Friday, December 05, 2008

The Motherwell Manoeuvre

When I think of FIDE, as I often do, I sometimes find myself thinking about Motherwell.

My memory is failing me, as it often does, but as I unreliably recall, when they finished in the bottom two of the Scottish Premier League at the end of the 1985/6 season, Motherwell should have been relegated. However, both they and Clydebank, who finished below them, found themselves in the same division the following season. A partial explanation of this fact is given on Wikipedia:
Relegation was suspended due to league reconstruction
but if my memory serves me adequately, that isn't the whole explanation. As the rules stood at the start of season, Motherwell and Clydebank should have gone down: but they were changed either in mid-season or at the season's end, reprieving clubs who would otherwise have been demoted.

I didn't think much of this at the time: I thought even less of it a dozen seasons later, when Motherwell finished in the second-to-last slot in the Premier Division, which should have put them in a promotion/relegation play-off with Falkirk, second in the division below. The Wikipedia entry for Falkirk says:
the play-off....was abolished during the 1997–98 season [my bold - ejh]
Now I personally have no interest in either Motherwell or Falkirk, having never been to either place, but before and since those mid-season rule changes, the Motherwell Manouevre has seemed to me the very essence of What Should Not Happen. You don't change the rules in mid-game: or in mid-season. You play to the rules, and if there's something wrong you change them for the next time.

You can take it as read, then, that I disapprove of the proposals to change the World Championship qualification procedure in mistream, as is currently proposed by FIDE and opposed by pretty much everybody else. I don't like it, I don't agree with it and I think it hurts the credibility of the cycle. It is, as I say, the very essence of What Should Not Happen.

What I am not, however, is fool enough to think that this is only happening through the incompetence or corruption or stupidity (or any combination of these qualities) of FIDE. It is happening because in the prevailing circumstances it is likely to happen, and the reason it is likely to happen is that many of the leading players do not want to be tied to a long world championship cycle.

In all probability, given the the world championship match is by far the most prestigious (and hence lucrative) of the matches involved, it is not really worth their while unless they win through to that final. So they would prefer to make themselves available for better offers: for one-off tournaments offering big prizes and appearance fees.

This is the reality of modern-day elite chess. The players want to be able to pick and choose, and have a perfect right to do so. However, that is simply not incompatible with a strong and inclusive world championship cycle. You can have powerful, independent players, or you can have a proper world championship cycle in which all the best players are induced to play. Outside people's imaginations, it is hard to see how the two can co-exist. So the players do not want to commit themselves, and the the cycle does not include all the best ones, and then there is less interest from sponsors and less money, and so it is less attractive, and so on.

Hence, the thrashing around and the appearance of the Motherwell Manoeuvre. It exists not because of the awfulness or otherwise of FIDE, but because there is a real problem. Most commentary on the question - and indeed on FIDE matters generally - doesn't recognise this. There is no recognition whatsoever that the demands and interests of the players themselves might contribute to the problem. There are a number of reasons why, but these would include the desire to keep all the top players sweet so that they keep on writing for you (New in Chess) or a desire not to alienate potential supporters in the cause of maintaining a political opposition to FIDE (Chessbase).

I enjoy both New in Chess and Chessbase, but both are publications with interests and agendas. I don't mind that, but I do mind it going unmentioned, and chess politics being discussed in Manichean terms, as if there were only wicked, nasty FIDE with their friends and favoured players on the one side, and then everybody else on the other. It doesn't help. Although it may help some people.

I don't hold any cards for prominent figures in FIDE (which is as corrupt and autocratic an organisation as a number of other sporting bodies I can think of) but I am sceptical of the idea that a world championship cycle would be any better, or any less subject to changes of rule midstream, if it were run by anybody else. Lectures from Chessbase on the subject of favouritism tend to sit uncomfortably with their its role as a publicity outlet for the personal and political friends of Fred Friedel: nor does one's memory of Gary Kasparov's ownership of the PCA world title lead one to have any confidence in a likely repetition. Unless my memory is so bad that Kramnik didn't lose to Shirov and then play Kasparov nonetheless.

A world championship cycle is costly to run and time-consuming to play in. It may very well be that in this day and age, it can't be sustained in the way it was when FIDE was more powerful than the players and when most of those players were from the USSR and did what they were told. That's OK, the world changes and sport changes with it. But make no mistake, the alternative to a world championship organised by FIDE is likely to be a chaotic squabble with different leading players, their sponsors and managers all shouting foul at one another. If you don't like the Motherwell Manoeuvre, you may see a lot more of it in the future. Because that is what used to happen, in the past.

[This piece represents the view of the writer and nobody else, blah blah, you know the drill. Next week, Justin says some sceptical things about puppies, the late Princess Diana and Saint Vasily Ivanchuk.]

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