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An interesting time in the world of chess - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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November 20th, 2016


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05:48 pm - An interesting time in the world of chess
Between 2005 and 2010, I made a habit of making one post each year about chess. Now seems like a reasonable time to restart the habit.

The world's number one player is Magnus Carlsen from Norway. (There is no decisive number two.) Magnus is now 25, so thinking of him as a child prodigy is a little out-of-date. Carlsen won the World Championship in 2013, defeating six-year titleholder Vishy Anand of India; Anand won the Candidates Tournament in 2014 to earn a rematch and Carlsen beat him a second time. Carlsen is currently defending his world championship title against Sergey Karjakin, another former prodigy of comparative vintage; their stars shone brightly during their mid- and late teenage years, representing the current generation of talent. The first two games of the twelve in the match were both drawn; the third game is in progress, taking place through the afternoon and early evening in New York, and Magnus is trying to press a very slight advantage into a possible win. (Edited the next day: due to slight inaccuracies in the sixth hour of play, it was a draw as well. Games four to six, completed while I wrote this slowly, also proved drawn.)

British chess has not notably kicked on in the past few years. Michael Adams had a fantastic result at a very strong tournament in Dortmund in 2013 but is gently falling from being a firm top-ten player to being a fringe top-twenty player; Nigel Short is the oldest player in the top 100 at age 51. David Howell briefly represented the generation after (well, half a generation after, being 16 years younger than Adams) in the top forty, but has since faded; there are no British players in the top 100 juniors list. The British Isles' 4NCL has got larger but it's been a while since there's been a team to seriously challenge Guildford for the title.

The London Chess Challenge has been one of the very strongest tournaments in the world in the last couple of years, being part of a small Grand Chess Tour circuit along with a counterpart similarly strong event in St. Louis. Chess in St. Louis is hugely strong thanks to benefactor Rex Sinquefield, who was even able to drag Garry Kasparov briefly out of retirement for a blitz chess tournament in April; Kasparov remained competitive against opponents roughly half his age.

I've long been fascinated by the online United States Chess League from the perspective of sport organisation, both considering chess as an e-sport and considering a mind sport as a spectator sport, or at least a sport that might develop a following. Over the course of eleven seasons, from 2005 to 2015, it grew from eight teams to twenty. It has long been an initiative very much in the image of its commissioner, IM Greg Shahade, though not without very considerable assistance from Arun Sharma and others. Greg has a blog worth reading; a recurring theme is calling out sexism where he sees it, which helps me feel he's on the side of the angels. (Anyone who volunteers to run something starts with a ton of credit in my book, but calling out sexism is more important.) Another recurring theme is the promotion of rapid chess, even at the expense of classic-time-control chess, and this has inspired his latest major change in his online chess league.

The United States Chess League is no more. Instead, starting in January 2017, welcome the Professional Rapid Online Chess League in its place. In practice, it's referred to as the PRO Chess League; this is not quite a GNU's Not Unix recursive acronym, but a little artistic licence for the sake of a really good acronym can only be a good thing.

There are similarities and differences between the USCL and PRO Chess League products. There is no change to the overall structure of a 10-week season with playoffs at the end. Another similarity is that the league features chess clubs playing weekly matches, putting forward ordered teams of four players to represent the club. A third important similarity that there is an attempt to provide competitive balance by requiring each team to put forward a line-up whose rating is no more than a specified average, with some kinks in the averaging process.

The biggest change is that the match no longer consists of a single long (typically 90-minute-per-player) game between the counterpart players on each team; instead, each player plays four rapidplay (15-minutes-per-player, plus very small increments) games in each match, one against each member on the other team - so instead of matches being held over four games, they're held over sixteen games, so drawn matches will be less frequent and upsets may be less freuqent. Another change is that the league intends to pull in talent from all over the world, rather than from just the US, so the teams are expected to be stronger.

The world is split into two approximate hemispheres, the Americas and Europe/Africa/Asia. Each hemisphere is split into eastern and western groups, for time zone purposes; even the west of South America is pretty eastern by North American standards, so the South American teams will play in the Eastern group. The European-plus group has representatives from Abuja in Nigeria, Delhi in India and people from Astana in Kazakhstan have made noises about playing, so it has quite a geographic spread rather than being just Western European. There is a suggestion that London has registered at least one team already, so I have my rooting interest clear already; if there were to be a second UK team, the most logical place for it to be based would be Guildford, on the strength of its 4NCL presence, club teams and chess academy.

The precise format of the season is yet to be confirmed, other than ten regular-season weeks, a semi-final week and a final week. The league announcement post suggests the format has divisional, ladder, playoffs and finals stages, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how this will manifest itself in practice. My suspicion is that perhaps only the first five or six weeks of match fixtures - the divisional stage - will be revealed at first, with the match fixtures for the ladder stage (which will see more and more teams eliminated each week) revealed later on, based on the performances in the divisional stage.

By early November, there had already been more than 30 team applications; my guess is that the first year of the PRO Chess League may not accept every single applicant and that later years may see growth. It'll be interesting to see whether there is a deliberate policy of having a constant size for the league divisions; historically the USCL was rather heavily biased towards the Eastern Seaboard, and adding South America teams to the Eastern Americas division will only increase the bias further, though in later years the USCL added enough genuinely Western teams to allow the likes of Miami to no longer be artificially forced into the West, and the higher standard may squeeze out some of the more marginal US teams. It wouldn't surpise me, and wouldn't be unwelcome, to imagine a team of New York players who were willing to play in the afternoon, rather than the evening, competing against European teams; perhaps they could be the Manhattan Transfer...

There are three things that the league has already done which have impressed me and give me reason to get excited about its prospects.

1) While teams must have firm geographic bases so that there is a strong link between the team and the city (or less-populated country) that it represents, each team is allowed to have one Free Agent from anywhere in the world playing for them. This is in the hope that the teams will recruit the very strongest players in the world, and thus raise interest in the league. It'll also mean that all four members of a team will get to play against this strong free agent, as the match format Scheveningens it up, which may be a rare opportunity for some lesser players.

Being a professional league by name and by nature, one would expect these Free Agents to be paid to play. There is a tradition of this; look at the strengths of the players in the European Club Championship and the lack of apparent links between the players and the clubs they represent. One might expect a top chess player to charge the sort of hourly rate that a high-end lawyer might attract, with similar degrees of vagueness in just how high a standard the player and the lawyer might have to be. It would be hugely fun if a club had sufficiently deep pockets to get Garry Kasparov back out of retirement; you might be looking at US$10,000 or US$20,000 a night to do so, or more likely, being able to do some favour that Kasparov requires more than the cash.

2) Every week in the regular season, the league will pay out prizes to teams who do the most to promote the league and get people talking about it. There's a prize for the best written match recap, a second for the best video or live show and a third for the "best performing social and fan engaing team". This strikes me as a really smart move to raise awareness of, and excitement for, the league.

3) The league has already generated a US$50,000 prize budget for its first season, apparently mostly from chess.com, where the games will be played. This has proved sufficient to attract Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, currently the world's top two-ranked players to teams, though again private money may be involved and surely both would only be interested in playing on teams where they know and like the organisation. With these sorts of names, this will surely go some strong way towards getting significant attention in the chess world - and, hopefully, beyond it.

The success of the league as a spectator event will largely depend on whether Greg's viewpoints about the popularity of rapid chess are correct. Greg has written about the popularity of online coverage of chess tournaments before, in the context of spectator e-sports, and there were very impressive numbers watching the final of the recent Grandmaster Blitz Battle. Nothing is guaranteed, but there's compelling logic suggesting this is at least worth a try. It's also interesting to see Greg's reflections on having run the US Chess League and to wonder how these played a role in the developments... and to how things might operate in practice in the future.

Mind sports e-leagues are a fascination of mine; I have followed the USCL through its existence, I have written about the Learned League quiz phenomenon, I keep an eye on the Pandanet European Go Championship and I wrote about taking part in the Croco-League, for logic puzzles, from 2012 to 2014. The PRO Chess League is one of the most interesting and ambitious yet.

I'd need some pretty serious convincing that this whole operation might work in practice if it had been organised by someone who had no track record, but Greg's track record is a very strong one. It's worth noting that as well as starting exciting schemes up, Greg also has a habit of closing them down when he feels they are no longer working (see the USCL, but also see his Scramble With Friends league, which has a few similarities in league design philosophy, and also see his New York Masters live tournaments) so I would be inclined to believe that the PRO Chess League might not be around forever, and not just in a trivial "nothing lasts forever" sense. It's definitely going to be fun to follow while it's around, though!

Please redirect any comments here, using OpenID or (identified, ideally) anonymous posting; there are comment count unavailable comments to the post already. Thank you!
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