Reports Feb 28, 2017 | 8:27 PMby Colin McGourty

What went wrong in Sharjah?

The Sharjah FIDE Grand Prix ended fittingly with Alexander Grischuk and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave signing a quick draw on the top board to ensure they shared first place. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov joined them by beating birthday girl Hou Yifan, while Ding Liren also beat Levon Aronian, but it couldn’t stop the first stage of the Grand Prix being one of the least memorable top events in recent years. What went wrong?

Of course one thing the event was missing was Magnus Carlsen, as some opening ceremony artwork cruelly accentuated! | photo: FIDE

You can replay the final round and all the others games from the event using the selector below:

The final standings, at least according to the local organisers, looked as follows (for the purposes of the Grand Prix series all points were shared):

At the time of writing there are conflicting accounts of whether Grischuk actually earned more money than his “co”-winners, but it was a successful start for a player who lamented his performance in the previous Grand Prix series in 2014-5:

For me the whole series was disastrous and all three tournaments were bad. I was not fighting for anything in any of the tournaments.

Alexander Grischuk had dropped down the world rankings recently, but he clearly means business in this series | photo: FIDE

Mickey Adams is back up to world no. 12 and his peak rating of 2761 at the age of 45, but overall there was little for anyone to celebrate. Even co-winner Maxime Vachier-Lagrave noted his two wins followed by seven draws hadn’t set the world on fire:

So what went wrong in Sharjah? In no particular order:

1. Too many short draws

Out of 81 games, 60 of them, or 74%, ended in draws, with more than half of those over in less than 30 moves. 5 players drew 5 games, 3 players drew 6, 4 drew 7 and 5 drew 8, with Hou Yifan and Levon Aronian only missing out on a perfect haul in the last round. Someone in the chat wondered whether Anish Giri had bitten Levon Aronian, but it was Paco Vallejo who managed the perfect 9:

It’s seldom obvious why a tournament becomes dominated by short and lifeless draws, but at least the first part of that problem could have been solved by, for instance, banning draw offers before move 40. That wouldn’t have guaranteed more excitement in itself, but we’ve seen in the last decade that removing the temptation to take an early draw does tend to lead to more decisive games, blunders and intrigue. The players were among those pointing out the issue:

2. The Swiss system with only 18 players

Swiss Opens have grown in popularity in recent years, as adding live commentary and high prize funds has attracted the best players. Combine that with varied pairings and a higher number of decisive results and it's a winning formula. The top players are forced to play for a win in the early rounds due to the logic of rating gaps, while if you do lose a game you usually get an easier opponent in the next round and a chance to bounce straight back.

In this Grand Prix series, though, those virtues are all but absent. There were underdogs, but not huge underdogs, and the likes of Hou Yifan and Jon Ludvig Hammer were willing to fight ferociously to draw their games. You could argue that even Hammer, in second last place with -2, succeeded, since he gained rating points...

When players had won a game or two to reach a plus score they were paired against each other and usually willing to take a draw that would keep them towards the top. The most heated fight came from players hovering around 50%, with Pavel Eljanov, Li Chao and Richard Rapport all fighting back to an even score with two wins and two defeats.

Rapport started off with three decisive results, but even he was ground down by the tournament atmosphere - 5 draws and 1 win followed | photo: FIDE

In effect we got something that looked very similar to a round-robin – a score of 5.5/9 isn’t going to win many Swiss opens! - but with some of the drawbacks of Swiss events. For instance, Mickey Adams ended up playing his last three games with the black pieces.


3. Top players missing

The tournament was never going to get quite the same coverage or attention as major supertournaments since, despite the presence of stars such as MVL, Nakamura and Aronian, many of the very top players aren’t competing in the series, including the world’s Top 4. Magnus Carlsen, Wesley So, Vladimir Kramnik, Vishy Anand, Sergey Karjakin and Veselin Topalov all turned down their invitations to the series. The question of why brings us to…

4. The prize fund

First prize in the Sharjah Grand Prix was €20,000, which of course compares badly with, for instance, $75,000 for winning the classical events of the Grand Chess Tour. Although the overall prize fund has been increased by €10,000 a tournament compared to the 2014-5 series, the additional six players in each event means that the top prize is the same and the least you can earn is down from €4,500 for 12th to €2,500 for 18th. 

Fabiano Caruana won the 2014-15 Grand Prix series, qualifying for the Candidates alongside Hikaru Nakamura. This time round he's relying on his rating (or the World Cup) | photo: Kirill Merkurev, official website

It wasn’t always this way – for the 6-tournament 2012-3 series the top prize was €25,000, the lowest prize €7,000 and, as in the Grand Chess Tour, there was a financial incentive to win the tour as a whole. 1st place - Veselin Topalov - won a non-too-shabby €100,000 out of an extra €420,000. 

That means that for the supertournament regulars the incentive to take part in the Grand Prix is almost exclusively the two golden tickets to the next Candidates Tournament. Those who don’t need those tickets – or are unwilling to accept worse conditions to fight for them – stay away. It’s the same situation as with players competing in the European Chess Championship because they want a place in the World Cup. The utilitarian goal of the event may also partly explain why players are less inclined to experiment with risky chess for the sake of fans or tournament sponsors. It’s all about the result.

5. The selection process

The Grand Prix series is, however, of great significance for players just below the Top 10-15, who are usually starved of super-tournament invitations. The increase in the number of players from 16 to 24 (with an increase from 12 to 18 in each event) would seem to have made it easier for them to play, but there was a twist. If they didn’t qualify by rating – and 2015 ratings were used for what was supposed to be the 2016-2017 Grand Prix – then they were at the mercy of the organisers, with Agon introducing an innovation:

The other major change will be in how the tournaments are sponsored. Instead of looking for a major sponsor, or sponsors, for each event, individual sponsors will be recruited for each player. The cost will be 100,000 euros per player, with each player receiving 20,000 euros from his sponsor, 15,000 euros going to each player’s federation, and the balance going to organizing costs and the prize funds.

Players will be required to wear the sponsor’s logo during the tournament, the sponsor’s logo will appear on the player’s table placard, and the sponsor’s logo will also appear on the rating page of the player on this site — World Chess.com

There’s little evidence much came of that innovation (if players were sponsored it was carefully hidden), though players such as Radek Wojtaszek were unable to take part since they couldn’t find the money. It was strange that the decision to offer places for money in an official event didn’t generate some of the outcry created by what was only a proposal (and one never likely to be accepted or implemented) to enable someone with enough money to challenge the World Champion.

Saleh Salem started badly with two losses, but then scored a creditable 50% in the remainder of the tournament | photo: FIDE

In the end the players chosen seemed more like the usual “local nominees”, including Salem Saleh from Sharjah, Paco Vallejo from Mallorca and potentially one or more of Inarkiev, Nepomniachtchi or Riazantsev from Russia (only Geneva has no local Swiss player). Hammer was said to have remained involved despite negotiations over holding an event in Norway breaking down.

The two invites with most potential to enhance the tournament for a general audience were Richard Rapport and Hou Yifan, though the latter’s involvement was overshadowed by the mix-up that saw her “replace” Wei Yi. To have the 17-year-old fighting to be the youngest-ever World Champion could potentially have energised the series. As it was, nominees occupied four of the last five places and only Ian Nepomniachtchi entered the final day with a chance of first place.  

6. The four-tournament system

This is something there’s no easy way to solve, but in any such series it’s inevitable that the battle only becomes clear towards the end – when everyone knows what they still have to do to qualify. Still, there are potential ways to innovate…

7. The lack of a winner at each event

At least according to the regulations there are no tiebreaks in Grand Prix events and all prize money is shared. In Sharjah we got confusion at the end, since it turned out the local organisers had introduced a way to determine who should receive medals. 

Grischuk holds up his gold medal at the closing ceremony | source: YouTube/World Chess

The uncertainty that reigned was the worst of all worlds, while the best would no doubt have been to have a playoff as in other top events - with both money and GP points at stake. The Grand Chess Tour system of offering different points for winning outright or on tiebreaks would be an option. That would at least have ensured the final day wasn’t such a damp squib.

8. The Women’s World Championship

For all the problems of the Women’s World Championship – the concern about using the knockout as a World Championship (and not a World Cup), the issue with the hijab and travelling to Iran, a problematic video feed and the general lower popularity of women’s chess – the tournament in Tehran easily won the battle for chess fans’ attention on the final weekend in Sharjah.

Draws were not a big issue in the women's semifinals!

9. Making the broadcast pay-per-view

To be absolutely clear, chess24 has no problem whatsoever with Agon making a broadcast from a tournament pay-per-view. The problem here, though, was that it was an obvious and entirely predictable mistake. The Grand Prix events simply don’t command the interest required and it meant that almost no-one watched video of the players. On the first few days, when the video could actually be watched by anyone on the Livestream website, there were about 150-300 simultaneous viewers. It’s hard to judge how it went after that, but reviews have been mixed. In any case, it made little sense for four presenters and additional backstage staff to be working for such a small audience. It also failed to introduce more people to chess or provide any value for sponsors.

10. Antagonising the chess media

Even if a tournament isn’t of the very highest level you can usually rely on the chess media to help promote it, since it’s in all our interests to have as many people engaged as possible. There are limits, though. When Agon, which recently lost its appeal in a Moscow court and conceded defeat in New York, missed the chance to start over and share moves normally, a number of websites decided they had no interest in helping Agon to promote the event. For instance, the most popular Russian website, ChessPro.ru, decided to completely ignore a tournament with five Russian players. Usually they would have text commentary, recaps and lively forum discussions. There was no buzz on social media (the official Twitter generating automated messages when YouTube videos were added wasn’t inspiring) and in general the event got the least attention of any similar chess tournament in recent years. 

It was a big step backwards.

11. A dysfunctional website

It didn’t help that the official website for the event failed to meet the most basic of standards. It still contains Wei Yi in a list of players that isn’t specific to Sharjah, and now, after the event is over, you can’t even view the current positions in the games, never mind review the earlier games from the event (at least not without paying). There are no Sharjah standings, Grand Prix standings or even easily available information about when the next event might be. The impression is of a token effort made to fulfil an obligation. In a way, it sums up the whole event.

In some sense, it really was a "brand new broadcast experience" | screenshot: World Chess

For the record, though, the next Grand Prix will be in Moscow from May 11-22, with the likes of Peter Svidler, Anish Giri and Harikrishna joining the action. There's plenty of time for improvements, and in an ideal world the Russian Chess Federation, which is far from sharing Agon's philosophy, will encourage the organisers to aim for as many viewers and as much publicity as possible. 

Before that some of the chess action includes the US Championship in March and the Zurich Chess Challenge and GRENKE Chess Classic in April, when Magnus Carlsen and most of the world chess elite will be in action! Stay tuned here on chess24.  

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