Chess World Divided Over World Rapid Tiebreak Controversy
Abdusattorov and Nepomniachtchi playing their playoff. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Chess World Divided Over World Rapid Tiebreak Controversy

| 148 | Chess Event Coverage

The tiebreak regulations at the World Rapid Chess Championship, which finished yesterday in Warsaw, Poland, are being heavily debated on social media. This report provides an overview of the different opinions being expressed online.

The World Rapid Championship ended on Tuesday in a four-way tie for first place among GMs Nodirbek Abdusattorov, Ian NepomniachtchiMagnus Carlsen, and GM Fabiano Caruana. All four had scored 9.5/13, but not all qualified for the playoff.

2021 World Rapid Championship | Final Standings (Top 10)

Rk. SNo Fed Name Rtg Pts. TB1 TB2 TB3
1 59 GM Nodirbek Abdusattorov 2593 9.5 103.0 109.0 2674
2 4 GM Ian Nepomniachtchi Ian 2798 9.5 100.5 107.5 2699
3 1 GM Magnus Carlsen Magnus 2842 9.5 97.0 103.0 2691
4 6 GM Fabiano Caruana Fabiano 2770 9.5 95.0 100.0 2649
5 3 GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda 2801 9.0 98.0 103.0 2679
6 14 GM Levon Aronian 2728 9.0 96.0 100.0 2544
7 2 GM Hikaru Nakamura 2836 9.0 95.5 102.0 2650
8 15 GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov 2727 9.0 92.0 98.0 2588
9 174 GM Gukesh D 2050 9.0 91.0 95.0 2619
10 10 GM Richard Rapport 2750 9.0 88.0 94.0 2592

(Full final standings here.)

The regulations state that just the top two players on tiebreak play the blitz playoff to determine the champion. The first tiebreaker, which points toward Abdusattorov and Nepomniachtchi, is "Buchholz Cut 1," meaning the total of the scores of each of the opponents they played (minus the worst score), multiplied by the player's own score. Simply put, Abdusattorov and Nepomniachtchi's 9.5 is valued higher because their respective opponents had played better than Carlsen and Caruana's opponents.

This isn't the first time that something like this has happened. Five years ago, in Doha, Qatar, GM Vasyl Ivanchuk clinched the rapid title on tiebreak (without a playoff) after finishing tied for first with GM Alexander Grischuk (silver) and Carlsen (bronze), who then pointed out that the first tiebreak criterion back then, the average rating of the opponents, unfairly worked against the player with the highest rating.

FIDE listened and introduced a blitz playoff the next year, but for just the top two players on tiebreak. At the 2017 World Rapid Championship in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nepomniachtchi missed out on the playoff after finishing in a tie for first place with GMs Vladimir Fedoseev and GM Viswanathan Anand, who ended up winning the playoff and the title.

Back then, the tiebreak wasn't heavily discussed, but this time the situation has led to a significant debate, first fueled by Carlsen himself, who knew he had just lost his chance to retain his title.

Interviewed on Norwegian TV right after the last round, he said: "It's a completely idiotic rule. Either all players on the same amount of points join the playoff, or no one does."

GM Ben Finegold on Twitter pointed toward a somewhat similar situation that occurred at the 2018 Sinquefield Cup.

Because the tweet has received quite a bit of traction on Twitter, a slight explanation of what happened then is needed. Also at that tournament, just the top two players on tiebreak would play the playoff. However, but the different tiebreaks could not cut the tie between Carlsen, Caruana, and GM Levon Aronian. A drawing of lots was supposed to eliminate one player. When Caruana declined to participate in the playoff, Aronian and Carlsen preferred to cancel the playoff altogether and share the title, which is what happened.

Back to 2021. Carlsen's description of the tiebreak rules as "completely idiotic" was supported on Twitter by several grandmasters. Apart from the tiebreak regulations, which effectively sidelined two of the biggest names in chess, Carlsen and Caruana, FIDE's decision to cut the championship from 15 to 13 rounds was also criticized:

Two FIDE officials have joined the debate on Twitter. First, FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky argued that maybe a playoff, in general, isn't a good idea, and also pointed out that new decisions might be made after top players have been consulted:

FIDE Vice President GM Nigel Short questioned the merits of everyone in a tie playing a playoff:

The reason behind keeping the playoff as short as possible by having just two players involved seems mostly of an organizational nature. Carlsen's second GM Peter Heine Nielsen, who criticized the Olympiad tiebreak regulations in an article on in 2018, remarked:

Sutovsky noted that having a higher number of rounds might lead to other issues:

The Norwegian grandmaster and commentator Jon Ludvig Hammer suggested adding a day to the rapid tournament schedule. It should be noted that adding a day is probably impossible for planning reasons if the tournament continues to be held in the last week of the year as many players won't be able to make it back home in time for New Year's celebrations.

One chess arbiter had a completely different take on the tiebreak situation:

When interviewed for Norwegian TV, Carlsen also said: "To have a playoff for victory is very much how it should be in such a prestigious event, something you obviously also should have in the Candidates." A day later, FIDE announced that this has now been arranged for the Candidates indeed.

Some have made the point that criticism tends to appear only when complaining is too late. Two tweets, one by a grandmaster and one by an arbiter:

Another arbiter pointed out that perhaps the best place for players to make their points is FIDE's Athletes Commission, instead of social media.

What would be your ideal format and best way of determining the winner of the world rapid championship? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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