On Chess: The shark tank and the sea | St. Louis Public Radio

On Chess: The shark tank and the sea

Feb 8, 2018

There are many types of chess tournaments out there, but most fall into one of two categories:  The round robin and the open.  Knockout events, while common in many sports, are rare in chess and are their own animal entirely.  While, ultimately, the goals of an individual chess game don’t change much, the approach toward each tournament can vary quite a bit, especially for the professionals.   

Chess players of all levels tend to get a steady diet of open tournaments. Almost all the big money events in the United States, apart from the U.S. Championships, are opens.  Aside from the occasional quad, most events at local clubs are probably also of this type. You get lined up by rating, divided into halves, and get paired according to your score group and color.

It is rare to know your opponents too far ahead of time for an open tournament. It is typically best to get your openings in order, make sure you are well rested and in shape, then show up ready to devour the competition. Most of the large events are about nine rounds. It varies a lot, but typically you need to find your way to 7/9 to have a shot at first. There are times 7.5 or even 8 will be required, and others when 6.5 will do. But you need to get there. That’s the aim, and it isn’t a complicated one. It’s a race on open water, and your goal is to out swim the competition.

One such event recently wrapped up in Gibraltar. Armenian grandmaster and world No. 3 Levon Aronian won the tournament. He scored 7.5 out of a possible 10, which landed him in a tie for first with six other grandmasters. It was necessary for him to fight and claw his way through a series of tiebreak games in order to emerge the victor. Apart from these tiebreak games, and his last round against American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, he played very few of his rating peers. 

The beauty of a big open tournament is that you play people of every class. Aronian played many GMs, but to get there he had to beat players who were international masters or below. These players are not clowns and, in fact, he drew a player rated 450 points beneath him in the first round. While grandmasters tend to play such opens for the generous prizes and conditions, lower rated competition has plenty of incentive also. Where else will you get a shot at the world’s best in a tournament game? Open tournaments are perfect breeding grounds for breakout performances, but they also give the elite a chance to show why they are better than the rest.  

Round robins are different. If there are nine rounds, it means there are 10 players, and everyone plays each other. Players tend to be close in level. There is definitely a spread, but it is rare you’ll face someone too far from your rating in a round robin. You won’t avoid playing your strongest opposition, and you’ll also get a crack at the weakest. There is no luck of the draw, and though one can argue it matters which opponents you play with which colors, a lot of randomness is taken out of it. The field is usually set well in advance, so targeted preparation plays a much heavier role. 

Solidity pays more dividends in a round robin than an open. Slow and steady will win this race more often than not. Giving up draws is standard, but losing to your main competitors allows them to leapfrog you into the lead. You also don’t get an easier pairing after a loss, which is often the lone bright spot of facing defeat in an open event. Rather than open water, I always thought of round robins as more of a shark tank. Instead of outdistancing your competition, quite often you simply have to outlast them.

As an example, let’s take the recently completed Tata Steel Masters. The field included the current world champion, two former world champions, and many other of the strongest grand masters on the planet.  Current world champion Magnus Carlsen won a playoff against Anish Giri, who both managed 9/13 points.  Both scored five wins, no losses, and eight draws. Those were highly impressive results, but they still drew more often than they won by quite a margin.  The crucial number, however, was the 0.  Neither of them lost a game. Vladimir Kramnik, by contrast, scored six wins.  Yet he lost two games, one of them to Giri, and this dashed his hopes for first place. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov also scored an impressive five wins, but his one loss to Giri also put a stop to his title aspirations. The winners were the ones who went unscathed.

Meanwhile, if you take a look at the bottom of the cross table, you’ll find Hou Yifan and Baskaran Adhiban. Both are incredibly strong players, but they weren’t in the best of form, and against such powerful competition that is deadly. Once you start losing games, it is like blood in the water. The other sharks get onto the scent and start circling. Even with the black pieces they won’t give up easy draws, and as white they will press until the end of time. Most pros have been at the tail end of a round robin at some point, and it is an incredibly unenviable experience.  

The world’s best aren’t the only ones who get to test their mettle in round robin format. Players pursuing their grandmaster and international master titles often play in round robins specifically designed for the purpose of getting norms. Three norm performances are required to attain an international title, and once you snag those you only need to get a certain rating to make it official.

Two such events are coming up in St. Louis. The Saint Louis Chess Club is hosting the 2018 St. Louis Norm Congress. There are two 10-player fields, one for GM norms and the other for IM norms. The super elite players won’t be there, but those aspiring to get there will be. There will be hungry juniors, veteran international masters and grandmasters, and other top players from the United States and abroad. You’ll see the same dynamics as you would have in Tata — solid players, explosive players, struggling players who are just trying to stay alive. Maybe you’ll even catch a playoff or two. Come down to the Chess Club Feb. 8- 13 to see the shark tank up close or watch live from 2-3:30 p.m. each day on uschesschamps.com.    

Josh Friedel began playing chess at age 3 and entered his first tournament at 6 years old.  Friedel received the IM title at 18 and proceeded to earn the GM title at 22. He is a three-time New Hampshire State Champion, as well as a two-time California State Champion. Friedel has played in six U.S. Championships and won the U.S. Open Championship is 2013. The Saint Louis Chess Club welcomes GM Friedel as a regular grandmaster in residence.