After the close of the recent Women's World Championship in Sochi, Chessbase.com published a two part Interview with Natalia Pogonina: Part 1 & Part 2. Pogonina was the runner-up in the event, losing the final round to Mariya Muzychuk. I was particularly interested in Pogonina's comments on the knockout format, which I recently discussed on my World Chess Championship Blog in A Pseudo World Championship.
The knockout format is too vulnerable to random factors to be taken seriously as a World Championship. The winner of the event deserves our full respect for achieving a major tournament victory, but doesn't deserve the title of World Champion.
One of the first questions from the Chessbase interviewer was,
Q: What do you think of the knockout format? How objective is it? Would you prefer the "men’s" system or some other approach?
A: Men have a rather interesting scheme with the World Cup being the knockout event. Getting rid of the knockout tournament altogether doesn’t look like a good idea to me. A system when there is the World Cup, the Grand Prix series, the Candidates tournament and the World Championship match is very attractive. The only drawback is that it is very complicated and costly. This time FIDE had trouble finding sponsors for the Women’s Championship, so they had to postpone the event. If we adopt a more expensive system, wouldn’t there be even more potential problems? This is what bothers me. If FIDE manages to attract additional funding, I guess it will be interesting to universalize the systems. If not, then maybe we should just keep the current system.
Knockout is a very specific format. Two-game matches are a real challenge. Sometimes even top-tier rating favorites are eliminated in the very first rounds. Lose one game, fail to strike back, and you are out. There is barely any room for mistakes. You have to be prepared very well and have nerves of steel to prosper under such a system. Let me repeat my statement: I would love to play under the “men’s” system, but at the moment this doesn't seems realistic to implement.
I took two discussion points from this. The first is the assumption about 'additional funding' needed. A more obvious fix would be to have the winner of the knockout format seeded as the challenger into a subsequent title match. This would require no additional tournaments. Perhaps 'FIDE had trouble finding sponsors' for the Sochi event precisely because of the dubious reputation of the knockout format as a World Championship tournament.
The second discussion point is the observation that 'top-tier rating favorites [can be] eliminated in the very first rounds'. This implies that the format favors lower ranked players, who would have little chance of becoming World Championship in a fixed match. It is perhaps for this very reason that the format endures. There are more lower ranked players than there are top players -- Hou Yifan is currently in a class by herself -- so any political decisions that favor the majority will choose the knockout format. Is the World Championship really a place for democratic considerations?
As for the interview itself, I found it curious that the relationship between Peter Zhdanov, the interviewer, and Pogonina was not disclosed in the introduction. Not everyone can be expected to know that they are married. I was happy to discover in the comments that other readers agree with me, e.g.
There is nothing wrong publishing an interview between a husband and wife. There IS something wrong with not disclosing that the interview is between husband and wife. It's not up to us to decide what that information means, but it violates journalistic integrity to hide it from the readers.
Zhdanov commented in Part 2,
I don't quite get what my marital status has to do with the quality of the interview. I mean, it's not a secret. It is on the Wikipedia. As someone mentioned already, the bio does say that I am Natalia's manager and editor of her site. I have read quite a few interviews with Natalia; most of them had more softball questions than this one. Also, I happen to know her well as person, so I don't really know what "tough" questions I could ask her. Some ridiculous insinuations which have nothing to do with reality?
Although Zhdanov might not understand the importance of an upfront declaration, Chessbase.com should. And one more point: There is no '"men’s" system' or '"men’s" scheme' to the World Championship. As the Regulations for the World Chess Cup 2015 clearly state,
3.1. Qualifiers - There are 128 qualifiers (in order of priority): World Champion + four (4) semi-finalists from the World Cup 2013, Women's World Champion, World Junior U-20 Champions 2013 & 2014, [...]
The World Cup is the next qualifying event leading to the title of (unrestricted) World Champion. The Women's World Champion is a restricted title like the Junior World Champion. Has everyone already forgotten that ten years ago Judit Polgar played in the 2005 San Luis World Chess Championship?