Random pairings - is this going to be a thing?

Random pairings - is this going to be a thing?

GM gmjlh
Sep 23, 2017, 3:30 PM |

We got some excitement in the world of chess on Friday! I was one of those who hadn't read the 2017 Chess.com Isle of Man regulations, and was taken aback by the announcement of Caruana-Kramnik as a 1st round pairing. Like most people, when faced with something completely contrary to systems we're used to, I thought this seemed plain wrong. Random pairings, and then to have the biggest outlier of them all - the number two seed drawn against the number three seed - on the very first try! As added spice, it's THE integral pairing of the rating race for two rating spots in the Candidates.

It has taken me some hours to digest, but I'm liking it more and more. Here's why:

I think this is the first basic point: What could be more fair than everyone having the same risk - presumably a disadvantage - of facing the World Champion? If we say this system is giving the best players an disadvantage, I think that logically also means that traditional swisses actually GIVE the best players an advantage - as they don't run the risk of a very tough first round pairing.

Greg elaborates on his blog. I want to highlight these two paragraphs:

The Swiss System is inherently slightly unfair. Over a short sample of tournaments it will likely be MORE fair than the results of randomized pairings, but over a long sample of tournaments the randomized pairings will be fairer to all players in the event (not just the top ones).

The issue is that chess players cannot see past the one individual tournament, and therefore they are happy to accept some small degree of inherent unfairness in order to assure that any one tournament isn’t too affected by “lucky pairings”.

In fact, I think where the Isle of Man organizers went wrong is that they aren't principled about this - they are just using it as a novelty. Like Greg notes, this system will create lucky (and unlucky) pairings in the short run. That's part of what makes it exciting. Could a 2200-player be on full score after five rounds - and face off with the other guy on five points - a certain 2800-rated World Champion? But precisely for this reason, you need to stick with it for the duration of the event.

We've actually had a cousin of this in Norway the last four decades: Our way (the monrad system) is similar to the Isle of Man system, as starting numbers are drawn by random - but after that it resembles a swiss again. Start number 1 has priority for floating, and as such is considered an advantage. By doing a purely random draw, no one has floating priority (and depending on which tiebreak you use, it may not even matter). It was scrapped by the Norwegian Chess Federation this summer, as the swiss system was considered more likely to find a fair winner. But do keep in mind: Most Norwegian weekend tournaments are five rounds. That's too short to avoid outlier outcomes to affect many tournaments. The monrad system wasn't great for short tournaments - and neither is a system of completely random pairings.

That's why I think the Isle of Man pairing was unfair - they didn't follow through. It's essentially a one round monrad, and that doesn't give the weird "accidents" a chance to correct themselves in the long run. After losing to Caruana in the first round, Kramnik is back to the swiss system - one point behind, trying to catch up - while Caruana doesn't run the same risk of suddenly getting paired with Carlsen in round 2. Caruana's high rated privileges of the swiss system has been given back to him. Not to mention Carlsen, who got through the first round unscathed, with the full point never being in doubt. The World Champ enjoys a one-point head start on Kramnik.

I would love to see a tournament who takes the concept as a principle: Random pairings (within the point group, of course) all the way. I think it would make for one heck of a show. It's a swiss in which everyone is unrated. And after all, isn't that what we tell our kids? Disregard rating - just play the game!