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FIDE’s (latest) updated chess title match rules -- there’s a lot to like

May 30, 2019

For such a supposedly cerebral, analytical game, chess has had the darnedest time over the centuries trying to figure out one basic question: Who’s the best player in the world?

Rankings are one thing, but coming up with the best format for determining the world champion from man-to-man and woman-to-woman combat has proven far trickier. In the game’s early days, the set-up number of games, financing, venue, schedule, etc. were a matter of negotiation between the players themselves, resulting in a wide variety of formats with widely varying conditions.

FIDE’s candidates’ cycle and 24-game title match worked well enough for the mid-20th century, but Bobby Fischer wasn’t the only player to complain that the lengthy format didn’t exactly encourage fighting chess.

The post-Fischer experiment in giving the title to the first player to win six games draws not counting produced the farce of the first Karpov-Kasparov match in 1984, when organizers stepped in to stop the fight after a four-month drawfest that still hadn’t produced a winner after 48 games.

More recently, the radically shortened 12-game title match with a rapid playoff in place since Kramnik-Topalov in 2006 sparked its own grumbling, reaching a crescendo last year when Norwegian champion Magnus Carlsen and American challenger Fabiano Caruana drew all 12 of their classical games and settled things only in a rapid playoff.

All of which means we’re giving a qualified welcome to new FIDE rules revealed last week that will govern the next men’s and women’s world title fights, both of which will feature bigger prize funds (significantly, in the case of the women) under the direct management of the international chess organization.

Carlsen’s 2020 title defense will now be a 14-game match played at a civilized classical time control (40/120, 20/60, 15/game). In a massive change, the combatants cannot agree to a draw before Black’s 40th move, except in the case of threefold repetition. The 2019-20 women’s championship cycle will include a proper candidates’ cycle and a 12-game final.

Carlsen is playing so well these days that the format may be irrelevant for the foreseeable future. On Monday, he notched his second clear first in a super-elite tournament in as many months, winning the Grenke Chess Classic in Germany 1 points clear of Caruana.

The Norwegian’s butter-smooth positional demolition of Armenian star GM Levon Aronian at Grenke suggests the champ is starting to pull away from his peers as he enters his prime. His positional understanding and technique are so flawless in this Queen’s Gambit that neither player could pinpoint exactly where Black goes wrong.

By 18. Rfc1 b6 19. a4 a5 20. Qf2, White has the set-up he seeks the Black b-pawn is a permanent weakness and Aronian will have to make other concessions to keep it from falling. Worse, any queen trade or simplification just makes Carlsen’s task easier.

Quietly exquisite is 20 ... Qd6 21. Be3 Bg6 (slightly more feisty was 21 ... Qb4!? 22. Qc2 Bg6 23. Qc3 Qd6 24. Nd2 Rab8, but it doesn’t solve Black’s problems) 22. Qd2! the idea, Carlsen said, was that the immediate 22. Qb2!? Bd3 23. Nd2 Qg6, with the idea of 24 ... h5, gives Black a sniff of counterplay. Instead on 22 ... f3 (the move White wanted to provoke) 23. Qb2, the Black queen can no longer get to the kingside.

Aronian’s attempts to break the bind with 26. Rc3 f5?! 27. Re1 e4? (f4!? may be the last chance to resist, GM Dejan Bojkov suggested on Chess.com) 28. fxe4 fxe4 (Nxe4? 29. Qxd6 Rxd6 30. Nxe4 fxe4 31. Bf4) 29. Bc5 Rxc5 30. Nxe4 cost Black a pawn just as he enters severe time pressure. With 33. Nd2, Carlsenconsolidates and the end comes quickly: 33 ... Re8 (see diagram) 34. Re7! Rxe7 35. Rxe7 Qd8 (Qf4 36. Qa1! Bf7 37. Qe1 Rf8 38. Ne4, with a big edge; or 35 ... Qc5+ 36. Qxc5 Rxc5 37. Rb7) 36. Qe3 Rc7 37. Re6 Rc5 38. Qb3, and Black resigned. The b-pawn is lost and so is Black in lines such as 38 ... Be8 39. Qxb6 Qxb6 40. Rxb6 Bxa4 41. Ne4! Rc8 (Rxc4 42. Rb8+ Kf7 43. Nd6+) 42. c5, and the central pawns will roll.

Carlsen-Aronian, Grenke Chess Classic, Baden-Baden, Germany, April 2019

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 dxc4 5. e4 Bb4 6. Bg5 c5 7. Bxc4 cxd4 8. Nxd4 Bxc3+ 9. bxc3 Qa5 10. Bd2 O-O 11. Qe2 e5 12. Nb3 Qc7 13. O-O Bg4 14. f3 Rc8 15. Bd5 Nxd5 16. exd5 Bh5 17. c4 Nd7 18. Rfc1 b6 19. a4 a5 20. Qf2 Qd6 21. Be3 Bg6 22. Qd2 f6 23. Qb2 Rc7 24. Nd2 Nc5 25. Qa3 Rd8 26. Rc3 f5 27. Re1 e4 28. fxe4 fxe4 29. Bxc5 Rxc5 30. Nxe4 Qe5 31. Rce3 Rcc8 32. h3 Qc7 33. Nd2 Re8 34. Re7 Rxe7 35. Rxe7 Qd8 36. Qe3 Rc7 37. Re6 Rc5 38. Qb3 Black resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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