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Monday, February 22, 2016

Oleg Skvortsov, Hero Organizer

     Oleg Skvortsov is a Russian businessman; you can read about him on the Bloomberg business site. He has sponsored a lot of tournaments in the last few years, but it's the time limits he uses that are innovative and he thinks tournaments that last longer than 7-8 days are gradually becoming obsolete.  With current classical time limits you lose spectator interest, the players get tired and the quality of the games, while high, makes for boring games.

     The recent tournament in Zurich had a time limit 40 minutes each for the game plus a 10 seconds per move increment. Skvortsov’s asserted this time control, referred to as a souped-up version of one-hour rapid games, should be a new classical format and eligible for the FIDE rating list. One critic wrote this time control “is to classical chess what McDonald’s is to classical cooking.” 
     Holding a tournament has always been an expensive proposition and fast time controls ease the budget pressures on organizers, but more importantly the nature of chess has changed, mostly because of the strength of engines. In a recent interview Kramnik agreed with me when he stated that the level of play is higher than 10-20 years ago. I say agrees with me because I have always asserted that each generation of players builds on the knowledge of previous generations and so Morphy was weaker than Capablanca who was weaker than… and so on. 
     Kramnik observed that Kasparov won a lot of games based on his preparation but those days are gone and in order to win at the highest levels you have to generate positions with extremely high tension in roughly equal positions and you win on account of correct psychological decisions. He said if you want to win you have to create sharp, ragged positions so that you give your opponent the chance to blunder. At the highest level producing a clean game – getting a big opening advantage and converting it to a win – is unrealistic in practice unless a GM is playing a much weaker opponent.  
     Sharp, ragged positions, chances to blunder...aren't those the qualities we admire in players like Tahl? Blunders aren't a problem...just play over the games of the old masters with any chess engine and you'll find plenty of them...that's what makes them great fun to play over. Compare analyzing one of those old games to a modern game played under classic time controls using Komodo or Stockfish and what are you likely to see? No engine suggestions for a better move for 20-30 moves and then an occasional improvement of 0.22.
     The top players are so good and the money so big nobody wants to risk losing and the long time limits lead to boring games. Attempts to combat it by specifying no draws before move 30 have never worked. The No Early Draw Rule implemented in the Open section of the Millionaire Chess Open was based on the concept that fans want to see real games. So what happened with big money at stake? In the last round Hikaru Nakamura and Luke McShane both cheated and said screw you to the fans and organizers and agreed to a draw after just 9 moves. And this was done even though they had signed off on those rules which was a requirement to play in the event. In other words, their promise to abide by the rules was worthless...but that's another matter. I'm against big prize money, but that's just me. When big money is at stake players, even Grandmasters, are not above cheating.
     Back in the old days time limits were introduced to to prohibit certain behavior on the part of players and for the benefit of spectators and organizers, so there is a precedent for making changes today. 
     Thanks to Skvortsov for making, or trying to make, chess among the world class players interesting again, even if it means forcing them to rush their play and blunder occasionally. It might even force them to investigate some openings that are currently a little shaky as they try to ferret out surprises that aren't 30 moves deep.

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