Friday, August 08, 2008

Whither the British?

This afternoon, give or take a possible play-off, sees the end of the British Championships. When I say "the end of the British Championships" I mean, of course, the last round, but the phrase does have a more baleful meaning and given the decline of the Championship, over the past twenty years or so, there is surely every reason to ask how long it can survive in its current form.

The British used to attract, as a matter of course, pretty much every top player eligible to enter: but now, by my count, we're down to two of the top ten - and maybe half of the top thirty. Given that the top echelon of British chess is not what it used to be either, we're talking about a smaller selection from a weaker pool.

The long-term reasons for this decline have been discussed elsewhere: they exist and they're not anybody's fault. Chess is short of cash in a world where money matters: chess is never going to pay, say, Luke McShane what Goldman Sachs are paying him. Besides, the world has changed from the days when every leading British player could be counted on to turn up at a seaside resort for two weeks to enjoy the company of the rest of the chess community (as they would not have called it then). Most of our leading players are professionals: people say, quite rightly, that Short and Adams would be expensive, but even below their level there are plenty of players who expect to receive "conditions" and can quite likely get better conditions elsewhere. London, for instance.

The world has changed in other ways. A number of our leading players live abroad, and can get to a international open with attractive prizes as easily as they can get to Liverpool: indeed, even for the rank-and-file it's no novelty any more to go abroad to play in a strong open tournament. Not so long ago the British used to be the strongest tournament most people were likely to see, let alone play in, all year: but now, it seems like just another open tournament, and not as strong, by a long chalk, as many. And this is the problem. The British is no longer special.

It needs to be special: it's our championship. It needs to be the best we can make it. Something is badly wrong when a player of my strength can find twenty players in the tournament lower-graded than myself. I'm a decent enough player sometimes, but I shouldn't be playing in a national championship. It's reaching the point of absurdity and I think there is a strong case for a drastic change.

I want to make a proposal here for how I think the British could be revamped. As with all proposals, it'll have strengths and weaknesses. As with all proposals, there will be much that I have overlooked. And as with all proposals, it is easier to make than to put into practice. Nevertheless, easy as it is to say it, I think that from 2010 onwards the open, Swiss format for the British Championships should be dropped.

I think instead that
  • the tournament should be an elite one, a twelve player all-play-all.
  • the top eligible players should be invited, in order of strength, and places filled on that basis until all were filled.
  • it should continue to be a part of a wider festival of British chess, with other tournaments running alongside, most significantly what would, hopefully, be a strong Major Open.
I don't want this piece to run for thousands of words, so I won't deal with all the details, all the justifications, the arguments for and against, all the possible variations on the theme. Hopefully these will be discussed in the comments box*. I have, hopefully, set out above why I think the present arrangement is no longer satisfactory. I'll briefly, here, add some detail and discuss some of my reasoning.

(a) I think the national championship needs to be an elite event. When all the top players played, it didn't matter if a few weaker players took part and scored 2.5/11: no problem, the best players were all there fighting for the title. This no longer applies. So if we're going to pretend that it's anything more than just another open, much more than a weekend tournament, we have to select the best of those who enter and show that to the world.

If we can't get Short and Adams, well, that's something we can live with. The top ten (I'll explain later why I say ten rather than twelve) at Liverpool are Jones, Nick Pert, Conquest, Bogdan Lalic, Hebden, Haslinger, Gordon, Arkell, Gormally and Williams: that's a good tournament. But it's a far better tournament if there's only two players weaker than Williams than if there's sixty. And I think that an elite tournament might well, even if gradually, attract the stronger players.

(b) The top ten would be picked in grading order: from which particular list, I care not, whether it be ECF or FIDE, so long as the rules are set out clearly and stuck to. Players 1-10 invited, made an offer. Then number 11, and so on until ten places were filled.

I am aware that this is a complex and difficult process. Inevitably some players will ask for more than can be offered: inevitably some players will be offered more than others. Inevitably there will be accusations of favouritism.

Moreover I have said nothing about where the money is to come from: and this is plainly a difficult problem, since if you do not know what your budget is, you cannot make a firm offer, while sponsors are unwilling to commit sizeable sums until they know who is likely to be playing.

People who know far more than I about these things, and who have experience in the field, would have to manage the process. But I hope it could be done.

(c) My proposal would be to allow two other places: one for the winner of the Major Open and one wild card, to be used as the ECF saw fit: perhaps a promising junior, perhaps a popular veteran, perhaps a player who's no longer active enough to have a rating, perhaps a player of notably interesting or aggressive style, perhaps a strong local player. I know that this, too, is fraught with difficulty (as anybody who follows golf will know) but it does provide the organisers with some genuine discretion to make the tournament even more attractive.

The qualifying place from the Major Open is an old tradition and a good one: it should be maintained. Other than that, I've made no provision whatsoever for qualifying. I know this goes against what many people want. I'm sorry about that. I like the idea in principle. But I also like the idea of an elite tournament and the two conceptions are simply not compatible. Qualifying belongs to the era of a strong open British, when it was hard to get into and you were playing for a once-in-a-lifetime chance. If the open goes, I believe qualifying, the single Major Open place apart, has to go too. (I hope, in fact, that qualifying through the Major Open would be much more difficult than it is now: because it would be a much stronger tournament.)

(d) If elitism is in some ways important, so is inclusivity. It's crucial that it should be part of a chess festival and not a single tournament, held on its own with the rest of us only attending as spectators. All that would achieve would be to replace "just another open tournament" with "just another all-play-all".

I believe this proposal is worth thinking about: thinking about hard. I love watching the British Championships. But they're not, really, the British Championships. I don't believe, in the current format, they can ever properly claim that title again. The world has changed, the world of chess has changed, and I think the British needs to change with it. Is it not, manifestly, time for a rethink?

[* although my particpation will be limited as I am packing today and on holiday from tomorrow!]


Anonymous said...

You are right that there are too many weaker players in the British- that must have been the case if I got in (and could have played again this year I think as I was a reserve (and the qualifier from my event didn't play), but now I have the badge thought there were better ways to spend £1,000- £175 entry fee, 15x£30 accom, 15x£10 food, £80 transport, £145 misc). The addition of weaker players has added a lot to the colour of the event though and resulted in the top players needing to win more games. At least +5 will be needed to win it- you could see +2 or +3 being enough in an all play all, with multiple draws occuring. Most of the enjoyment I have had from watching the games on the internet has come from the non-GM players. I agree however there are too many weaker players (lots of sub 2200 (an unfair quote as I am just above this level- ok sub 2240)players this and every year) and perhaps the qualifying criteria should be tightened. The British does still though have something special about it in my opinion, just like the FA Cup. The fact that the top teams weren't bothering with the FA Cup should have been their problem- they shouldn't have been able to destroy a very special competition. Fortunately they didn't and hopefully the top players won't destroy the British either.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea, but is there really any doubt about who the British number 1 is? Adams is 200 points higher than everyone in this year's event.

It's a bit like the women's world championship - Polgar never enters, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's a worthless tournament.

Adam B.

ejh said...

That's so, but then, as I said above, we can live without Short and Adams if they don't want to play: but it would be good nevertheless to have the strongest possible tournament we can. That's the ideaq, rather than to say "we must have Short and Adams or we've got nothing", which isn't what I'm saying at all.

There is, I think, a parallel with the current Grand Prix series: there was a lot of commentary from the usual suspects (i.e. Chessbase) about what a failure it was that Anand and Kramnik opted out, but in fact, the series seems to have been pretty successful so far. Indeed, perhaps if it's seen as being successful, VA and VK will find themselves joining the show in the future?

Tom Chivers said...

My main concern is legitimacy - I think a Champion of X is only Champion of X if they can claim in some way to have defeated X. I think this kind of tournament would be very nice, I just don't think I would consider a real British Championship. How could they claim to have taken on British chess players?

I wonder what the consequences would be if this rule had been applied in previous years? That is, would it have excluded any eventual champions - ie excluded any who weren't in the top 12 or so players of their day, but won the British anyway?

ejh said...

Well, that might be one of the reasons I mentioned a wild card.

I'm not sure what this means:

How could they claim to have taken on British chess players?

Tom Chivers said...

Yes, I don't really know how to phrase what I mean. I mean something like, champions of old can say they beat British chess, because anyone from British chess could have qualified, and they won the tournament. I don't think anyone winning the tournament you suggest could say that kind of thing, so I don't think they would really be a champion of Britain (just of the tournament.)

ejh said...

Well, surely they could, because all the top players would have had the opportunity to enter, either by invitation or by qualification. In a similar sense, you'll still be considered the best team in Europe if you win the Champions' League one season, even if by some tragedy some of the major teams don't make it into the tournament.

Tom Chivers said...

Champions League competitors qualify though by winning other competitions (or coming close.) They're not just picked out on the basis of their ranking. The same in international football - there are qualifiers. Of course it'd be better for England this year had it just been on the basis of our international ranking!

Anonymous said...

Quality 10 move draw with white by Bogdan when he needs a win to possibly be champion! How many further notches has he gone up in your estimation ejh?

ejh said...

Not many, Andrew, not many.

I mean I see the point in trying to keep in contention, I don't see the point in putting yourself out of it.

Not in chess terms, anyway.

ejh said...

They're not just picked out on the basis of their ranking.

Well, in chess terms ranking is another word for performance. I honestly can't see the strength in your argument here. Are you really suggesting there are strong players who would be excluded? I don't see how.

Tom Chivers said...

Ranking and performance aren't the same thing. For instance at a recent tournament I scored 3.5/5 with a 195 grading performance, whilst another player scored 4/5 with approximately a 180 performance.

Yes, I am also saying those strong enough to compete for the crown would be excluded under your proposed system. For instance 40th seed Jonathan Hawkins from this year.

ejh said...

And what would have stopped him entering the Major Open last year?

Nobody who is eligible is excluded.

As for ratings and performance - they're not really remotely as variant over the course of a season as your example would suggest, are they? And if somebody did hapopen to have a 210 grade last year but play to 240+ strngth this - and that's the sort of strength we're looking for - they might very well be wild card contenders, mightn't they? Not that that ever happens anyway.

ejh said...

(Incidentally, if the price of having a stronger tournament were to exclude the current fortieth seed - then I'm not too fussed. If players are genuinely improving to the standard of championship contender, they'll achieve the right strength sooner later. If they're not, then they're not. If you want a championship based on "anyody should get in, because anybody might win", then that's your choice: I don't.)

Anonymous said...

Surely they have mixed up the Conquest game and the Hawkins game? Venkat looking on course to beat IM Knott for the umpteenth time (he plays him at least twice a year in Watford-Hertford Herts League matches).

ejh said...

I'm sure the top board was a Grunfeld, right?

ejh said...

(One might as well refuse to declare the Premiership champions the real champions of England on the grounds that only the top twenty teams from the previous season were able to compete. I genuinely find it a bizarre argument. Surely there are better?)

Anonymous said...

Venkat won in just 35 minutes. With 6.5 from his last 9 games (which included beating 2IMs and drawing with another and a loss to a GM) this must be close to an IM norm?

ejh said...

Can you do it that way then? Any nine in a row, like certain types of poker?

Anonymous said...

I think you can but actually I have just calculated his rounds 3-11 performance as 2290. Thought it would be much higher but suppose playing 4 sub 2200 players really dragged this down.

ejh said...

Anyway, I've got no idea what's happening in Liverpool, Harmison's left stranded on 49 and I'm off on holiday. See you all when I'm back.

Anonymous said...

You can't do any nine in a row - you have to start with game 1, although you can end the norm at any game on or after the ninth. Although you can discard any win, should you need to do so.

Anonymous said...

A problem with your proposal, ejh, is that you'd probably end up with half the field being players who had retired - Nunn, McShane, Sadler?, etc.

kingscrusher said...

For me personally qualifying as a "bunny" for the British with just a 2180 Fide rating, but being undefeated in the Southend open, I really enjoyed playing in the British championship. I paid over 150 pounds just for the entry fee - then add hotel bills, etc, and it was quite expensive. In one game, I had quite a crushing position against an IM but blew it.

There is already a completely elitist tournament called the Staunton memorial. Why not instead of the proposal given in the main blog, for the organisers of that tournament to actively support the British champiobnship instead of actively undermine it? Perhaps they could contribute to the prize fund of the main british thus getting more GM's IM's and FM's to play in the event. This would make it more representative of the top players in the country battling it out.

It is a real honour for the "bunnies" to qualify and play in the British, and I think this does make it a legitimate tournament - if you go to play in a qualifying tournament and earn your place - this has been the done thing for several years hasn't it? I crawled my Fide rating up more than 30 points from the Southend tournament - and I haven't played that many FIDE rated games since the demise of the Lloyds bank masters about 10 years ago. In the last one of that, I beat Murugan (2420), Marusenko (2370), and some others. I am sorry but FIDE rated events are rare. Unless you are one of those people that has whole weekends to spare and can go and play in the 4NCL or want to play abroad for them.

Best wishes
Tryfon Gavriel

Scored 4.5/11 (could have done better, but pleased with my 2nd week comeback).

Jonathan B said...

For me personally qualifying as a "bunny" for the British with just a 2180 Fide rating, but being undefeated in the Southend open, I really enjoyed playing in the British championship

Hi Tryfon.

I'm glad you enjoyed playing at the event and personally have no objection to ther being a similar swiss alongside a revamped elite all-play-all format for the actual title. EJH, it seems to me, is quite right when he says such a swiss would be an essential part of the new structure.

That said, I'm afraid I see the British Championship, for choice, would be about establishing the strongest British chess player and not about providing opportunities for bunnies to have fun.


And what would the problem of the field being taken up with 'retired' players be exactly? If they are the best in the land - albeit relatively inactive - they are the best in the land and should be playing in the championship.

Anonymous said...

All this talk about the 'decline of the British'.In 2008 there were 11 GMs,and 2 or 3 nearly GMs.A decade ago you would be lucky if there were 3(eg Nottingham '96).
Forget the inactive players, however strong they are(or were).Time moves on,chess continues to evolve and we have a new set of strong players on the scene.