Innovation in time control formats will make chess spectator friendly, but longer formats must be retained to preserve sport's charm

Tanmay Srinath
Many feel that the Norway Chess 2019 regulations may be the best way forward, with a decisive result in every encounter, while not compromising on the quality of the classical games, and rewarding players with a half point more if they win without needing a tiebreaker.

The organisers at the Altibox Norway Chess 2019, who are well known for their inventiveness and open-mindedness, introduced a new tournament format this year. In the classical section, there were small modifications, but the real change was to have an Armageddon game at the end of each drawn classical encounter. Previously, chess tournaments never witnessed a tiebreaker in each round. However, in this event, in the case of a draw, the players had to play a sudden death game, where the White player had 10 minutes and the Black player had 7, but Black only needs to draw in order to win the match.

This was done to ensure that we had a winner in each game. No draws. With such regulations, one gets more questions than answers. The question is why do organisers constantly fiddle with the time control in chess? Is it necessary to make chess more of a spectator sport? Or is it actually destroying the very foundations of the game €" the art of using one's mind in the best possible manner?

Before going deeper into the reason for the constant changing of time controls, let us first understand what a time control means. It is the maximum duration of time that a player can take to complete a set number of moves, be it 40, 60 or the game itself. There are many forms of time controls, like Fischer Increment, Bronstein Delay, etc. The former involves adding a fixed amount of time to a player's clock after he/she completes his/her move and presses it, and the latter delays the start of the clock for a particular duration of time, but doesn't allow a player's clock to have more time than it started with.

In recent years, the game of chess has witnessed great change €" the opening revolutions are slowly dying down, the engines are growing stronger by the day, Artificial Intelligence has taken its initial steps in the game. While all of the above remain beyond the control of the organisers and FIDE (world chess body), time control is something they can always tweak and play around with and they haven't shied away from experimenting. 

The World Championship matches, which previously used to have adjournments, have now become much shorter. The introduction of rapid and blitz time controls have made the game shorter and more fun to watch, but have also degraded the quality of the games. The viewership of chess has definitely increased due to the above changes, but are they adversely affecting the players and the purists?

Chess has never been a sport for the masses. In games like cricket, tennis, and football, there is steady action. The essence of those games lies in their inherent dynamism €" there is the invariable motion of either the player or the ball. Thus, human beings, who are so used to moving, have something that captures their attention for a long duration.

Classical chess involves players thinking for nearly four to five hours for a single game. Naturally, it involves a lot of patience and maturity on the part of the players as well as the audience. Thus, to the uninitiated, staring at the same position for say 20 minutes feels like a total waste of time. The 'evolving' attitude of instant-everything, has turned people away from this ancient game. In fact, only a few chess-loving countries showed the World Chess Championship live, and that too not in the best possible quality. The last time chess was broadcast on Indian television was when Viswanathan Anand played for the World Championship title in Chennai in 2013. That was done by Doordarshan. Chess, in general, has not enjoyed the blessing of being a television sport.

Commercial aspects beat aesthetics and purity in today's money-driven ecosystem, so the organisers and federations are looking at options for increasing the sport's mass appeal. Rapid and Blitz do help, justified by the countless gaffes and hilarious moments one sees in time trouble (a lack of time to complete one's moves). However, as stated previously, this cannot replace older formats, for the simple reason that players of the lower levels and analysts can't take those games seriously. If the classical formats stop, so does the evolution of strategy. The game of Chess will be brought to a standstill and the players will soon lose interest in the game, leading to its eventual death.

Looking at the future, the best way forward is to have a debate on what has been happening at all levels of the game, be it at the World Championships, or at an amateur level. The current World Champion Magnus Carlsen proposed a knockout format with a classical time control that is slightly shorter than the one used in World Championships, to decide who the best player in the world is. This raises the stakes to a very high level and forces players to go for their opponent's throats. This makes the games very interesting to watch, and will surely make chess more of a spectator sport. The catch is that the title of the World Champion becomes a lottery, and susceptible to streaks of good form from an average chess player, who might not necessarily be strong enough to play at that level consistently.

Many feel that the Norway Chess 2019 regulations may be the best way forward, with a decisive result in every encounter, while not compromising on the quality of the classical games, and rewarding players with a half point more if they win without needing a tiebreaker. Speaking to Firstpost, Viswanathan Anand, who was one of the participants at Norway Chess, said, "I think it is an interesting experiment. I don't know if we have found the answer yet. Probably we will have to experiment both with various time controls and scoring systems. This year I felt that the Armageddon games were too important relative to the classical, so maybe some tweaking there could be useful. But it's interesting. If it makes it attractive for the spectators then it is a good idea for the future."

We can't change the fact that a draw is one of the possible results in the game of chess, but to celebrate the genius and fighting spirit, we can do whatever is possible to reduce the possibility of a truce. Experimenting with time controls is perhaps the best option, but we must make sure that for the future of the game, the longer formats retain more importance than the shorter ones.

Tanmay Srinath is an author for ChessBase India

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