Imagine you’re watching a two-legged championship soccer final. The games have been interesting but scoreless.
Suddenly, in the 75th minute of the second game, United FC switch formation. FC City freeze, not sure what to do. The City defense responds out of reflex, but United gain the advantage. Finally, the 89th minute, United slice through the City defense. The attacker is one-on-one with the keeper. She prepares to shoot …
… and then says, “Nah, you know what? Let’s just go to penalty kicks.”
That’s roughly what happened today in the World Chess Championship between defending champion Magnus Carlsen and American Fabiano Caruana. (Caruana used to represent Italy, but he switched nationalities and was first chair for the first American team to win a non-boycotted Olympiad since the 1930s, so the USA definitely got the better of the trade for Giuseppe Rossi.)
Carlsen, the Norwegian whom some idiot writer hyped as the “new face … and abs” of chess in 2013, had drawn the first 11 games of the 12-game match with Caruana. Each player had a slight opportunity here and there, but not much.
Today, Carlsen surprised Caruana on the 12th move. The computer engines we use to evaluate such things were not impressed, but it clearly unnerved Caruana. These games are timed, and Caruana spent an awful lot of time to play the wrong moves in response.
While the chess world salivated at the prospect of a game that did not end as a draw, Caruana’s clock kept running.
And then Carlsen offered a draw. Caruana, who didn’t get this far in chess by being stupid, quickly agreed.
The U.S. commentators, who have made little effort to pretend they’re not rooting for the local-ish guy, were shocked.
The international commentators were stunned.
The Rutles were very stunned.
The only explanation here is that Carlsen is so confident that he’ll win the tiebreakers that he figured he’d just ditch a position in which the Stockfish computer gave him only a 9% chance of losing even without taking into account the 30-minute time advantage he had.
In fairness, the computer also said the game had a 56% chance of being drawn. If Caruana had continued and found all the right moves, he likely would have survived.
And in classical (slow) chess, these guys find all the right moves most of the time. If you’ve followed along through these games, you’ve seen time and time again that one and only one move will deny the opponent a subtle but potentially decisive advantage, C&C Chess Factory find that move.
The tiebreakers are simply faster games. The 12 classical games give each player 100 minutes to make 40 moves, though because each move adds another 30 seconds, it’s really 120 minutes. Then it’s 50 minutes, plus 30 seconds added per move, for the next 20 moves. Then 15 more minutes, again with 30 extra seconds per move, for the rest of the game.
First up are “rapid” games. Each player gets 25 minutes plus 10 seconds per move for the whole game. They’ll play four of those games. If it’s still drawn 2-2, we go to …
“Blitz” games. Five minutes plus 3 seconds per move. Best of two — get a win and a draw, and you’re the champion. Then again. And again. And again. And for a fifth time if no one wins.
Finally, it’s an “Armageddon” game. They’ll be randomly assigned white or black. White gets 5 minutes, and the 3-second increment only kicks in at move 61. Black gets 4 minutes and the 61st-move increment. But black only has to draw.
All of which raises the question — why don’t they just add these games into the championship?
When Grischuk (that’s Alexander, the grandmaster cited above said “RIP classical chess,” I don’t think he was kidding. These guys are too good.
In a tournament, players can occasionally surprise each other and gain an advantage. In a match, which lets players prepare for months to analyze the best opening lines against an opponent and then regurgitate them at the table, such surprises are rare.
This isn’t some new trend. When Carlsen beat challenger Vladimir Kramnik in 2016, each player won one of the 12 games before Carlsen prevailed in rapid chess. In 2012, Vishy Anand and Boris Gelfand won one game each.
Something needs to change. Let’s do this …
We already have world championships in rapid and blitz chess. Let’s take the winners from those championships and the winner of a classical chess tournament, along with the defending champion, and create a final four.
In that final four, each match is a mix of classical, rapid and blitz. Each game, regardless of time control, counts the same.
For the semifinals, make it six classical games, six rapid and two blitz.
For the final — eight, eight and four.
Play these matches back to back, not long after the other world championships, so there’s no time to memorize a whole database of openings.
The winner will be the best overall chess player in the world.
And the matches might be a little less disappointing.