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Greg on Chess: The Swiss is Terrible Print E-mail
By Greg Shahade   
September 10, 2007

greglead.jpg Hello CLO readers; I hope you enjoy my newest set of columns. I have a lot of serious concerns about the way that the chess world operates. Every month I will examine a practice that is common and accepted in the chess world, and give a different or even revolutionary opinion on these topics. These views may be surprising, polarizing and even offensive to some, but in every case I believe in them very strongly. Many times in the course of these opinion pieces I will use my experiences in poker to point out what I believe are flaws in the way chess tournaments are run. Let's move on to my first topic of discussion, the Swiss system.

In almost every open chess tournament, one is confronted with the Swiss pairing in which players are paired based on their rating. The field of every score group is split in half and if colors match and players haven't been paired before, the top player in the first half of the field will play the top player in the second half. (So, in a ten player tournament, #1 would play #6, #2 plays #7, and so on.) The pairing method is called "Swiss" because it was first used in 1895 at a chess tournament in Zurich. Since then, it's been commonplace. Because we have been born in a world where the Swiss is the only way, people have simply accepted it and don't seem to realize all the tremendous flaws behind the system. One of my greatest regrets in my chess organizing career is that I used the Swiss System in the New York Masters tournament series that I used to run. It was a perfect chance to be a catalyst for change that went to waste.I would never run a tournament again using this system.

Let's begin by examining the goals of the Swiss system:

1. Create the most dramatic matches possible, by delaying the meeting of the top players until the latest possible moment.
2. Try to ensure that players, especially the top contenders, get pairings of relatively similar difficulty.
3. Produce a clear winner in as few rounds as possible.

The first point completely backfires in today's chess culture. In the large majority of 1 vs 2 matchups you will see a short and lifeless draw. The second purpose of the Swiss System is more reasonable, but still unfair as it clearly favors higher rated players. The third purpose is mostly relevant to large tournaments in which there could easily be multiple undefeated players.

Because of the need in very large tournaments to narrow the field down quickly, I believe that the Swiss System is still appropriate in giant tournaments such as National Scholastic events. I am mainly against it's use in events where the entrants pay a cash entry fee to win cash prizes. Now I will list a few reasons why I disagree with using the Swiss System by default.

1. The Swiss is discriminatory.

As someone who has been rated 2450-2550 for the bulk of my serious chess career, it is obvious to me how discriminatory the Swiss system is. While someone around 2400 will be forced to play Grandmasters, these Grandmasters will instead be favored with 2400 level opponents. Why in the world do we use a system that builds upon the advantage that the top players already have? Isn't it enough that they are stronger than the rest of the field to begin with? No one deserves an advantage before a chess tournament begins. A chess organizer should not be able to charge a player an entry fee but start them off with disadvantageous rules.

The pairings for every open tournament event should be completely random within a scoregroup. A GM can and should be able to play another GM in the first round. A 2400 player can and should play another 2400 player on occasion in the first round. It would be a lot more interesting than the current system in which there is a 300-400 rating gap in Round 1, then a 200 point rating gap in Round 2 and so on and so forth. This would ensure that every single player who pays their money, has an equal shot at fair pairings.

To make it clear, I am recommending random pairings only within a scoregroup. These pairings would also check for colors, and attempt to equalize them as much as possible. To take an example from poker, in almost every poker tournament you simply pay your entry fee and then are randomly placed at a table. There is no seeding, and if there was seeding, the players would raise bloody hell that they are not given the same rights as their opponents. Phil Hellmuth and Phil Ivey could be placed at the same starting table, and no one would even think to complain or even find it the least bit strange. I suppose that somehow chess players are okay with discrimination?

2. It is difficult to face an opponent around your own rating in a Swiss

One would think that a good pairing system would encourage matchups between players rated at a similar level. In the Open section of a large Swiss system, if you aren't one of the highest rated players in an event you are often playing pingpong, constantly bouncing back and forth between significantly higher and lower rated opponents. Needless to say, I don't find this very interesting.

3. A random pairing system would create more fighting chess.

It would make it a lot more likely for a lower rated player to do well, because he/she isn't guaranteed to have to get through two or three consecutive GM's to reach the top of the crosstable.

When a few "weaker" players do better than expected, they are often going to be expected to lose the final round. Because of this, the top players will have a tougher time doing their typical 15 move handshake, while assuming that everyone else will draw as well. (The sheer stupidity of the quick last round draws that top players often take in the current system will be the topic of a future article.) Also when random pairings call for high rated players to face off early in a tournament, they should be more likely to go for the kill, especially as they have no idea how their pairings will be in the future, and will therefore be more reluctant to sacrifice half a point.

4. No one can complain about the pairings and try to have them changed, which is important for tournament organizers.

They were random, and that's that. There is no complicated formula that unfairly states that one player should play someone weaker while another one has to play someone stronger. I had an incident in the New York Masters in which two GM's were paired together in a very strange situation, when there were three lower-rated players with the same score. One of the GM's actually refused to play and stormed out. It was at that time that I realized how ridiculous it was that this player or any other player should simply expect an automatic advantage because of his rating.

Here are a few arguments against my system, which I believe are refutable:

1. Using random pairings may result in a player getting extremely difficult pairings!

Yes it may result in this sometimes, however in other circumstances it may result in the opposite. It is much better than a system in which you know for sure that if you are rated 2250, you are absolutely going to play a GM in a first round. Isn't it a lot more fair to have the same rights as another GM or a 2400 player, in that you may actually play someone lower rated than yourself?

2. I enjoy playing high-rated players in the first round, but this system may result in this no longer happening!

This argument has very little merit, as just because you enjoy something, doesn't give you the right to automatically receive it. Just as a high rated player doesn't deserve to automatically get paired down early in an event, a lower-rated player shouldn't have the right to automatically be paired up early in an event.

3. This may hurt my chances for norms!

It may help them also. It sure doesn't help that if you are going for a GM norm in an American Swiss, you are almost always getting paired down in at least the first round, and usually the second. Also have we really sunk so low that the entire point of playing a chess tournament is to achieve some "norm" and not to try to win the tournament? A future article or two will focus on norms and how I believe their mere existence (or at least the obsession with them) harms chess tremendously.

4. So if one player receives really easy pairings and another player receives really difficult pairings, yet they end with the same exact score, it doesn't seem fair that they should tie?

This may be true, but it still happens quite often in Swiss Systems, with the only difference that one person was given the right to have these easy pairings just because of their rating. The extra benefit of random pairings is that it opens up the oppurtunity to give out prizes via a pretty fair tiebreak. The current tiebreak system's employed in Swisses are often mindless (Some are better than others, my personal favorite in the mindless category is the use of cumulative tiebreaks in a tournament that uses accelerated pairings. Whoever thought of this and allows it in our national events should be fired.) This will also be the focus of a future article. I hope this article has shed some light on some faults of the Swiss System and a possible alternative.

Whether or not you agree with this, is it really true that the Swiss System is so superior that every Open tournament without fail for decades has to be run with the same pairing system? Is the state of chess so fantastic now that there is no reason to even attempt anything else? Is the final round of a Swiss System so thrilling that we simply can't attempt to do anything else? If any tournament directors have the courage and conviction to actually try something different and allow everyone in your event to have a fair shot before the event begins, you have my full support. Please contact me and I will do everything I can to help make your event a success, perhaps even play in an actual chess tournament again!