Interviews Dec 17, 2015 | 6:37 PMby Colin McGourty

Skvortsov on the need to speed up chess

Zurich Chess Challenge organiser Oleg Skvortsov recently announced that the 2016 edition of the tournament, featuring Anand, Kramnik, Nakamura, Aronian, Giri and Shirov, will try out a reduced time control of 40 minutes per player plus a 10-second increment per move. In a new interview he expands on the need for such a “new classical” time control and proposes a radical reform of the World Championship system.

Oleg Skvortsov and his wife Natalia Shevando talk to Vladimir Kramnik and Sergey Karjakin at the closing ceremony of the 2015 Zurich Chess Challenge | photo:

The 2016 Zurich Chess Challenge will be short and sweet. An opening ceremony and blitz tournament to decide colours on Friday 12th February. Then two “new classical” games on both Saturday and Sunday, one on Monday and a closing blitz tournament. The line-up is again impressive, with only Alexei Shirov making an appearance from outside the Top 10 (the December FIDE rating list has been used):

  1. Viswanathan Anand, India, 2796, world no. 3
  2. Vladimir Kramnik, Russia, 2796, world no. 4
  3. Hikaru Nakamura, USA, 2793, world no. 5
  4. Levon Aronian, Armenia, 2788, world no. 6
  5. Anish Giri, Netherlands, 2784, world no. 8
  6. Alexei Shirov, Latvia, 2676, world no. 65

In an interview with Vladimir Barsky published on the Russian Chess Federation website, Skvortsov starts by explaining how he and Zurich Chess Club President Christian Issler chose to go for a quicker time control (the interview has been shortened):

Oleg Skvortsov: We started to discuss this idea with Christian Issler one and a half years ago, immediately after the 2014 tournament. Many fans, people far from indifferent to chess, told us that it was rather tiresome to be in the hall for 6-7 hours. Spectators leave the hall, then return, and doing that sometimes they miss the key moments of the games, not seeing how the drama unfolds. Take a tennis match, which on average lasts 2-3 hours, rarely 5-6 hours, particularly after the introduction of a tiebreak in the fifth set.

Of course there are a lot of differences between tennis and chess, but in the majority of ATP tournaments matches consist of three sets. Moreover, in mixed tennis there’s no longer a third set, they’ve introduced the so-called “Champions’ tie-break”. For the first time in 2015 they began to hold tournaments where sets don’t go to 6 games, but 4. For now they’re just exhibitions, but Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovich and other leading tennis players have already taken part in them.

Chess fans in the Savoy Hotel during the rapid stages of the 2015 tournament | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, official website

Of course the conditions for spectators in the Savoy Hotel are very comfortable, but it’s still harder for chess fans than in many other sports. After all, you have to sit so long in silence! If you want to discuss the position you have to leave the hall. If you start to whisper then a player might hear you and that becomes unfair assistance.

Vladimir Barsky: The World Cup was recently held in Baku. I heard the opinion: it’s a pity that ultimately it was all decided in rapid – there were a lot of mistakes…

Let’s look at it differently. It’s not about rapid, perhaps, but that the people had been playing a whole month! If it was a week or two then no doubt similar blunders would have been avoided. What can you expect from someone if he’s had to play almost without a break for a whole month, moreover in games at different time controls? You shouldn’t be surprised if he leaves a rook en prise in the decisive game.

It’s an idea I expressed a long time ago: we need to reduce the time control in chess. That’s the crucial measure! Issler and I appealed to the FIDE President in an open letter, including: “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.”

Nakamura finished just ahead of Anand to win the 2015 Zurich Chess Challenge, with Kramnik completing the podium | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, official website

Our proposal doesn’t abolish games lasting many hours. It consists in extending the limits of classical chess to games that last 2-3 hours. If someone wants to hold tournaments with classical ratings at such a control then let them have that right. Then chess will be more attractive for sponsors, TV and the internet.

If you recall, in the mid-90s when Kirsan Ilyumzhinov suggested the 90 minutes for 40 moves and 30 minutes to the end of the game time control he received a lot of criticism. But now chess players themselves don’t make any particular distinction between that control and the 7-hour one: they call both of them “classical”.

How did FIDE respond to your proposal?

There was no response.

You say the idea came to you during the tournament in Zurich, but after all, it was also a success at the old time control. Why does something have to be changed?

During the 2014 Zurich Chess Challenge for the first time in history a contract was signed for the broadcast of a chess tournament on television. And when Issler and I discussed with the TV people, commentators, experts and viewers we came to the conclusion that during the broadcast there would be pauses which there would often be no way to fill. For example, if nothing happens in the games for half an hour what can you talk about? Or at the end of the round there’s only one game left and a grandmaster is spending a long time thinking in a position that everyone has lost all interest in? It’s boring to watch!

Jan Gustafsson's Game of the Tournament from 2015 was Anand's classical win over Nakamura

Why do you need to extend the limits of classical chess? The time control of an hour a game fits perfectly well within rapid.

I consider rapid to be less than 30 minutes a game, while an hour for each player is a serious game – let’s call it “new classical”. The ratio is roughly the same: rapid is 2-3 times longer than blitz, and classic is 2-3 times longer than rapid.

Why did we pick the time control of 40 minutes plus 10 seconds a move for Zurich? In that case the games will be rated for rapid according to the existing FIDE rules. If we made it a little longer then the games would no longer be calculated for any ratings. FIDE doesn’t rate games played by highly rated players with a time control of around one hour to the end of the game; otherwise we’d have slightly increased the time for thought.

Oleg Skvortsov - a man with a mission to change the face of chess | photo:

How did grandmasters react to the new format?

They were interested – they want to try it. There were an awful lot of people who wanted to play in the tournament, despite the new rules.

Did you invite the World Champion?


If you had the desire to hold an event from the official FIDE calendar, which would you choose?

None of them. I think the World Championship system should be changed.


In an interview with TASS in December 2014, I said: “Chess needs to be reformed and next year will be critical. Perhaps we need to create a new system of major tournaments, something like the “Grand Slam”. For instance, one would be held in Moscow, a few in Europe, one in the USA and an Arab country. The main thing is that they’re tournaments linked by a common idea, one points system and ratings.”

I turned out to be right: that idea was implemented by Kasparov, announcing the Grand Chess Tour.

The series only just ended. What were your impressions?

We can talk on another occasion about the series as a whole, the points system and how they determined the line-up, but the conclusion of the London tournament was a depressing spectacle. “They shoot horses…” How was it possible to force one of the participants to play three tense and nervous games, and then straight afterwards sit him down opposite the rested World Champion? In that case it would have been better to hold a mini-tournament with three players, so they were all in equal conditions.

Magnus Carlsen waited his chance in London | photo: Ray Morris-Hill

Returning to the question of the World Championship system: besides the Grand Chess Tour there’s also the FIDE Grand Prix. Those two series are similar, with many of the same players in both.

Is the current system for determining the World Champion too cumbersome?

Yes, and in general it’s unclear: next year will we have a FIDE Champion or an Agon Champion?

What would it make sense to leave as it is and what should be changed?

I would, first of all, reduce the time control for all the tournaments. As I already said, we need a series of tournaments and the winner would get the right to a match against the World Champion. Or the Champion would be decided in the final tournament, with 6-8 players qualifying. Or you could hold a match between the first and second players after the series is over without holding a round-robin tournament.

A match of how many games? 12-16?

There could even be 24, as in the times of Karpov and Kasparov. The new time control would allow you to have two games a day, and the whole match would last 2-2.5 weeks.

And the World Cup?

The series could include all kinds of tournaments: knockouts, round-robins, opens. Let the organisers decide themselves. You simply need to determine scheduling: for instance, a tournament shouldn’t last more than two weeks, so that there’s time for other events. “New classical” will make it possible to significantly speed up tournaments using different systems.

Different events can be held with different time controls?

Yes, but within the classical limits: from an hour per game to 3.5. In general, don’t impose harsh conditions on organisers: how many players, what system, the prize fund and so on. You need a more flexible approach.

How many tournaments should the participants in the race play?

The players can take part in any number of tournaments in order to get the points they need. A different number of points will be on offer in different tournaments, but the number of tournaments you can play a year shouldn’t be restricted.

You previously also said that modern chess lacks outstanding personalities. Some grandmasters have started to become pretty-well promoted figures. Has there been progress?

I don’t think so. I’ll give you the latest example. A few days before the start of the tournament in London an auction was held on eBay for the right to play in a team with Carlsen (the two players would make moves one after the other); the starting price was £3,000. You could buy the right for £25,000 with no bidding. So then, three hours before the auction was over there wasn’t a single bid!

Priced out of the market? We included this screenshot in our London Chess Classic preview | image: Chess Pro-Biz Cup

Which chess players have the potential to become celebrities?

I don’t currently have an answer to that question.

First Porsche, then CNN, now the action hero star of a sci-fi adventure... what more does Magnus have to do to impress Skvortsov? It should be noted they have some history together 

The new control will make it possible to play more games over the course of a year and the rotation will be quicker. At the moment you don’t need to play for a whole year and you can preserve a rating in the region of 2800. How can you make it possible for a greater number of players to meet elite grandmasters at the board? Swiss opens won’t solve that problem, since the elite barely play in them. If the number of games is increased and the length of each tournament is reduced then organisers will have more chance of finding the money for a tournament and inviting more varied players.

What do you think of Fischer Random chess?

In my view that’s a dead end; it’s unlikely that game will take hold. The harmony disappears from the starting position.

What about the format proposed by Bronstein where grandmasters play a few games against each other at the same time?

That’s largely a show. I think the classical control should be preserved, because it’s the foundation of chess. Simply allow people to run games with a faster time control, but one that isn’t rapid.

What do you think about the proposed new time control of roughly one hour per player per game? Is it still classical chess and/or the future of the game? Would you also like to transform the current World Championship system? Let us know in the comments below!

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