30 December 2015

Oleg Skvortsov: We Need to Expand the Boundaries of Classical Chess

The Nutcracker and Zurich Chess Challenge organizer answered Vladimir Barsky's questions.

The fifth Zurich Chess Challenge supertournament will traditionally be held in Zurich on February 8, 2016 and will bring together Vishwanathan Anand (India), Vladimir Kramnik (Russia), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Anish Giri (the Netherlands), and Alexei Shirov (Latvia). The organizers have offered an interesting novelty: a 40-minute time control till the end of the game with a 10-second addition per move, with two rounds played every evening. Oleg Skvortsov explained to the Russian Chess Federation website's editor-in-chief why the need to reduce time controls was long due. This interview (with some abridgements) was also published in the 64 Chess Review magazine # 12/2015.    

– We started to discuss this idea with Christian Issler (the Zurich Chess Club's director – editor's note) as early as a year and a half ago, right after the 2014 tournament. Many fans, who are great lovers of chess, told us that it was rather tiresome to spend 6 to 7 hours in the playing room. The spectators go out into the hall, then come back, sometimes missing the turning points of the match and failing to see how the entire plot develops. It's like a tennis match that lasts 2 or 3 hours on average, and rarely 5 or 6 hours, particularly after the tie break rule was introduced in set 5.

Of course, there are many differences between tennis and chess, but if we continue this topic, most ATP tournaments also have three-set matches. Moreover, in mixed matches there is no longer a third set because the so called "champions tie-break" has been introduced. For the first time in 2015, tournaments were played with four games instead of six. Those are pilot tournaments for now, but Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djocovic and the world's other leading tennis players have already performed in them.

Of course, the Savoy hotel offers very comfortable conditions for the spectators, but it's still harder for chess fans than for fans in many other sports. They have to sit quietly for so long! If you want to discuss the position, you must leave the room. And if you start whispering, a player can hear you, and this will be considered as a hint.  

– A World Cup has recently been held in Baku. An opinion was often voiced that it was a pity that everything was decided in rapid games, there were a lot of mistakes...

– Let's look at this from another side. The problem here is not about rapid games, but about the fact that people had been playing for a whole month! If it had been a week or two, they would probably have avoided such blunders. But what do you expect from a person who has been playing without rest for an entire month, and the games are with different time controls on top of that? It's not surprising that a rook is left under attack in a decisive game. 

I have been voicing this idea for a long time: reducing the time control is inevitable in chess. It's a crucial measure! Issler and I have sent an open letter to the FIDE President, which says, among other things: "We ask you to allow FIDE to calculate as classical those games with a time control of at least 40 or 60 minutes for each player, with a possible 30-second increment per move starting from move one. We suggest extending that rule to the calculation of the games of all players, regardless of rating. That innovation would increase the appeal of chess and attract more attention to top-level chess events where highly-rated players are taking part."

Our suggestion doesn't ban games lasting many hours. It's just about expanding the boundaries of classical chess to games that last 2 or 3 hours. If someone wants to hold tournaments with calculating classical ratings under such time control, let them get this right. Chess will then become more attractive both for the sponsors, television, and the Internet.  

You might remember that when Kirsan Ilyumzhinov offered in the mid-1990s a time control of 90 minutes per 40 moves and half an hour until the end of the game, he received a lot of criticism. But now chess players don't make any special distinction between this control and the seven-hour control: both are called "classical".

– How did FIDE respond to your suggestion?

– There has been no response.

– You are saying that you had this idea after the Zurich tournament. But it was successful even with the old time control. Why change anything?

– During the Zurich Chess Challenge 2014, a contract was signed for the first time in history to provide a TV coverage for a chess tournament. And when Issler and I talked to TV people, commentators, experts, and the audience, we came to a conclusion that pauses in broadcasting often occur, and there is nothing to fill them with. For instance, if nothing is happening in the games for about 30 minutes, what is there to talk about? Or there is one game left in the end of the round, and a grandmaster is thinking for a long time in a position which has bored everyone to death? It's boring to watch this! 

– Will the new time control result in a greater number of mistakes?

– Perhaps there will be more mistakes. We will learn in two months if this is the case or not. But, in my opinion, the rapid games in Zurich (with a time control of only 15 minutes plus 10 seconds) were of a high level. For example:

Kramnik – Aronian
Zurich 2015


62.h6+! Kh7 63.Nf7 Be7 64.Rb2! Rxa4 65.Kh2 Ra6 66.Rg2 Bf8 67.Rg6 c5 68.Ng5+ Kh8 69.h7. Black resigned.

A beautiful classical game is a draw. If both opponents play well, the game ends with a perpetual check or an endgame where White is a bit better but Black is able to defend.

– What other games from Zurich Chess Challenge tournaments are the most memorable to you?

– A lot of fascinating games have been played throughout the tournament's history; let's remember just a few episodes.

Kramnik – Aronian
Zurich 2012 (m/3)


11...Nxc3!? 12.Bxd8 Nxd1 13.Bxc7 Bxc7 14.Nxc6 Ne3 15.Bb5 bxc6 16.Bxc6 Nc4 17.Qd4 Be6 18.Bxa8 Bb6 19.Qd3, and White won.

Kramnik – Aronian
Zurich 2012 (rapid)


24.f4 cxd2 25.fxg5 Qe6 26.Qd1 Rxb3 27.Qxb3 Ba6 28.Qf3 Bxc4 29.Qxc6 Bd4 30.Bg1 Bxa1 31.Rxa1 Re8 32.g6 Qf6 33.Qxc4 Re1 34.Kh2 Rxa1 35.Bd4 Rh1+. White resigned.

Aronian – Kramnik
Zurich 2012 (m/6)


31...Rxe3! 32.Rxe3 cxb4 33.Rg3 e3 34.Rxg6 e2 35.Ra1 Bf2 36.Rg8+ Ke7 37.Rg7+ Kd6 38.Rxb7 e1Q 39.Rxe1 Bxe1 40.Nf5+ Kc5 41.Rb5+ Kc6 42.Nd4+ Kc7 43.Rc5+. Draw.

Gelfand – Kramnik
Zurich 2013


22...Nxf2 23.Kxf2 Nxd2 24.Qxd2 c5, and after some tumultuous complications the game ended in a draw. Garry Kasparov, the tournament's special guest, took an active part in analyzing the game.

Caruana – Kramnik
Zurich 2013


26...Ng6!? 27.Nxd6 Nxf4 28.Nec4 Nh3+ 29.Kf1 Qb8 30.Nxe8 Qxe8 31.Qc2 Ne5 – draw on the 53rd move.

Carlsen – Gelfand
Zurich 2014


15.g4! Bxg4 16.Nxe4 dxe4 17.Nd2 f5 18.f3 – White won on move 37.

Nakamura – Carlsen
Zurich 2014


26...Bxb2!? 27.Bxb2 Nbxc4 28.Bxc4 Nxc4 29.hxg6 Qb6 – Nakamura was close to a win, but made a mistake and acknowledged defeat on move 61.

Nakamura – Anand
Zurich 2015 (rapid)


32.Nb5 Rxc6 33.Nxc7 Rxc3 34.Qe4 – White won on move 57.

– You have a tradition of playing friendly games with the world's leading chess players. What did you like among the games you played in Zurich?

– During the tournament I was focused on organizing it, of course. But I was able to play a few memorable games myself. Here's an example:

Hou Yifan – Skvortsov
Zurich 2014 (rapid)


The beautiful win was 24...Qg6! 25.fxg6+ fxg6 26.Qd1 Bxh3 or 25.Qd1 Rb1! 26.fxg6+ fxg6. Unfortunately, I didn't find this unexpected resource, played 24...Rb1? and lost.

Skvortsov – Timman
Zurich 2014 (blitz)


15...Qxd3 (better is 15...Nxd3+ 16.cxd3 b5!) 16.Qxc7! Nxa4+ (16...Rb7 17.Qxc5!) 17.bxa4 Qe4 18.Qxb8 Qb4+ 19.Ka1 Qxa4+ 20.Kb1 Qb4+, draw.

I can add that a year ago I asked two grandmasters to play a game with the new time control between themselves. The experiment was a success.

– What's the point in expanding the boundaries of classical games? An hour time control fits into rapid chess perfectly.

– I think that rapid games should be less than 30 minutes per game, and an hour for each player is a serious game, let's call it "new classics". The ratio is about the following: rapid games are two or three times longer than blitz games, and classical games are two or three times longer than rapid games.

Why do we have a 40 minutes plus 10 seconds time control in Zurich? In this case, the ratings are calculated as for a rapid game under the current FIDE rules. If we make it a little longer, the games will not be considered in any rating calculation. FIDE doesn't calculate the rating of high-rated players for games with the time control of about an hour till the end; otherwise we would have increased the time for thinking a little.   

If our tournament is successful, we have a chance to attract sponsors who will provide financing for chess on a different scale. 

The Kramnik – Aronian match (Zurich 2012), Zurich Chess Challenge 2014 (the first XXIII category tournament in history) was the peak of classical chess. But we must move on, things are changing dramatically!

– What if you show only fragments of games on TV?

– What fragments do we choose? When someone sacrifices a queen? And what if there are no sacrifices? Then you'll have to show all seven hours. 

Let's suppose we skip the opening and start broadcasting right in the midgame. Fine, but in ZCC 2015 Nakamura played out a rare and very sharp opening variation against Karjakin. And everyone was glued to the screens: what kind of a variation is this, how do you play here? Karjakin never remembered.  

 Is it so important to get on television? The gap between TV and the Internet is becoming increasingly smaller.

– It's important to find a format that is convenient for the audience! If a game lasts about two hours, you'll watch it the entire time, and even two games per day. If we want to secure a larger audience and get the active part of the population to watch chess in real time, games should have a result achievable within two or three hours. The lower limit of classical time control should be shifted.

– What do grandmasters think about the new format?

– They are interested and are eager to try. There were again plenty of people who wanted to play in the tournament, despite the new rules.

– Did you invite the world champion?

– No. 

At the Zurich Chess Challenge 2015 closure: Natalia Shevando, Oleg Skvortsov, Vladimir Kramnik, Sergei Karjakin, Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian, and Vishy Anand

– Zurich tournaments are famous for their cultural program. What will you have this year?

– I am not ready to unveil all the secrets for now. I can only say that the musical program will be more prominent: at the opening the guests will enjoy a concert featuring Boris Andrianov, a cello player known around the world; Dimitri Illarionov, a classical guitar player; and Alena Baeva, a famous violinist.

– If you wanted to hold an event from the official FIDE calendar, which one would you prefer?

– None of them. I think that the system for determining the world champion should change.

– Why?

– In December 2014, I said in an interview for the TASS agency: "Chess needs reform, next year will be a decisive one. A new series of great tournaments should probably be established, such as the Grand Slam in tennis. Say, one tournament should be held in Moscow, several in Europe, one in the United States, and one in an Arab country. Most importantly, these should be tournaments united by a single idea and a single system for calculating scores and ratings." 

And I was right: this idea was implemented by Kasparov, who established the Grand Chess Tour.

– This series has just finished. What are your impressions?

– As for this series in general, its system for calculating points and determining the player composition, we can talk about it at a different time. But the end of the London tournament produced a depressing impression. "A horse ridden too hard must be shot". How could they make one of the participants play three tense, nervous games and face a well-rested world champion immediately after that? It would have been better to hold a mini tournament of three players, so that everyone was in the same conditions."

Going back to the issue of determining the world champion: along with Grand Chess Tour, there is also FIDE Grand Prix. These are two series with the same theme, and largely with the same participants.

– Is the new system for determining the world champion too cumbersome?

– Yes. And it's not clear at all: will we have a FIDE-version or an Agon-version champion next year?

– What should be kept and what should be changed?

– First of all, I would reduce the time control for all tournaments. As I said, we need a series of tournaments, and its winner would have the right to a match versus the world champion. Or the champion would be determined in a final tournament including six to eight players. Or else a match could be held between the players who came first and second in the series, without holding a round robin tournament. 

– A match of how many games? 12 to 16?

– There could even be 24, like in the Karpov and Kasparov era. Two games per day could be played with the new time control, and the entire match would last two or two and a half weeks.

– And the World Cup?

– The series could consist of very different tournaments: knockouts, round robins, Swiss system tournaments. That is up to the organizers to decide. We just need to determine the time framework: roughly speaking, the tournament should not last more than two weeks, so that there is time for other competitions. The "new classical" control could speed up tournaments of different formats considerably.
– Can different competitions be held with different time controls?

– Yes, but within the classical margins: from 1 to 3.5 hours per game. In general, rigid requirements as to the number of participants, the system, the prize fund, etc. should not be imposed on the organizers. A more flexible approach is necessary.

– How many tournaments should the race participants play? 

– The players can take part in any number of tournaments to obtain the points required. In different tournaments, a different amount of control points can be gained, but the number of events during the year is not limited.

– When we talked about two years ago, you said: "There are no sponsors, just pure philanthropy". Is anything changing in this plan?

– No, nothing. I repeat again: if we broaden the boundaries of classical chess, sponsors could come. And philanthropists will probably continue their activities.

– Earlier you also said that modern chess lacked attractive personalities. Now some grandmasters are fairly "hyped up". Are there certain changes?

– I don't think so. I'll give you a recent example. A few days before the start of the tournament in London, an auction was held on eBay for the right to play in one team with Carlsen (with two players taking turns to make a move); the initial price was 3,000 pounds. One could also buy this right for 25,000 pounds without bidding. And three hours before the end of the auction there wasn't a single bid!

– Does any of the chess players has the potential to become a media personality?

– I don't have an answer to this question now.

– How can one make chess more popular nowadays? Is it better to promote it in the media, on TV, or on the Internet?

– Whatever, but not through soccer (laughs). And now I have a question to you: what time control would you prefer to play with?

– For a one-day tournament, about 15 minutes per game. If it lasts two or three days, it could be one hour till the end of the game with some time addition.

– The new control will allow playing more games during the year, and rotation will be faster. Now one can abstain from playing for an entire year and keep the rating at around 2800. How can we give a larger number of players the opportunity to meet elite grandmasters at the board? Swiss-system tournaments do not resolve this problem because the elite hardly participates in them. But if the number of games increases and the duration of each tournament reduces, then the organizers have more opportunities to find the money for the tournament and invite more different players. 

– What do you think about Fischer Random Chess?

– In my opinion, this branch has no prospects and will hardly catch on. The harmony disappears in the initial position.

– And how about the formula suggested by Bronstein, when the participants play several games with each other at the same time?

– This is first of all a show. I actually believe that classical chess should remain, because this is the foundation of chess. Just allow playing games with reduced time control without considering them as rapid games.

– Please tell us a little about another tournament, the Nutcracker, and its participants.

– Everything started in 2013 with the match between Alexei Shirov and Daniil Dubov. A year later, thanks to the Chess Support Fund and Arkady Dvorkovich, the match grew into a "4 versus 4" tournament, and now Mark Gluhovsky and I decided to add another group, where boys born in 2002 and 2003 will oppose girls who are two or three years older.

There have been some changes in the Kings and Princes teams. The Kings will include Boris Gelfand (Israel), Peter Leko (Hungary), Alexander Morozevich, and Evgeniy Najer (both from Russia). The Princes will be Vladislav Artemiev, Ivan Bukavshin, Mikhail Antipov, and Grigoriy Oparin. I think that the match will be as heated as the previous one.

– Will there be prizes for beautiful games in Zurich and in Moscow?

– Yes, of course! In Moscow, same as last year, there will be tickets to the most beautiful Christmas performance by Yuri Grigorovich: the Nutcracker ballet in the Bolshoi Theater. 

Oleg Skvortsov and his wife Natalia