04 April 2013

London Candidates - Tiebreaks

The 2013 London Candidates Tournament was a good show from start to end. The last three of the 14 rounds featured a neck-and-neck race between ex-World Champion Kramnik and GM Carlsen.

Leading Kramnik by a half-point after 11 rounds, Carlsen lost in the 12th round while his main rival won. After the Norwegian won in the 13th against a draw by the Russian, the two went into the last round with an equal score. Carlsen's 13th round win gave him more than equality -- it also gave him the tiebreak advantage in case of an equal score after the last round. The tiebreaks specified in FIDE's 'Rules & Regulations' were 'in order of priority':-

(a) The results of the games between the players involved in the tie.
(b) The total number of wins in the tournament of every player involved in the tie.
(c) Sonneborn – Berger System.

Going into the last round, Carlsen and Kramnik had drawn both games with each other, while Carlsen had one win more. (Many observers pointed out this was equivalent to having one loss more.) The 'number of wins' rule favors risk taking and put Kramnik in the unpleasant position of having to earn at least a half-point more than Carlsen in the all-decisive round. Adding to the unpleasantness were the last round color assignments: Carlsen had White, Kramnik Black.

As we know, both players lost their last game, thereby catapulting Carlsen into a title match with World Champion Anand. It's a twist of fate that if tiebreak '(b)' had not resolved the deadlock, tiebreak '(c)' would have been in Kramnik's favor. The somewhat arbitrary resolution to an exciting tournament brought widespread condemnation, especially from Kramnik's supporters. Most commentators preferred to see a tiebreak match, which would have happened had tiebreak '(c)' also been inconclusive.

The tiebreak rules were not new. They were essentially the same for the previous World Championship title tournament, 2007 Mexico City, where Anand grabbed the crown from Kramnik. He has held it ever since, beating three challengers in the process. My guess is that FIDE simply copied the 2007 tiebreak rules for the 2013 event. The 2007 rules were similar to those used in the 2005 San Luis FIDE title tournament, won convincingly by GM Topalov. In 2007, the Sonneborn – Berger system was added as a third tiebreak system in case of a tie after the first two systems were applied.

I'm not convinced that another tiebreak system would have been better than the one that gave Carlsen the tournament win. From a sporting point of view, a rapid/blitz match would have been the ideal scenario, but the players already seemed so tired at the end that it could easily have become a blunderfest. Tiebreak '(b)' also had a significant sporting element in that both players were obliged to play the last game for a win. An impending tiebreak match might have convinced both of them to steer for an easy draw, reserving their energy for the following day. That's the strategy we saw throughout the 2011 Candidates Matches, which produced few decisive games at standard time control and which were roundly condemned as dull. The 2013 London tournament was anything but dull.

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