (recall the restoration of the right to a revenge match, the boycott of Korchnoi, the match in Baguio....) Yet this is nothing compared to Kasparov, who has tried to take the World Championship under his own control. As a result we have again returned to (or, at least, are fast approaching) the epoch of the first champions, when almost everyone in the world of chess is subject to their wills.

But now, similarly, FIDE has taken the World Championship under its own control, and the power and influence of the Champion are again waning. Surely the majority of chessplayers are sighing with relief.

Under the new system of selecting a champion, both Kasparov and Karpov surely have excellent chances of success, but so do many other strong players. Is the strongest sure to win? Indeed, what does the concept "strongest" mean? Are we really interested in having a centaur as World Champion, with the head of a grandmaster and a body composed of the work of myriad helpers and powerful computers? I think that it would be more just to award the highest title to one who is able to emerge victorious from a fair and honest competition, with equal chances for all. Whoever does not agree with the result, let him contest them next year.

Under the new system, the long-standing preeminence of a single individual will cease, and soon we will have several, often interchangeable Champions. Is there anything wrong with this? We have the option of turning to the example of other kinds of sport, whose popularity is not diminished, but may well be enhanced by this state of affairs -- it is enough to remember our thought experiment. What a great and undeniably positive role Max Euwe played in the chess world, who in the words of Alexander Alekhine "borrowed the title of champion for two years"! At the end of the fifties there appeared two "princes of the hour," Vassily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal, who functioned simultaneously as champions in the chess arena. Did they alone profit from this? Undoubtedly, their participation in chess life, holding the highest title, enriched chess and enhanced the popularity of the game.

With the coming of several champions, the aura of uniqueness surrounding of one or two men will disappear. This will at once stabilize chess life, render it more democratic, and eradicate the harmful images of chess conflicts which have tormented it for the past ten years. What if the reigning champion does not want to play in the next world championship, or demands his own conditions be satisfied? No matter; the competition can proceed successfully without him -- there will be room for other, no less famous chessplayers. What is the point of conflict? It will become impossible to dictate lists of participants to organizers, to reschedule tournaments and matches to convenient times, to modify rules for one's own benefit. Would the World Cup series of tournaments really have collapsed, after Kasparov's refusal to play in them, if he had then been merely one of several champions of the year before?

Understandably, the "sacred cows" want to remain in their comfortable roles forever, so their sharp dislike of innovations is wholly natural. But how much (to borrow Botvinnik's words) can one put the egotistical interests of individuals above the interests of all the world of chess?

Naturally FIDE is of the utmost importance in exerting control, as its decisions have the potential to bring harm to chess (as, alas, has happened many times). Of equal importance to defending the professional interests of chessplayers is the establishment of an organization similar to the former GMA, perhaps a Council of Players. It is in the objective interests of FIDE to promote such an organization, to invest it with maximum authority and competence, and to endow it with sufficient powers.


The new system has vulnerable aspects:

(1) The seeding of the World Champion into the semifinal matches. He will be fresh, unlike the other competitors who are worn out from grueling matches. This is too grave an advantage.

(2) There is a very great element of chance in every match, which is particularly undesirable in the final stages.

(3) The mixture of serious and blitz chess, and indeed the greatly increased role of blitz. Why this is wrong we will not discuss here -- this theme deserves serious examination on its own. I emphasize only the notorious unsoundness of blitz games, which in my view should be excluded.

(4) The excessive workload placed on chessplayers, especially the combination of serious games and tie-breakers on the same day. In no official competition should a player have to play more than one serious game a day, and a tie-breaker is essentially a second game.

Any system has its peculiar shortcomings. Many of them in one or another way are inevitable in view of the inherent conflict between the necessities of organizing tournaments on a commercially acceptable basis, and the nature of chess, which requires several hours for a single serious game, and accordingly many days for a single tournament. Therefore any system can present itself as a more or less reasonable compromise between the hoped-for and the possible.

This means that we are faced with two questions:

Which are greater, the benefits or drawbacks?

Is it possible to repair the present system, in order to escape from some of its disadvantages, reduce the influence of others and thus preserve its best features?

I believe that my answer to the first question has already been made clear. I proceed to the second question.

A Proposal

Ilyumzhinov considers it commercially important that the World Championship tournament be held during the Christmas holidays. I suggest that not the entire event take place at this time, only the contest between the eight strongest, including the World Champion in this octet. The preceding stage of competition (as desired, this could be regarded as a separate candidates' tournament) should be held rather earlier, perhaps in November. What will be achieved by this?

The privileges of the Champion will be decreased (which is entirely fair -- he is after all no superstar, merely the winner of the previous championship). Most importantly, his seven challengers will have as much time as he to collect their strength before the decisive battle.

As far as conducting a smaller number of matches in the same amount of time, here are some possibilities:

(a) Extend them somewhat -- for example, two games in the quarterfinal matches, four in the semifinals and six or eight in the World Championship match;

(b) Designate a special day for tiebreaks, during the finals just as in the preliminary rounds. This will increase the role of serious chess -- the winning player is rewarded with a day of rest. The tiebreaks could consist of several faster games, allowing the exclusion of blitz.

These proposed modifications do not change the essence of Ilyumzhinov's ideas or the financial structure of the tournament, but will alleviate the defects I have noted in the system.

Certainly there are still many problems which must be worked out. For example, the proper division of the contestants between those who qualify by rating and those who are selected by other means. In my view, this first class should be chosen from the January rating list so that everyone else knows at an early date that he must qualify otherwise.

Even with these important changes, I think that the system will begin to work only next year, at best. Nevertheless, I maintain that if Ilyumzhinov's plans come alive successfully, the horizon will become considerably brighter for all chessplayers.

Mark Dvoretsky was an international master, a professional chess trainer, and the author or co-author of several acclaimed books. He was profiled in the Premiere Issue, and his writing appeared in issues 2 and 3, of American Chess Journal.

This article was first published in Russian in 1996, and appeared in English for the first time in ACJ Extra in 1997.

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