Tiebreak: Locked in debate

That more or less summed up the sentiments of most people who followed the tournament for over a fortnight,at the end of which Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik simply couldn’t be separated. Except that they had to be.

Written by Raakesh Natraj | Published: April 4, 2013 1:54:54 am

At the end of the Candidates tournament,Viswanathan Anand tweeted “Congratulations to Magnus! He always comes through. Vladimir made a huge impression with his play,but what can you do about this tiebreak?”

That more or less summed up the sentiments of most people who followed the tournament for over a fortnight,at the end of which Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik simply couldn’t be separated. Except that they had to be.

At the end of 14 rounds,Carlsen had 8.5 points,the same as Kramnik. The first tiebreak criterion (head-to-head) failed to find a winner but Carlsen went through on the second,the number of wins in the tournament. While both players were aware of the rules beforehand and that in a way made for a more dramatic final day (both players,tense and distracted,fell to unexpected losses),a feeling persisted that it was an unsatisfactory way of resolving the matter.

By most measures,Kramnik had had a great tournament too. Had it not been for the compulsion to go for a win in the last round,he might have well been the only unbeaten player left. It sounds counter-intuitive that Carlsen,who had lost more games,edged the tiebreak at the expense of Kramnik,who was defeated on fewer occasions. The justification for the rule,which weighs wins in a fashion somewhat similar to that of football’s scoring system,is that it encourages positive,decisive chess. While it certainly made for nail-biting action in the last round,it may not necessarily have been the most objective way of assessing relative performance. If the roles had been reversed and had World No. 1 Carlsen lost out on an obscure tie-break rule,the outrage would perhaps have been more vocal.

Rapid games or match-play are the proffered alternatives but these too have their critics. Reduced time format may not always result in the ‘best’ player coming through while an extended set of games between the two at a later date may introduce logistical and financial uncertainties. But in a tournament of such magnitude,you would want the extra yard traversed,even if it proves only a half-step towards an imagined ideal of fairness.

(Raakesh is a senior correspondent based in New Delhi)

raakesh.natraj@expressindia.com

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