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Greg on Chess: the Trouble with Round-Robins Print E-mail
By IM Greg Shahade   
June 14, 2011
Greg200.jpgGreg on Chess is a new series of CLO editorials by IM Greg Shahade, founder of the US Chess League and the US Chess School. This article title was modeled after Greg's popular "The Swiss is Terrible" piece, which was ranked #7 in Best of CLO 2007. Greg's opinions do not reflect any official USCF views and we encourage discussion in the comment thread or on CLO's twitter, twitter.com/uschess and facebook fan page, facebook.com/uschess

Chessplayers have a big problem. They all want to be able to make more money playing the game they love. They want more exposure, more fanfare, more celebrity status. The predominant format of chess and chess tournaments have stayed approximately the same for the last thirty years, meanwhile everyone except the very top chess players in the nation, is unable to make a living from solely playing chess. You would think that rational people in this situation would say "Things haven't been working out for a while, maybe we should try something different". Of course this isn't anywhere remotely close to how top players behave. Instead they generally want everything to remain exactly the same, but to receive a lot more money in the process. That's just not how things work.

I believe a pure round-robin (every player faces each other player once) is a dreadful format for a serious chess tournament for two major reasons:

1.        Chessplayers are not always honest!

 There is widespread and well known cheating that occurs in chess tournaments on a regular basis. I have personally witnessed and heard about dozens of such cases, and they continue to occur regularly, including some of the most prestigious tournaments in the world, such as FIDE World Championship Qualifiers. Trust me when I say that prearrangement of results is extremely commonplace, even at the highest levels of chess.  This especially holds true for draws.  Although I have done it earlier in my career, I believe that prearranging a draw is NOT honest play and it is against the rules. Prearranged decisive results also happen a lot more often than you'd like to believe. There are even players ranked in the top 20 today whom are well known by their peers to have bought/sold games.  There is a bit of a code of silence at the top levels of chess, so you probably don't hear about it much.

In a recent chessbase article, Kramnik said he felt that either a round-robin or a series of longer matches should determine the World Championship: "The only problem which should be solved (in a round robin)...is a potential problem of buying (selling) games in such a tournament, but I believe it is not a major problem." (Also see the full chessbase follow-up interview with Kramnik.) Kramnik almost certainly said this because he knows that there are top players who have recently cheated, but believes that they are not quite strong enough to be a staple in the World Championship, and so it won't be that big of a problem. I agree that the very top guys (Anand, Carlsen, Kramnik, Aronian or our own Nakamura) would not cheat by throwing or buying games. However times change, top contenders change, and the crop of players today may be more honest than the players five or ten years from now.

When a tournament format results in later round games that create incentive imbalances, there will often be cheating. What I mean by this, is that sometimes you will see a last round situation where one player is playing to win the entire tournament. Their opponent is playing for virtually nothing. The chance of a pre-game deal occurring in such a situation is extremely high, and it's irresponsible to create major tournament formats that result in such situations. If you want to read more about this phenomenon you should check out the chapter on Sumo-wrestling in the best-selling Freakonomics. Through statistical analysis, authors Stephen Levitt & Stephen Dubner were able to determine that in these situations with skewed incentives, the win rates were drastically higher for the wrestler that needed a win. Many retired Sumo wrestlers have admitted the vast amount of thrown matches that occurred in such situations. If you think chess players are categorically more honorable than sumo wrestlers, you may have to check your rose-colored glasses. When one player has a lot at stake and the other player has nothing in stake, the situation is begging people to cheat. 

Even in instances where cheating does not take place, there can be softplaying in which one player has no reason to try or prepare as hard as the other because he or she is playing for nothing. I can't blame a player out of contention for watching movies all night and hanging out on facebook instead of putting hours of study but it still highlights flaws in the tournament format. Another typical circumstance occurs when it is advantageous for two players to agree to a draw but both players are too honorable to pre-arrange the game. In this case, you'll almost always see a split result between solid players even if was not discussed prior. For instance, in this year's US Championship, it would have been disastrous for either Gata Kamsky or Yury Shulman to lose their final round in the preliminary stage since a draw would clinch advancement. Even without any discussion, two such strong players are almost guaranteed to agree to a draw. Fortunately, this stage did not actually determine the US Champion, but only the qualifiers to the final four. 

Incentive imbalances are much more costly in an individual battle than in a team game. In sports like the NFL, MLB, NBA and etc, you commonly see games at the end of the season, where one team is fighting to make the playoffs and the other team is already out of it. It's nearly impossible to coordinate a cheating effort that involves an entire team, so it's not such a disaster in a team competition. In the late stages of a round-robin, only two people have to agree to cheat/throw a game/prearrange a draw and because one player has all of the power in the game, they are more likely to reach an agreement.

In many elite events, appearance fees (which do not depend on results) and rating changes (which determine future invitations and appearance fees) are more important to players than the prize pool, so incentive imbalances are not as prominent. However, my second critique of round-robins is particularly crucial when showcasing the best players in the world. 

Round-Robins are extremely media-unfriendly.

In the United States, I see zero chance that chess will be commercially successful with round robin as the go-to format. In order for chess to become a commercially viable product, there needs to be a direct head to head battle between leaders at the end of a tournament.

I can see it now on ESPN....The Yankees and the Phillies are playing for the World Series...but wait! They aren't playing each other....The Yankees are playing the Baltimore Orioles and the Phillies are playing the Washington Nationals. Whoever can win by the most is going to win the World Series! Obviously you could take the current Baseball fanbase, cut it by about 90%, and this would be the result of using such a fan unfriendly format. For whatever reason chess players are obsessed with absolute and total fairness, even if it hurts the chance of mainstream acceptance. I am not saying that if we change our formats, chess will instantly become more popular and covered regularly in mainstream media. We need to do a lot more things which I will touch on in future articles.

When is a Round-robin okay?

I am not saying that all round-robins are bad. A round-robin is okay in a tournament in which you don't care how exciting the finale is or when you don't care that much if someone cheats. I know this sounds harsh, but despite that I think there are plenty of times when round-robins makes sense. Small local tournaments without much prize money are often fine occasions to use round-robins. Without much money involved there is a lower likelihood of cheating, and we aren't trying to get a local chessclub's tournament on ESPN. Even with relatively strong tournaments it can be reasonable to run a round-robin. However for extremely prestigious events, with big money at the top, in which the goal is to get as much outside media coverage as possible, using a round-robin format is a bad idea.  
 
For chess purists who cherish the round-robin, remember you are not witnessing honest play all of the time.  Bobby Fischer insisted that the World Championship move away from a Round Robin format due to his strong suspicion of prearranged draws and thrown games, and many chess historians believe his suspicions were correct.
So what is a better format? I have some ideas and this will be the subject of my next article. Believe it or not, despite the title of this article, there are stages of round-robin play in some of my ideas for improved formats. Until then, I am looking forward to hearing the thoughts of the community.

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June - Chess Life Online 2011

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