Knock-Out World Champions?

Last week’s poll question was ‘How important do you think physical fitness is to your chess performance?’ The readership wisely chose to avoid extremes, with the calm “Somewhat significant, but not a top priority” the winner, followed by “don’t be hungover” in second.


This week my topic is about World Championships and how to award them.

In the men’s (Open) side, the knock-out event is called the World Cup, while to be World Champion nowadays, you need to win a match. But the title ‘Women’s World Champion’ is awarded for both the knockout and match events. In a ChessBase interview, Hou Yifan suggested the Women’s format should change to match the Men’s, and only award the title of Women’s World Champion to a match-winner.

In her own words: “The main reason why they want to stick to the current system is the fact that it is easier to find sponsors if you call the knock-out tournament “World Championship”. If you called it “World Cup” it would be extremely difficult to find sponsors.”

That sounds good, but on the other hand, the match format means Hou Yifan is “seeded” into the final, while in a knockout she would start on level terms with 63 other women.

So my question is: Is it reasonable to award the title of World Champion after a knock-out tournament?

Yes, No and Other should cover most people’s views, with the comments box available for explanation. Maybe you prefer neither matches nor knock-outs, and want a tournament as in San Luis 2005?

45 thoughts on “Knock-Out World Champions?”

  1. No, the real World Champion will always be decided by a match. It is a part of chess culture, to take it away would be to turn our back on all the great World Championship matches of the past. Furthermore, I must say that I get angry when I see people trying to get rid of the WCh matches. I consider them enemies of chess. The prestige of being World Champion has already been watered down over the last several decades, to take away the matches would degrade and devalue the title completely.

    This is also why I don’t recognise any of the so called FIDE World Champions. There was only one World Champion from 1985 to 2000 and his name was Garry Kasparov.

  2. The women should have a World Cup and Candidates Tournament just like the men do.

    Would it really be that hard to find sponsorship for a Women’s Candidates Tournament? The World Cup might be a problem; I understand Hou Yifan’s point.

  3. Over the last few years the World Championship or Candidates tournaments have proven to be much more interesting and exciting than the matches that have been played. As opposed to the knock-out tournaments these round robins have always delivered worthy champions or challengers.

    So you’re far from an “enemy of chess”, if you prefer those round robins over matches.

    Also it doesn’t take anything away from the great World Championship matches that were played in the 20th century.

    It’s true however that winning a lot of strong tournaments doesn’t necessarily lead to being a strong match player (or vice versa)

  4. It all comes down to the question if we want one dominant world champion, as it’s tradition, or if we are fine to define the world champion as the best player at this moment.

    The current system is a bit too closed for my taste. Too many players get a free lunch without having to qualify. I can understand that the loser of the last match doesn’t have time play much and that a free slot for the sponsor is probably inevitable, but why do we need slots for highest Elo? And why only 8 players? I would like to see more strong GMs get a chance at a title shot.

  5. I voted “other”. What I would do:
    Imitate the Biathlon World Championships as much as possible for our sport. I would play a bundle of Swiss tournaments every 12 months. Let’s say Blitz, Bullet, Rapid, 360, Bughouse, and “Chess” (=long games). Minimum requirements for participants: a certain Elo (maybe 2400?) and at least 50 games since the last tournament. No free slots for anybody. If last year’s winner took a year off, he’s out. It’s a festival for professionals. The winners will be World “XXX” Champion YEAR. I would also hold the women tournament and the open section at the same time. Women over 2400 can choose.

  6. Jacob Aagaard

    The current problem with matches is that we are in the unique situation that we have two very dominant World Champions. But it does seem that qualifying for a match is more than half the struggle.

  7. The thing that separates Chess is we know it from any other variant is it’s long history of games, and the connection back through history through the cycle of world championship matches. That is an important part of its brand. To break that cycle would be bad for chess as a brand, and why I think the “World Champions” who won the title through a knock out never really get recognised as such.

  8. Shouldn’t we ask ourselves if we still need separate world championship title and tournaments for women?

    I’m sure quite a few of the top women grand masters could easily be higher on the rating lists if they weren’t comfortably making a living with the Grand Prix, womens league or women’s board in some leagues without ever having to leave their comfort zone.

    Reading Hou’s interviews both chessbase and the last New in chess, she seems to have realized that in order to become stronger she has to stop playing these events.

    I think the separate women’s championships should gradually disappear, starting first in the U8 and U10, and removing another youth event every 2 years.

  9. I think that the two dominant world champions in chess are dominant beacuse they ARE the best players and so deserve the name World Champion. The World champion has to be seen to be the best player rather than a guy or gal who got a lucky streak in a knockout format and that the match format is best by test and that the list of Kasparov/Karpov/kramnik//Anand/carlsen were all deserved to be called World Champion whereas no-one really sees Khalifman/Kasimdzhanov and Ponomariov as such despite the paper title they had that said so.
    Agree with Andre that you could have a yearly 2016/2017 etc winner but that would be like winning the Masters in golf or Wimbledon in tennis- calling that person ‘World Champion’ has a quite specific meaning attached to it. It’s a bit like Formula 1- you need to prove yourself long term to be World Champion rather than the results of one race.

  10. Jacob Aagaard

    The World Champion is the person who wins the World Championship. It does not have to be the strongest player in the World. Anand wasn’t, to look at very recent history. Kramnik probably never was.

  11. Such debates bring nothing. Like what was first? Chicken or egg. We have this system and Fide has been very rigid in changing it. No democracy in this organisation. As in a big number of national organisations. Even boicoting fide cant bring good things to chess. Only chaos which we had in era of fide champions. Woman wchampionship tournament reminds me more on world cup. If marija muzicuk was called world champion we could also call karjakin a world champion.

  12. @Jasper

    The decision shouldn’t be based on what’s the most entertaining format for viewers to watch.

    For me there is something magical about the World Chess Championship match. If you change it to a tournament, or some kind of knock out event, it will just become another World Cup but with a stronger starting field.

    I think the problem in some of the recent matches is the candidate most of us would like to have seen become the next challenger, didn’t win the event for whatever reasons. Candidate Tournaments themselves give an advantage to players with a more aggressive repertoire imo. Then again the last time we had matches to decide the next Candidate, it was a disaster with some players using a strategy of making quick draws in the classical games, betting on their chances to win the rapid tie breaks. The choice between matches or a tournament to decide the next Candidate will be unfair for certain players, whichever choice you make.

    Anyway, back on the point of how the World Champion is decided. In the end I think it boils down to tradition, history and lineage. There is something special about our game that we can trace this lineage of World Champions from Carlsen back to Steinitz. If we do away with World Championship matches the thread will be cut. I must say I’m pleased to see the “no” category winning by 9:1.

  13. KO events are about the drama, but are volatile in the sense that the best player is not that likely to win.

    The match system has less drama on average, but sometimes a ton (K-K 1987). It typically (always so far?) produces a winner which is one of the very top players in the world. I prefer this format, as it keeps meaning to the world title, and has produced epic chess battles in the past.

    I have zero clue about whether the traditional format attracts less sponsor money.

  14. Jacob

    Agree Kaspy was probably stronger than Kramnik from 2000 till 2005 until he retired but Vishy?
    You don’t think Anand was the strongest player in the world when he was World Champion (I’m not counting the FIDE crown in 2000). Who was the strongest in the years 2007-2011??

    When he won Mexico in 2007 to unify the title he was well clear of any other claimants to the throne who participated (eg Kramnik, Aronian) and indeed was number one rated by elo for the next couple of years and even though Topa never played in Mexico and surpassed him on the ranking list for a while, he beat him in their WC match as well as Kramnik in their WC match. No toiletgate etc shenanigans that might have cast any doubt on his victory in either match as far as I can remember or his subsequent Gelfand match.
    Magnus was emerging by then but I don’t think it was till late 2011/2012 when he surged ahead and I can agree that at the time of his Gelfand match in 2012 Vishy was a clear number 2 in the world- but for those 4 years before then who did you have in mind? Rybka?It was quite strong at the time…

  15. I suppose there are good reasons for having a women’s world champion but I do not know what they are. Segregation implies innate inferiority. So I can’t support the concept, as much as I like matches. If there must be women’s world champion let it be by knockout. But the real championship ought to be resolved by a match.

  16. ROBERT R :
    If there must be women’s world champion let it be by knockout. But the real championship ought to be resolved by a match.

    Having a different method for men’s and women’s world championships seems sexist to me. 😉

    The distribution of women’s IQs is narrower than that of men. That means there are less idiotic women, but also less brilliant ones. Facts are facts. Reality is sexist.

  17. Jacob Aagaard

    I think Anna was the sister that won ;-). Besides, the egg was 100 million years before the chicken as far as I understand. Happy to help.

  18. Jacob Aagaard

    So, in your opinion, the two matches this year should have been cancelled? This is a common argument you come with, but really it seems bizarre to me. The World Champion is the winner of the World Championship. The highest rated player in the World is on top of the rating list.

    Chess is a sport. Leicester might not be the best English team, but they won the Premier League. Or they might be the best English team, but they will still have to compete to retain the title.

    The winner of the World Championship is the World Champion. He/she does not have to be the best player, although this gives such a big advantage that there often is a correlation…

  19. Jacob Aagaard

    Anand was one of the strongest. But from 2010 he was slowly falling behind Carlsen. Topalov and Kramnik were not weaker. Topalov might very well have won in 2007 or 2008, had he not been eliminated from the cycle by politics (Danailov’s fault more than anything, I suspect).

    But it would not have been much different if Kramnik had won against Anand. Those extra 10 rating points for Kramnik and 10 less for Anand would have made Kramnik no. 1 probably. So, we are back to the simple fact: they were equals and Anand won the Championships.

    But since 2008 he really won very little else. To say he showed himself to be superior is a stretch.

  20. I agree with Jacob on Anand. The only indisputable champions after the 2nd WW were Fischer,Karpov,Kasparov and Carlssen. All others were first among equals.

  21. Jacob

    I think you’ve got me all wrong- not sure where you extrapolated me wanting to cancel this year’s world championships from? I only disagreed with FIDE’s knockout champion being called “World Champion” from the period 1993 till 2006. For World Champion I feel you need a proper head to head match and think Kramnik, Anand and Carlsen all deserve that title after winning titles in this manner.

    I only disagreed with your quote “It does not have to be the strongest player in the World. Anand wasn’t, to look at very recent history”. Maybe you just meant at the tail end of his reign as Magnus emerged eg late 2011 onwards, but you haven’t given me a convincing argument for the period before then since he won in Mexico in 2007. That’s 4 years- not just a blip.

    I have never stated Anand was clearly superior to Topa/Kramnik unlike the Karpov/kasparov times when they were very clearly the strongest player whereas you did categorically state that Anand wasn’t the strongest.
    The “facts” link you quoted indeed show the facts that Anand was highest rated for more periods than any other player for 2007 till late 2011- the period I think he was the best nomination for strongest player in this period. Although he didn’t win as many tournaments he was very consistent and his WC matchplay record (3x winner is hard to put down as a fluke) speaks for itself during this time.
    Still not heard who you name an alternative as ‘strongest player’ in this period if…

  22. @Johnnyboy
    I totally concur about Vishy’s strength and excellence and, yes, superiority. He was world champion for 9 years! Kramnik only 1! No contest. Topy about the same as well. Vishy has until Magnus, been the most dominant force in chess aside from Kasparov- period. To even suggest anything else is laughably absurd. Pleas do not mention the brain games “Classical World Champion”. What a joke. A nice contest in and of itself but nowhere near the legitimacy of the FIDE World Champion. Case closed.

  23. I am not sure what the argument is for Kramnik only being World Champion for only 1 year.
    2000-2005 is 5 years. If not Kramnik, who was WC from 2001-2005? The FIDE merry-go-round?
    In addition, 2007(and I argue 2008) -2013 is 5 or 6 years, not 9 for Anand’s reign.

  24. Soviet School

    In some part of my mind Kramnik was world champ from 2000 until Anand beat him in a match and then Anand till Carlsen beat him. Certainly I remember all of the chain of matches involving a World Champion by that definition .
    On the other hand if we got used to a big annual tournament called the World Championship then that might work better, I certainly find the World Cup tournaments exciting and they always seem to produce arespectable winner. There would still have been dominant players presumably e.g. Kasparov would have won the majority of an annual World championship match, but if other players had got an occasional look in that might have been more stimulating for chess.

  25. @Kassy
    World Champion 2000–02 (FIDE) (3 years)
    FIDE rating 2770 (April 2016)
    (No. 11 in the April 2016 FIDE World Rankings).
    Peak rating 2817 (March 2011)

    Anand bio lifted straight from wikipedia/ 2000-2002 and 2007-2013 (=7 years)
    Actually 10 years as World champion. Hope this helps.

  26. Jacob Aagaard

    Anand was of course one of the strongest players from 2005-20010, from when Kasparov quit till Carlsen took over. Sometimes he won things, other times he did not. Sometimes he was highest rated, sometimes he was not.

    What my point was, and I really feel it was very clear, is that he was the World Champion because he won the World Championship. There is no other claim to him being the best player in the World. Sure, no one else were dominating, but this is a different thing.

    But you cannot have a circular argument that says that the World Champion has to be the best player in the World and then say that the player is the best player in the World because he won the World Championship. They are two different things.

    Carlsen is the best player in the World no matter what happens in November. Very few would dispute it. Karjakin would not become the best player by hanging on with 12 draws in normal games, another four in rapid, a few more in blitz and then as Black in an Armageddon game. But he would be the World Champion.

    Because, chess is a sport. The World Champion is the player that wins the World Championship. End of story.

    When JohnnyBoy says that the World Champion has to be the strongest player in the World, he does indeed say that we do not need a match. It is a circularity that he cannot escape, as the match would endanger this concept.

    Chess is a sport, the World Champion is the winner of the Championship. I can see an argument for two World Champions…

  27. @Jacob Aagaard
    I think my stance is one of congruity Jacob and not one of circularity although I do not speak for JohnnyBoy. It is one thing for a Manchester United or Real Madrid to show a super high ELO as it were and not however to win “it all” more than once or twice while a slightly more quirky off-beat team might “rise to the occassion” and “win it all”. It is however highly, exceedingly unlikely that a team less perfect would dominate the Championship year after year after year unless they were incredibly excellent and strong. It is like boxing. While there might be a score of boxers who had better overall tournaments or more wins, when they get in the ring with the “champ” it is winner takes all until the champ is dethroned. Anand was clearly the best player on Earth between the Kasparov years and the coming of Magnus. Certainly there were several other incredibly strong players but, when push came to shove, Anand almost always emerged the victor. Why? He was simply better, not luckier than his opponents. Strength always shows in the real moments of challenge and crisis, not in less important matches or moments.

  28. Jacob Aagaard

    @Steve S.
    But that is circularity. The World Champion should be the best player. The best player is the winner of the World Championship.

    To ignore that Topalov dominated in 2004-6 before that awful match with Kramnik, and then was thrown to the wilderness for four years, until he returned for the Sofia match, which was decided on one stupid gamble in the 12th game and then say that Anand was “clear the best player” from 2004-2011/3 is a stretch.

    I agree that he showed class and especially nerves, in the critical moments. Obviously he deserved all the success he had. But unless being a World Champion and the best player is the same thing, the argument does not hold as I see it.

  29. Jacob

    Still not sure I’m getting my point across clearly. I agree with you that the World Champion is the winner of the World Championship but to make it legitimate you need to make it a true test of strength so that the best player in the world SHOULD win the World Championship and randomness has been factored out.
    Magnus suddenly didn’t become a poor player when he scored so badly in Norway Chess 2015- a 9 round tournament meant his loss on time in Round 1 had a huge effect whereas if it had been say a 16 round event I’m sure his true strength would have shown through.

    The Fide knockout WC was little better than random so I wouldn’t call khalifman, kasimdzhanov World Champion and I even think the current 12 game format is too short that a weaker player could still get ‘lucky’- a 16 (like Topa/Kramnik) or 24 game (Karpov/Kasparov) format would mean that if the underdog won he fully deserved the title.
    In other words World Champion is best by a TRUE match test.

  30. In addition the need to defend your title at a regular interval is part of the deal- no refusals to play like Fischer. Kaspy is obviously still strong but shouldn’t be able to claim to be WC if he had retired before Kramnik beat him just because he was ‘undefeated’. Time moves on. Bjorn Borg/Tiger Woods/Ed Moses were all but unbeatable in their heyday but the past is in the past.

  31. Jacob Aagaard

    Actually, this leads to an excellent poll question, which I am sure we will have at some point soon. What is most important for you in a World Championship cycle: a) That the best player wins the World Championship. b) That we get the most entertaining cycle.

  32. In answer to the question in post #39, it is most important to me that the best player win the World Championship. I realize that there is no way to guarantee this (or maybe even to recognize it), but it is the ideal. The old FIDE knockout tournaments were immensely entertaining, but they were an absolute crapshoot in terms of producing a credible world champion.

  33. @jacob :rofl: for the egg and thanks for correcting me about anna. Its even harder to remember who and when was fide man world champion than woman fide wchamp. It would be.interesting to know who can name them chronolligical whitout help of google.

  34. Soviet School

    If you look at the FIDE KO world championships one was won by Karpov in a short match who beat Anand who had won a KO series. In Holland
    Ponomariov beat Ivanchuk in a final cannot remember where
    Khalifman beat Akopian in a final Vegas
    Kasimdzanov beat Adams. Libya

    Kasparov did not play in any of these of course but
    Only Kasimdzhanov was a much weaker player than the other possible winners, partly due to the fact that many players could not safely play in Libya so did not play . Khalifman was IMHO actually very good in KO events. So KO does seem to produce worthy winners , if played annually no more unworthy than it is to have a Match champion who may no longer be at his best given 3 years at the top without a challenge.

  35. Jacob, K.R

    Even worse than naming the Women World Champions is spelling them. I see a number of impossibly long names are comprising the top 20 women after a number of indecipherable Georgian/Ukranian/Russian names such as Chiburdanidze and Gaprindashvili and I’m never sure if it is Hou Yifan or the other way round.
    I think there is an unwritten rule that the WC name must be easy to spell and vice versa with the women’s title -hence the easy peasy names to spell champions such as Tal Karpov Anand and Carlsen whereas the women must be as difficult as possible- this explains why Judit never challenged for the title as her name was too easy so she had to challenge for the other title. Of course the unrecognised FIDE Knockout title was introduced just to give Khaifman, Kasimzdhanov and Ponomariov an outlet.
    . Giri and So have obviously a chance of gaining the title in the future but Ian Nepomniatchi hasn’t. Goryachkina is hot favourite for the women’s title if she can beat Saduakassova in the final. Sopiko better not take on Anish’s surname as well if she wants a chance…

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