Why are there so few knockout tournaments?

Why are there so few knockout tournaments?


Once again draws are in the news, but Karjakin’s comments to Norwegian paper Aftenposten have largely gone under the radar. He addressed format, rather than point-scoring, anti-draw rules or player’s motivation: “If we were playing a knockout tournament, it wouldn’t make sense to play quick draws,” he said.

Karjakin makes a good point. If it was a knockout match, who would want to give away their white? Arranged draws is one thing, but quick draws are also an issue for chess. Both could be addressed in a knockout: There may be short draws, but at a cost to the white player – and at the end of the day (or mini-match), we’ll have one winner and one loser. Voilà! The tied game disappears.

So why aren’t knockouts more popular among organizers? Three years ago, I actually suggested it to the NorwayChess organizers. I got an “interesting” back, but never heard anything more.

There are some kinks that would need to be worked out: Firstly, expenses: the normal 10-player round robin would be cut down to 8 or increased to 16. In the first case, the tournament might feel a bit short. In the second, it will become expensive. Secondly, what do you do with the losers? Personally, I’d have them play loser’s brackets, so that all participants have the same amount of games, regardless of results. It’s also possible to just send them home.

Stuff like this needs thinking – but it’s definitely possible to find good solutions. As with most things, tradition runs deep – and doing something innovative feels risky. Someone has to take the first step.

Last year, I participated in the Fide Grand Prix series. Afterwards, all the players received an email from the organizers (Agon), asking for feedback. I was very happy to provide some – I hadn’t accomplished much of note over the board, so I could at least provide some thoughts on improving the series. I pitched a new format – based on knockout matches.

My idea is this: Each Grand Prix event is one leg of a knockout tournament. We start out with 32 players, who all play the first event. For the second event, only the 16 winners get to continue, and so on. In the end, we have two winners of a semifinal, and those are the qualifiers to the Candidates tournament.

It’s similar to the Chess World Cup (the only tournament I know of who use knockout at the moment). But where the World Cup gets a bad rep for having too few games per match and too intense a schedule, those concerns would be addressed in a new Grand Prix series and differentiate it from the current World Cup scheme.

I’m very excited to tell you that this suggestion has been welcomed by Agon and will be discussed at the upcoming Fide Presidential Board meeting in July. I am one of those who believe more knockout tournaments would be good for chess and hope this Grand Prix system gets approved for 2019.

That being said, I also wish more of the top-level tournaments choose to experiment with the format. We cannot, nor should we, remove draws from chess. But we can make systems that allows chess to do its thing – lots of draws even – but at the end of the day still give us a winner.