World Chess Championship - A Knockout Format?

World Chess Championship - A Knockout Format?

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I know that at the start, I meant for this to be a statistical based blog, but I wanted to share my opinions of a topic that has been the talk of the chess world in the last few days.

GM Magnus Carlsen, the World No.1 and the current World Champion, stated in a Facebook post that he feels that the World Championship format should be changed into a more "balanced and fair" tournament. Many people in the chess community, including other Grandmasters, have also voiced their opinions about this; some agreeing with Carlsen while some disagreeing.

In his post, Magnus suggested that "moving to an annual knock-out event, similar to the World Cup, would be more equitable" and "would make the World Championship cycle more accessible to everyone".

He has a fair point. The World Chess Championship match is an age old tradition going back to 1886 when Wilhelm Steinitz defeated Johannes Zukertort. However, in this modern era, where tournaments are broadcast online around the world (and on live TV in Norway), does the system need to be modernised to allow for more media coverage and more sponsorship opportunities? Chess has a deep heritage in having title matches and champions by succession (i.e. you must beat the champion to become the champion); and boxing is another example of this (and yet boxing is still very popular amongst the public). So what are other sports doing that chess isn’t?

Steinitz and Zukertort playing the first ever WC match in 1886, via Wikipedia

This is not the first time that Carlsen and the World Championship has made news in the chess world. Go back to 2010, when he withdrew from the Championship cycle, citing that the system used was not a “sufficiently modern and fair” format. 5 years on and despite being World Champion now, and hence benefiting from the current format, he still thinks the system should be changed, and for that he deserves a lot of respect, for putting the game of chess before his own title and status. But if the system is to be changed, what should the system become?

Magnus suggested the World Cup format, which is a 128 player, knockout format (the style used in almost all tennis tournaments, like the US Open and Wimbledon). This format, used in the split FIDE title, is most definitely not the best format to use for chess. In the 1999 FIDE World Championship, Russian GM Alexander Khalifman became the World Champion, despite being ranked 44th in the world at the time (and the 36th seed in the tournament). He was rated only 2616 at the time (the top seed being Vladimir Kramnik at 2751). As I write this, the live rating at 44th in the world is now 2702; which also happens to be Khalifman’s peak rating (reached in 2001, when an 18-year-old Ukrainian GM Ruslan Ponomariov became the FIDE World Champion also in a knockout format; he later reached #6 in the world and a 2768 peak rating). Could you imagine a player barely 2700 to be crowned as the best in the world, and be mentioned in the same group as Capablanca, Fischer and Kasparov?

Having the World Championship held as an annual tournament will most definitely reduce the prestige and the accolade that comes with the title; previously in three-year cycles, a player may only get two or three shots of making a championship match. A two-year cycle would allow more shots at a title match, but it would reduce the element of luck much more than a rushed one-year cycle.

The accolade of being the World Chess Champion is one of the most prestigious of all championship titles, in its 129 year history; only 16 people have held the title of undisputed World Chess Champion. So, it would make sense that the title should be awarded to only the best of players, and not someone who got “lucky” in a large tournament with only 2 game matches to decide the result (plus rapid and blitz tie-break).

However, in a modern age where in many other sports like football and tennis, the reigning champion has no privileges (in the FIFA World Cup, the reigning champion has to qualify for the tournament proper!). But at the same time, you have to make sure that the champion deserves their title as the best in the world.

Is Carlsen right that the WC format should be changed? - photo via Wikipedia

So, what do I think is the best format for a more modern World Championship? Well, here it is:

I think that the best format for a World Championship tournament is an 8-player knockout tournament, very similar to that of the 2011 Candidates Tournament. Most major sports tournaments use a knockout system in world level tournaments (football, rugby, tennis, cricket and many others), and so this makes the format easy to follow for those not immediately interested in chess as it is a system that is familiar to them. It is also a format that is rarely used in chess tournaments, which could bring excitement to fans of chess both old and new.

So there would be 8-players, but how would they qualify? I suggest this qualification system (in this order, if a player qualifies from one or more of this criteria):

  • The incumbent World Champion
  • The previous runner-up in the World Championship
  • The winner of the Chess World Cup
  • The winner of the FIDE Grand Prix
  • Four qualifiers from two qualifier tournaments, similar to the Interzonal tournaments in the past

I think that only the winner from the Chess World Cup should qualify and not the top two or three, because it adds more importance to the tournament as a whole and in particular, the final match (previously, both finalists have qualified for the Candidates, making the semi-finals sometimes more important than the final itself). Having only one qualifier from the Grand Prix could also make those tournaments more exciting. Imagine if in the 4th Grand Prix event in Khanty-Mansiysk, only one of either Caruana or Nakamura would qualify; they would both be fighting it out for every single point to make that qualifying spot. It would make for more exciting chess, in both the moves played and also the tension and pressure amongst the players, knowing that one mistake could cost them a shot at joining an exclusive list of World Chess Champions.

The qualifier tournaments that I suggested would work in a similar fashion to the Interzonals from the past, having a group of the top Grandmasters in the world, playing in tournaments to win a place for the Championship tournament. Basically, the top 16 or 20 players by the previous year’s average rating list that have not yet qualified would be split into two groups of 8 or 10 players. They would then play a double round robin, and the top two from each tournament would qualify for the final 8. Any ties for qualifying spots would be resolved by a play-off.

I have not chosen any qualifiers from the rating lists directly because I think that if the only way to get a qualifying spot were to play in tournaments, then those particular tournaments would get a lot more attention from chess fans, sponsors and the media. It also avoids the problem of high rated players simply ‘sitting’ on their rating and qualifying by essentially doing nothing. By placing less emphasis on the rating lists, it could encourage players to play with more risk, with a high reward of a qualifying spot for the players who manage that risk well.

Gelfand won the 2011 Candidates Tournament held as an 8-player knockout; before losing the WC match to Anand on rapid tie-breaks - photo via Wikipedia

So what about the Championship format itself? I suggested a knockout tournament with the above 8 players, with the players randomly drawn against each other. This means that the reigning World Champion has no advantage in the actual tournament (as Carlsen suggested); only the fact he automatically qualifies.

The quarter-finals would be a best-of-6 match, the semi-final would be best-of-8 and the final best-of-12. The time control would be 40/100’, 20/50’, G/15, +30” increment from the start (which will be the time control at the Candidates and the World Championship match next year instead of the increment only coming into play on move 61). Rest days would be after every 3 matches, with an additional rest day between the quarter-finals and the semi-finals, and 2 rest days between the semi-finals and the final.

If there were to be a tie in the main portion, the tie-breaks would be 2 games of 60|30, then 4 games of 20|10, then 6 games of 4|2, and then finally an armageddon game. Going to blitz and armageddon is not ideal at all, but it is impossible to plan an event that could theoretically take forever to complete (especially in such a format). As such, they are unavoidable, and while purists would disagree with faster time controls deciding out-comes of tournaments, the chance of it deciding the winner of a match in a high-level tournament like this is extremely small.

The additional 60|30 time control that I added means that there is still a chance that classical games can decide the result (despite being much shorter games than the main portion, and probably much shorter than most top GM’s play). Preferably, the tie-breaks would all be done in one day, but to play up to 13 games could be too much, so it could be split up into 2 days (the two 60|30 games on the first, then the rapid and blitz on the second). With an extra rest day between rounds, 2-3 days rest to prepare for your next opponent is most likely sufficient; especially as beforehand, you know it will be one of only two players (and players will generally make general preparations for all potential opponents before the start of the tournament).


So what could be a schedule for a 2-year cycle? Well, here is my suggestion:

  • February – May/July: FIDE Grand Prix Series; one tournament every month for 4 or 6 tournaments
  • October/November: FIDE Chess World Cup
  • March – April: Qualifier tournaments; one on each month
  • October – November: World Chess Championship Finals

I think condensing the Grand Prix will be the best idea, because it makes it easier to follow if they are all in succession. Imagine if in Formula One, there were 2 races in 2 weeks, and then 2-3 months before the next few races. It just wouldn’t happen!

The Chess World Cup and the World Chess Championship Finals are in the same times in the year that they have been held in the last couple of years (hence causing minimal disruption to the scheduling of these events). Having the finals towards the very end of the cycle would be the culmination of two years of qualifying and the very pinnacle of chess; 8 players who have earned the opportunity to battle it out for the title of World Chess Champion.


Chess is steeped in tradition, but if chess is going to become more mainstream and more popular amongst players and sponsors, the system needs to change. That change must not only come from the players, but also from FIDE, who have done relatively little to attract new sponsors into the game. Support from top players, including Carlsen, is essential for this to happen, but if the format is to be changed, then it needs to be changed to a format that is attractive to the players, sponsors and the media, but also will allow only the best of players to become the World Champion.

Maybe it’s not the system that needs to be changed, but just that chess needs to find new sponsors? Maybe rapid chess is the way forward to attracting sponsors and bringing more funding into the game? Let me know your thoughts in the comments; this topic is certainly one that I suspect will be in the spotlight for quite some time...

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