The reigning titleholder’s suggestion last month to do away with the current system and replace it with a yearly elimination tournament has started a debate about the best way to determine the champion.

Just before he went to play in the Sinquefield Cup in early September, Magnus Carlsen, the reigning world champion dropped a bombshell on his Facebook page: He proposed deciding the world championship in a knockout tournament and holding it every year. 

The format would be the same one that was used for the recently completed World Cup: A field of 128 players, seeded by ranking. The format would do away with the advantage that champions have enjoyed for decades. Instead of playing the winner of a qualifying cycle of events in a long match, the champion would, in effect, have no real advantage, other than perhaps being seeded No. 1 prior to the tournament. 

In his statement announcing the proposal, Carlsen said, “I have great respect and reverence for all the World Champions that have come before me, and for those that have contributed to the professionalization of chess.” But, he continued, “there should be a new World Championship cycle system, which is both balanced and fair.” 

Carlsen declined to be interviewed for this article to elaborate further, but the issue of the fairness of the system has bothered him in the past. He withdrew from the world championship cycle in 2010, citing that reason. A format like the one used in the World Cup would, he said in his statement, “make the World Championship cycle more accessible to everyone.”

Carlsen wrote, “There should be a new World Championship cycle system, which is both balanced and fair.”

Having a knockout tournament would be a return to the way that the World Chess Federation organized the championship from 1997 to 2004, a system that was promoted by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the federation’s president, who had taken office in 1995. 

At the time, the knockout format was heavily criticized by some top players. 

The problem, they said, was that one blunder could cost a player a match. It made the results more like a lottery. As proof, the critics pointed to some of the champions produced by the knockout tournaments – including Alexander Khalifman in 1999, Ruslan Ponomariov in 2002, and Rustam Kasimdzhanov in 2004 – who were not among the very elite ranks. 

The criticisms were not warranted, Ilyumzhinov said in an email. 

“The knockout tournaments were hugely popular with the majority of players, sponsors, organizers, but were criticized by a small number of top players,” he wrote. “They believed that such a system could lead to unpredicted results. In fact, that turned out to be true. But history showed that only players who were on top of their game won in the end. This is what sport is all about, right?”

Ilyumzhinov said that some of the advantages of knockout tournaments were that they provided opportunities for non-elite players, who are not invited to the top tournaments, to earn substantial prize money. They also gave young, up-and-coming players chances to show their skills and to prove themselves.  

He conceded that having winners of the championship tournaments who were less than elite could lessen the value of the title. But, he said, “I would like to draw an analogy with tennis. This year, Serena Williams didn’t win the U.S. Open. But this fact didn’t diminish the importance of this beautiful tournament, or her reputation as a great tennis player.”

Ilyumzhinov said, “I, personally, am neither for, nor against the proposal made by Magnus. My job is to do my best to make the sport more popular, listening to all stakeholders. The current tournament system appears balanced and it’s appreciated by the majority of players and chess fans. As for the interests of our sponsors, it’s crucial to provide research and analysis (about any change).”

Ilyumzhinov said that, for the moment, Carlsen’s idea is not even a formal proposal, But, by virtue of being World Champion, Carlsen is a member of the Presidential Board of the World Chess Federation, so he can introduce the idea formally for discussion at any time. 

The proposal has not been well received by some top players. 

Vladimir Kramnik, the former world champion, who won the World Cup in 2013, wrote on Chess-News, the Russian Web site, “I must say that for me personally, like probably the majority of players, it would be advantageous if the title is held as a knock-out, just because then I am more likely to become world champion.”

“It devalues the title,” Kramnik said. 

But, Kramnik said, because the winners of knockout tournaments are often not the top seed, it would be confusing to select the world champion that way. “It devalues the title,” he said. 

For fans, that would be troubling. For sponsorship, it would be worse. A World Championship match is “the only chess event, which gets covered in the leading non-chess world media,” Kramnik wrote. Consequently, “it is the only chess event, to which sponsors are ready to allocate seven-figure sums.”

Emil Sutovsky, the president of the Association of Chess Professionals, agreed. “One of the rare things in chess that chess fans can follow and that sponsors can follow at the present is the World Championship,” he said in an interview. 

In general, a knockout format is more exciting, Sutovsky said. But, like Kramnik, he believes that there would be a problem of perception if anyone other than one of the top two players won, as happened with Khalifman, with Ponomariov, and with Kasimdzhanov. He explained in a posting on Facebook, “Neither Khalifman, nor Ponomariov, nor Kasimdzhanov were regarded as real champions by the general public, in spite of their fantastic performance in these events.”

Sutovsky said that the knockout format would also require a larger prize fund even than for the matches because of the number of players in the field. That is not realistic, he said.

Sutovsky said that he had spoken to about a dozen players rated between 2700 and 2800 about Carlsen’s proposal. “Many players praised Magnus for creating such a challenge,” said Sutovsky. ”But talking about the objective value of the proposal, many of them were critical.” 

He offered up another possible reason for Carlsen’s proposal. Carlsen has been No .1 for five years and won the last two championship matches, so he may be looking for a new challenge. “I think the reason for this is that Magnus has lost his motivation,” Sutovsky said. 

Whatever the possible motivations, and merits, of proposing a knockout format, Kramnik feels that the current system should definitely not be changed. He concluded his comments on the Chess-News Web site by referring to the old American saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”


Dylan Loeb McClain is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience. He was a staff editor for The New York Times for 18 years and wrote the paper’s chess column from 2006 to 2014.