What we learned from the World Chess Championship Match

DECEMBER 8 ― The World Chess Championship Match held in New York City ended a little over a week ago with Magnus Carlsen from Norway successfully retaining his title although some prefer to say he has now won it for the third time given he took the title from India's Viswanathan Anand in 2013, defended it against the same player in 2014 and of course just retained it against the challenge of Russia's Sergei Karjakin.

In the match itself, and unusually so for a defending champion, Carlsen did all the pushing for victory except in the last game where he took the pragmatic decision to opt for tie-breaks where he was confident that his chances were even better.

There are two takeaways here; the first perhaps that we had an unusual situation where two young players of the same age were playing when in the past it has always been a brash young challenger against a somewhat older defending champion, and the second is that Karjakin may be a talented challenger but he is not quite in the same class as the holder who has long been top ranked and in 2014 achieved the highest rating in history.

Some have questioned the relatively short duration of the match, saying that 12 games as compared to the 24 games played in the past, was not enough, while others are arguing that a match using standard chess time controls should not be decided by a tie-break played with a different time control.

Well, there is something seriously wrong with the entire world chess championship cycle and even the people involved in running it. One needs to look no further than the completely dysfunctional women's world championship where the defending champion has refused to defend her title as the format rotates yearly between a knockout event and a match ― in the men's or “open” championships, the time tested system of zonals, interzonals and candidates' matches have been replaced, changed, and complemented by numerous other ways to qualify.

This tinkering has gone so far as to result in a particularly inept proposal to allow a sufficiently highly ranked player with sufficient money the right to challenge the world champion, and for once the majority of the chess world surprisingly came together to oppose this although some of the motives were very questionable.

Let's not fool ourselves. The underlying reason why all this is happening and is continuing to happen is that chess is not attracting global sponsorship and the largely incompetent administrators of the game have been busy grabbing whatever they can in order to enjoy their positions which then guarantees influence for personal financial benefit, and this has created a now entrenched culture that has premeated all levels of the game.

The money going into the World Chess Federation (FIDE) and chess has long been largely from Russia and former Soviet Union satellite countries, or from Middle East nations together with various other regimes,

Agon, the controversial event organiser given the rights to the World Championship by FIDE, did succeed in holding the match in New York but with largely Russian money, near zero involvement let alone support of the US Chess Federation, and with the glaring absence of globetrotting FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.

Ilyumzhinov had tried desperately to get into the USA to attend the match despite sanctions by the US Treasury and so it might actually have been a relief to Agon that his participation has been at the absolute minimal.

Generally, Agon did organise a decent event but if the objective was the promotion of chess and to broaden its appeal globally or even to ride on the uptake of chess in what is still the world's biggest market ― why then hold it in New York City? ― it has been almost all a big fail, and too many of the mistakes largely of its own making.

First, the venue was simply not big enough and the facilities such as that provided for media fell quite short of a world class event. I also felt the attempt to have a Hollywood-style opening with a gala evening was simply, and I am being polite here, “B” list.

Second, the same could be said for the embarrassing lack of supporting (complementary) activities... it should have been made into a huge celebration of the game with multiple events which could energise and excite the city.

Third, the online presence was poor, the dedicated app built did not work well and it did not help that Agon attempted to restrict broadcast with various messy legal fights with other leading chess sites and lost badly.

Fourthly, the global mainstream news coverage was poor but to be fair that was expected as chess is only followed by those who play chess and that made the three earlier points I have explained as their failure all the more something Agon will have to think about if they are to do better next time.

The World Championship Match has certainly revealed a lot about the thinking and attitudes of the chess community.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles