Friday, 3 August 2007

Swiss System Blues

There was a spate of short draws between the highest rated players in round five of the British Championship today. As another chess journalist put it to me: "they have reverted to paying appearance fees to titled players at the British this year - their reward? These short draws."

The fault is probably the swiss system format itself. It is flawed because it only gets truly competitive and interesting on the final run-in. Accidents suffered in the early stages can easily be remedied. I'm reminded of one of those cycling 'pursuit' races where they seem to spend most of the race pootling around the track like elderly district nurses and then only pick up speed and race properly on the final lap.

It doesn't have to be like this, but some experienced players appear to exploit the inadequacies of the swiss system. It is possible to aim for a score of around 6/8, and then bank on a good run-in over the last three rounds to get 8 or 8½. How you get to 6/8 doesn't matter, and they don't knock themselves out trying to beat other leading players when there are plenty of lower-rated players available to play against. Draw against a big guy, beat a little one = 1½/2. Multiply that by five, add one for luck, and you've got a championship-winning score. Well, that seems to be the plan, anyway.

A few years ago Julian Hodgson and others used to try and blast their way to the title by going for it in almost every round. I think Jonathan Rowson sets out to do this as well, but he tends to have accidents along the way (another famous Jonathan - Penrose - had a similar track record). Each of Rowson's championship wins has included one loss, but his determined approach seems to bring its own reward in the final stretch. All three of his title wins have been richly deserved.

We put up with the swiss system out of necessity. To be fair, it's not a bad way to produce a winner and I've got nothing better to suggest. It's just that the order of the also-rans tends to be meaningless, and it also allows strong players to coast to a runner-up prize without fully exerting themselves until the last lap. Consequently, at the moment I cannot think of anything very inspired to say about the British (other than to congratulate the various 'Davids' who have defeated 'Goliaths') but of course things should hot up eventually and I look forward to a lively second week.


  1. Personally I'm not that concerned because provided there's lots of games in any given round, it doesn't matter if a couple of them end in a handful of moves. What I don't much like is the top board in the last round finishing before it's started as it did in Gallacher-Arkell a few years ago. Of course they could have the Sofia rules but would the players wear it?

    And of course there is an issue about professionals getting appearance money and then barely appearing. Did I mention the Marianske Lazne tournament I played in last year in which a Ukranian GM, the Elo favourite (as the current phrase has it) played eleven draws in eleven games in the top group, most of them short?

    Talking of short games, that Hebden-Sowray game wasn't really ten moves, was it?

  2. Golombek was the first British Champion corwned under the Swiss system (Felixstowe 1949). The year before, Broadbent won the last championship to be run under as a round robin (London -Bishopsgate, 1948). Bob Wade is, off course, the last person alive to have played in a round-robin British Championship (Nottingham 1946).

    Would it not be an idea to revert to a round-robin format for the championship, with the Major Open to be run as a strong Swiss? It might well be more intersting for a sponsor, if he was told, yes these are the 12 absolutely strongest British and Irish players, blood will be spilled and a truly worthy champion will be the last man standing. Seems easier to explain that than the intricacies of the Swiss system to a sponsor.

    Paul McKeown.

  3. I don't understand the question about Hebden-Sowray - it was a 51-move first roung game won by White.

    Leonard Barden comments in today's Guardian (access via BCM's links page): "It is probably unique in more than a century of British championships for two county-standard players to share the lead after three rounds, both with wins over grandmasters. Stephen Barrett and Graeme Oswald were the early heroes at Great Yarmouth this week...".

    This year's championship, like England's cricket team, does seem to have rather a long tail. True, it sports nine GMs (ten if you include GM-elect Jacob Aagaard) and a handful of useful IMs who are close to GM status - but then what is GM status anyway? Not what it was, certainly. If you were to compare 2007 with, say, the 1972 British Championship (Penrose, Keene, Stean, Hartston, Williams, Basman and the young Miles, Speelman, Mestel, Bellin, etc) you might consider the earlier tournament slightly stronger despite its complete absence of GMs.

    Incidentally, any takers for my idea of classifying GMs as "one-star" up to "five-star", like US generals? A five-star GM is one with a current rating of 2800+ (none at the moment), four-star GM is 2700+, all the way down to one-star GMs who are the ones below 2500. As they move up and down the rating list, they would change rank accordingly.

    This year there are 24 players with 2300+ ratings and you could argue that anyone below that level does not really have any business playing in something calling itself a British Championship. But the exclusion of the other 44 players would cost the organisers money in lost entry fees (players thus excluded might not consider it worth the expense of a fortnight away playing in the Major Open).

    Paul is probably right that it would be easier to sell a round-robin format to a sponsor. But it brings a number of complications, e.g. representation of the various federations which are entitled to field players. Presumably rating would be the deciding factor but that would leave Wales and possibly even Ireland out in the cold. You would probably also need promotion (and relegation) in and out of the Major Open.

    On the whole I think it might be better to try and find sponsorship for a separate English Championship and leave the British Championship as it is for a while.

  4. Not sure where anyone got the idea that short draws don't happen in round robin tournaments. As a general rule i would have said that Swiss tournaments are far more bloodthirsty.

    Of course in an eleven round tournament there will always be the odd day when a player doesn't feel too good (whether because of a long game the day before, too much partying, or just a dodgy breakfast) and is happy to acquiese in a quick draw with white against an amenable black opponent. Or perhaps their preparation has been blown out of the water and they have to grab the liferaft of a draw offer before they sink (as was the case in the Gallagher-Arkell game mentioned). But hardly a reason to condemn the whole system.

  5. Don't think the comment about players under 2300 was in the least bit justified or necessary, IMO.


  6. It wasn't intended to be offensive to the sub-2300s, but you have to admit that the bottom half of the draw is far weaker than it used to be. Nobody under 2300 has the remotest chance of winning (that wasn't true before rating inflation, by the way - in 1972 Michael Stean was already an extremely strong player, probably of modern IM strength, but only rated 2275).

    Thinking about it, the current format is a strange hybrid of formats. You could have the all-play-all format suggested by Paul, or a swiss which was open to any Brit wishing to play, but the current format insists on qualification from various weekenders and other competitions. Presumably this was done to incentivise people to play other tournaments but I doubt that this initiative has succeeded to any great degree. Is an open-to-all-Brits format a runner? In other words, 'the British Open Championship'? Just a thought.

  7. You mean like "the Open Championships (Wimbledon)" or "the Open" (Golf)? Which you have to qualify for... ;)

    Maybe the qualification is based on encouraging participation in weekenders, but i doubt it. I suspect it is simply quality control. Everyone has the chance to play in the British, but they have to earn the right. Perfectly reasonable and standard format across all sports (as shown above).

    If you're worried about too many 'weak' players (I don't see it as particularly excessive) the obvious solution is to cut back on the number of qualifying places. Alternatively/in addition the rules could be tweaked so that qualifying places cannot be filled by "first reserves" in the case where the qualifier turns it down. eg. if someone gets 4.5 out of 6 and turns down the qualifying place it doesn't pass on to someone on 4. Of course i appreciate there's an issue about how much the situation is influenced by the money that the lower rated players bring in which works against change. Perhaps the qualifying tournaments could be required to fund part of the entry fee? (I'm not sure what tournaments have to contribute for the right to advertise a Championship place). Certainly the "ownership" of a qualification place should have to be constantly justified.

    As long as qualification is genuinely earned i don't have any problem with the system - however strong the player. If the British Championship is perceived as weaker these days, that is because British chess is weaker - we just have to accept it. It's not a reason to change the tournament IMO.

    BTW, I don't think i would have a realistic chance of winning the British but presumably you wouldn't object to a weak IM entering on those grounds... ;)


  8. At the moment the question is largely academic as there is no sponsor currently. If one came along with a wheel barrow full of cash but wanted a round robin, I'm sure they'd get a round robin.

    Then you'd have REAL qualification events!!

  9. Of course short draws also occur in round-robin events, but for the reasons John has explained, a large Swiss with a long tail of weaker players does encourage the top guys to draw with each other and beat the fish, during the early rounds.

    What we should have is a proper, round-robin British, along the lines of the Dutch Championship. You have a 12-player all-play-all. The top 4 are seeded by rating. You invite the top four rated players, and if any decline, you invite no. 5, etc, until you have your 4 seeded players. The other 8 players are decided by a knockout qualifier, played over several weekends. Again, you use ratings to determine the 32 or 64 who play in the qualifiers. The qualifying events need not even cost the ECF much money, as they could probably arrange to have them played alongside the 4NCL weekends, especially Div 4 - this would make the Div 4 weekends significantly more attractive to spectators.

    Sean comments that if a sponsor came along with the cash, he is sure that the ECF would agree to a round-robin. I am less certain. Around 1990, precisely this happened, when Ray Keene secured a sponsorship offer from The Times. They wanted a round-robin, played in London. The then BCF rejected the offer, thereby robbing the leading players of the country of many thousands of pounds over the succeeding years.

  10. The major issue with the Times proposal wasn't the Round Robin, it was that it was in London, and envisaged separating the main championship from the myriad of other sections.

    And when the Times pulled out several years down the line, the British Championship would have come to an end.

    I would think that about 0.1% or fewer of British chessplayers were in favour of the idea.

  11. Why would it have been the end of the British Championships, if and when The Times pulled out a few years later? The BCF could always have found another sponsor.

    Oh, sorry, what am I saying? The BCF find a sponsor? There's a laugh.

  12. I think your chess journalist has it very wrong. These players are hardly earning a fortune, I would guess £300 - £500 for two weeks work. Include accommodation and expenses for most that's hardly a reason to halve out every game!

    The fault, as has been stated, is with the Swiss system.

  13. Oh, sorry, what am I saying? The BCF find a sponsor? There's a laugh.

    How easy does Steve think it is to obtain sponsorship for a sport with near-zero visibility in the UK?

  14. Plenty of other countries manage it, as indeed do certain individuals in this country. Indeed, as I stated, a sponsor was found, but the boneheads at the BCF rejected it. If I follow the logic of our brave correspondent Anonymous, their "thought process" - if that is not an oxymoron - went as follows: "We currently do not have a sponsor for the British. We have now been offered sponsorship. However, we cannot accept it, because once it runs out, we will not have a sponsor for the British any more"!

    "Go figure", as my American colleagues at work used to say!

  15. Yes, Steve, but that was 1990. And there are good reasons why the (then) BCF should not have necessarily placed itself in the hands of the Times among which might have been the unlikelihood that the format of the event would have found favour with British chessplayers. Which is a pertinent point: to follow the wishes of one's members is not to be a "bonehead", whether the deicsion be wrong or right.

    Not did turning down that sponsorship necessarily mean that no other sponsor could ever have been found, to turn your argument on its head.

    Plenty of other countries manage it

    Yes they do. However, they may be in a rather more promising position as regards publicity, which is of course the major reason for sponsors stumping up their cash.

    For instance: I've just played in (or actually withdrawn from - I must never, ever play rapidplay again, the stress will kill me) a one-day tournament in a small town in Spain. The television cameras were there: quite likely more people will see TV news coverage of this event than will see TV news coverage of the event in Great Yarmouth. British chess is fighting against invisibility and for that reason it's really hard to find sponsorship of any worth. Changing that situation will take time, if it can be done at all.

    thereby robbing the leading players of the country of many thousands of pounds over the succeeding years

    It needs to be said, maybe even loudly, that the Fedration is not there, in fact, in order to make money for the leading players of the country. It is not their agent, nor their union, nor their trade association. It is there to promote and look after chess, as best it can. If it is able to so succcessfully then there will be mnore money in the game for the better players, and all well and good - best of luck to them. But that is a side-effect and not the major function.

    Hebden-Sowray, John: on the online coverage the game only seemed to last ten moves. The position stayed the same and after some hours, a 1-0 was added. I assumed there had been a problem but I did wonder whether somebody had become ill or a mobile had gone off!

  16. there are two possible solutions which spring to mind. the first is to limit the event to x players. that would mean reducing the number of pre-qualified players (perhaps restricted to GM's and/or IM's only) and reducing the number of qualifying events.

    the second possibility is to introduce a minimum rating criteria (similar to the olympic qualifying standrad in athletics). so even if you do qualify, you must have a certain rating to play.

    the problem with both of these solutions is cash. the lower rated qualifiers pay alot of money to play the event (£170 I think). either solution above may knock 10-20 players out thus costing up to £3,500.

    the only reason wimbledon and the open golf have qualifying is to REDUCE the number of entrants to a manageable number. so, perhaps you scrap qualification events entirely and simply throw it open to all, or the ECF runs its own qualifying events which people pay to enter, rather like satellite events in poker.

  17. I agree with Sean, that the ECF should run the qualifying tournaments. Say 3/4 tournaments a year with the first 5 qualifying for the British, and maybe a couple of reserves from each.

    Though the ECF would never agree to this because of the loss of income from the £170 entry fees. Though this should net off if the major open became more prestigous again.

    The ECF seem to think that this year the British is one of the strongest since we have excluded the foreigners.

    Though Scarborough in 2004 (the first excluding foreigners) was considerably stronger at the top end (31 over 2300). And also the top players in this years' tournament were lower rated then (Howell, Gordon, Haslinger, Williams, Rendle, Rudd).

    I think the ECF should have a strong rethink about the structure of each of the tournaments

  18. Speaking as an English IM, I'd be more inclined to play if the tournament was actually held in a decent venue in a vaguely interesting city* (I intend to play in Liverpool next year). Surely the old argument about seaside towns being an attraction for families in holiday season etc. is past it now, especially with the decline of the junior tournaments.

    It's cheaper, and far more interesting, to play abroad than go to the British these days.

    I realise that decent, reasonably priced, venues are not easy to come by, but something needs to be done. It surely can't be that hard to find a sponsor for a few grand, especially if the BCF's figures for website hits this year are to be believed??

    *with all due respect to Great Yarmouth :)

  19. Hello Simon (assuming you're the Simon I think you are). Isn't the point about places like Scarborough that, being faded old resorts, they tend to have spare accommodation even in August?

    Besides, I thought all the good players spent their time away from the board in preparation rather than doing anything interesting. It's only the lazy mediocrities such as myself who need to have something to do...

  20. Hello! I probably am the Simon you think I am, yes.

    I've never heard the accommodation argument before? Some people I know have had trouble finding decent rooms in Great Yarmouth this year, so I don't buy it (I did also investigate briefly myself, and wasn't very impressed, though I probably left it a bit late).

    Are you seriously telling me that small seaside towns can cater better for 1000 chess players than a big city? There weren't any problems in Edinburgh, as far as I'm aware.

    And I'm not qualified to comment on what the professionals do, as I'm a lazy mediocrity myself :)

  21. Are you seriously telling me that small seaside towns can cater better for 1000 chess players than a big city?

    A thousand?

    It sounds odd but they might, yeah: certainly they might do so more cheaply. Imagine what it would cost if they held it in London, for instance.

  22. I went off to Stratford with the missus on Saturday to see Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (two rounds of three-hour drama, if you want it expressed in chess terms - like me, Shakespeare was in favour of adjournments), only to come back on Sunday morning and find a verbal reenactment of the Wars of the Roses going on here too...

    Like Falstaff, I'm going to keep my head down while you young guys take sword swings at each other, but I will venture to mention a couple of points.

    'Anonymous' made a reference to 'your chess journalist' which may have been addressed to me (and 'my' chess journalist, Steve Giddins). Though Steve G frequently writes for BCM, he's very much his own man with his own views - with which I quite often disagree. It's every man for himself here on the blog. While on the subject, I tend to be a bit more free with my own views here at the blog than in the mag as that is half the fun of it.

    Steve mentioned that London was the prescribed venue for the Times proposed championship in 1990. They would have had great difficulty in getting the BCF to play ball because the BCF then - and certain people in the ECF now - won't even consider London as a venue for the British Championship. I've suggested it several times and met a wall of hostility. After trotting out all the usual tired objections, most of which have ready-made logical answers (after all, if Edinburgh, why not London?), one person I spoke to finally gave up trying to be rational and simply blurted out "because I don't like London!". Well, at least that was honest...

  23. John, as you probably know if you've checked the IP addresses, the 'Anonymous' above was me as well.

    I actually meant to write "your chess journalist friend".

    I'm not one to take short draws myself (I was not impressed by certain players in the last round at Hastings this year, for example), but I don't think it's related to appearance fees, certainly not when they are of the size the players in the British will be getting.

  24. I've done it again :)

    Simon A

  25. ejh and I appear to have crossed in the post. Re London, one of the points in its favour that shed-loads of people wouldn't need to be housed anywhere - they could simply commute as millions of South-East dwellers do. I'd be interested to know how many of Britain's registered chessplayers live within commuting distance of London. Pretty large number, I should think.

    A few years ago I used to commute to Britain's best ever tournament - the Lloyds Bank Masters. The routine was, get up in morning, call the special phone line to get your pairing (this was before the internet took off), prepare for your game in the morning and then get the train to town. Play the game, at a sensible time control in the company of GMs and IMs (Bronstein, Morozevich, etc) go home - sit down and watch TV from your own sofa, and sleep in your own bed. Marvellous. Why shouldn't Londoners and South-East dwellers get to play chess like this more than once in every sixty years?

  26. While I'm sceptical about London as a venue for the reason I give above, it's surprising that it's not been tried in sixty years and you'd thought it might be worth a pop. But could they find a venue?

    At the end of the day though it's probably not venue that's the problem. It's much deeper-rooted and I'm more and more convinced that it's about the particular lack of visibility of chess in the UK.

  27. (There is a discussion of the issue here.)

  28. A thousand?

    Ok, maybe I am a bit out of touch, but a few years ago I don't think that was too far off for total entries to all the tournaments comprising the 'British'?

    It sounds odd but they might, yeah: certainly they might do so more cheaply. Imagine what it would cost if they held it in London, for instance.

    Well John has put it much better than I ever could - many strong English players live in, or in the vicinity of, London - and many of those that don't have friends here who would be more than willing to put them up. It's surely worth a try!

  29. That last category would include me - I'd quite likely come and play if it were in London as I'm sure I could stay with people. (Of course, I'd lose back the money I'd saved in accommodation in the cost of food and drink, but what can you do?)

    I also think it worth a try, as I said above. But it's as well to be aware that a large majority of British chessplayers do not live in London or the South-East and are liable to get narky if someone suggests that London is the natural place for the championships or that the needs of London-based players should come first. Of course there can be some chippiness in such a view but there can also be a reasonable point that for a lot of people London is an expensive place a long way away which gets more than enough attention as it is.

    Anyway, the clock here is striking midnight so I shall now turn into a pumpkin.

  30. I wonder if you are right in baldly asserting that a large majority of chessplayers do not live in London or the South East. Are you quite certain? I'd like to see the numbers.

    Whatever the figure, it is certainly rather more than the number of people who live in the environs of... anywhere else that has hosted the congress in the 59 years since it lasted visited the capital.

    Expensive? London? One word: "Edinburgh".

    Nobody has so much as whispered the suggestions you hypothesise here. As for all the attention London gets - not much of this is from chess organisers. Not asking for much, ejh - just one congress in a standard human lifespan would be an improvement.

    Liverpool gets the congress in 2008 and that's got to be a good thing. The seaside monopoly has been broken. Next stop, London.

    Actually, one of my nags about having the congress in London may have borne some fruit. I pointed out the parallel between 1948 - London Olympics and London-based British Championship - and 2012 - London Olympics... so what about a 2012 London-based British Championship. I believe somebody did tell me that the ECF was thinking on't, or at least planning some sort of exploitation of the Olympic year.

  31. Not asking for much, ejh - just one congress in a standard human lifespan would be an improvement.

    I do think you may be overlooking that I have agreed with this already, not once but twice!

    Nobody has so much as whispered the suggestions you hypothesise here.

    No, they haven't. But I raise the questions because they will arise. Anybody who has more than a cursory knowledge of the English chess scene (and yours is surely far greater than that) will know that there's a serious north-south divide within it. (Also see Martin regan's article in the latest Kingpin.) The north feel like poor relations. I've lived and played in both halves, see both sides of the dispute and wouldn't wish to adjudicate: it just exists.

    Now let us suppose that 2009 is held in London, which we can mutually agree would at very least be worth trying. (Might be too early, of course - you wouldn't believe how far in advance large venues get booked up in London.) Let us suppose that it is a success, or at least a relative one, as we would all hope. Now what bothers me is that then there would be people saying "London! That's the answer! Let's always hold it here, after all it's the capital!" or similar. And I think that would be a very problematic idea.

    As I say, nobody here has said that - I'm just trying to think ahead a little and ask what sort of things people would say and what their consequences would be. And I would counsel people against assuming that London is good because it's convenient for people and other places are a long way away. Nothing could be better designed to get on the backs of Northern players!

    Anyway....I was thinking about this last night and I wonder whether the all-play-all might not be worth thinking about. If you're having a national championsip, it really doesn't make sense without the top players: certainly potential sponsors aren't going to understand it. But of course it would be open to leave open a qualifying place from the Major Open and for the federations. No doubt this would lead to whinging from the English grandmasters who found themselves excluded while a couple of weaker Welsh or Irish players were included: but I think that would be a price worth playing.

    At least that way there's a chance the champioship could be a showcase event, which might very well be what we need.

  32. On the question of venue, I enquired about hosting the 2010 championships in Leicester. Its 14 years since they were held in the Midlands, 50 years since Leicester had its one stab at hosting the championship, and its the 150th anniversary of the Leicestershire Chess Club.

    The criteria was we had to source the venue and it had to be provided to the ECF for....FREE. That, I suspect, is why seaside towns come to the fore. They can justify subsidising a free venue for the tourism pound it brings in.

    Not sure I can swing that in Leicester. Do you know of a big venue you can have in London for two weeks for free?! The domes in use now!!

  33. It is possible to design a championships in which fighting chess is encouraged, though whether such chess is superior to that played with the draw in hand is a matter of opinion.

    Week one is played out as a Swiss as currently. After round 6 the leading six scores become the championship pool, who play a round robin in the second week - yes some players may meet in both weeks. A rather more severe cut than in your average golf tournament, but needs must. Again, as with golf, points earned in the first week are carried through to the second. The middle Sunday is used for splitting ties (or make the cut after 5 rounds with Saturday to split ties - the leaders may get a rest weekend!). Those not making the cut continue in what is now a challengers tournament. Alternatively they are transferred to the major open with say a two point bonus to reflect the (presumed) superior opposition they have faced so far. Whilst all six players in the championship pool receive prize money, the lower placed ones receive less than that given to the challengers winner (or the major open winner if the transfer route is taken). Whether this scheme would produce a better champion is unclear, but I suspect that there would be fewer occasions on which 'grandmaster draws' would be an attractive option for the players.