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Some Humble Suggestions To Save Chess From Itself

Your diligent chess correspondent spent the morning watching some chess. 

Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia (not pictured) are in fact in Dubai battling for the 2021 World Chess Championship. The grandmasters — the world Nos. 1 and 5, respectively — had both stepped away from the board and into their private breakrooms during the match’s fifth consecutive draw, as they often do. They did occasionally move the pieces on the board, and Wednesday’s game was a 43-move affair over 3.5 hours. The championship sits level, 2.5-2.5, in a “race” to 7.5 points. No one has won a regulation game in a world championship since the Obama administration.

Here’s how the match has gone so far, as evaluated by the all-seeing silicon.

Until the eighth move, Game 5 exactly matched Game 3; the grandmasters found themselves again in the Ruy Lopez opening, as chess players often have for centuries. The famously fast Nepomniachtchi — vest firmly cinched, man bun firmly in place atop head — played his first 15 moves in under three minutes. Carlsen, meanwhile, ate through much of his clock. By the 20th move, Nepomniachtchi had developed a pleasant position and opened up nearly an hour advantage over the titleholder.

By all experts’ accounts, Nepomniachtchi outjockeyed Carlsen in the game’s early stages. “Magnus was spending time, and he had no abundantly obvious plan,” Robert Hess, a grandmaster and commentator for Chess.com, told me. “Only ideas to counter white’s pieces and plans.”

But white’s plans fizzled. Both players eschewed chances for some spicy, aggressive moves, opting instead for safer-seeming lines — a bit unexpectedly, especially from the famously bold Russian. Queens, rooks and bishops left the board in a flurry starting with the 22nd move, and clothing came off, too, as blazers and vests were placed on the backs of chairs. The rest was fairly academic.

The grandmasters agreed to a draw in the position below, with their rooks caught in an endlessly repetitive shuffle. For the first time in the match, the players didn’t discuss the game with each other, as is common, and each appeared unprecedentedly frustrated — perhaps the draws are getting to them.

The endless draws in Dubai are testaments to the preparation and execution of a couple of the best chess players in the world, but they have also spurred crescendoing calls to revamp the world championship — to generate more decisive games, more blood. Common suggestions include shortening the time allotted to the players; combining the current slow, classical games with rapid or blitz games; and playing the tiebreakers before the match proper begins, disrupting the symmetry and placing the winning onus squarely on one of the players. 

When asked about the format on Tuesday, Carlsen said he couldn’t say anything nice and therefore wouldn’t say anything at all. But I don’t mind saying things. Here are a few unsolicited suggestions I thought up during today’s draw that retain the noble essence of the ancient game while spicing up the event, taking the players out of their rigorous, computer-driven preparation, and maybe even getting us some wins already.

Format inversion

Keep it simple! Instead of 14 games in which the players start with 120 minutes, play 120 games where the players start with 14 minutes. Do it over a long weekend.

Gray scale

Paint all pieces the same color — not black or white, but gray. Otherwise, play proceeds as normal. If at any point a player touches a piece that isn’t actually theirs, they lose. Extra mysterious fun for the viewer, too! (Bonus idea: Paint all the squares gray, too, and punish players with instant loss if their pieces ever overlap onto any neighboring square.)

Chess-tac-toe

Arrange nine standard chess boards in a three-by-three grid, with space to maneuver among them. (Make sure the chairs have good wheels.) Players alternate turns as normal but can take their move on whichever board they choose. If you win on a board, you write your name on it in big letters with a dry-erase marker. First to claim three boards in a row, à la tic-tac-toe, wins. Best two out of three is world champion.

Holiday gathering

Given the festive time of year, each player plays a simultaneous exhibition against the other’s extended family; first to defeat all opposing relatives wins.

Musical chess

A neutral arbiter operates a stereo that plays “Yakety Sax” on a loop, pausing the music at randomly chosen intervals. Whenever the music stops, the players switch seats, taking over the other’s pieces.

‘Squid Game’ furniture

Both players’ chairs are made of glass; only one is tempered.

Dizzy bat chess

Players spin around 10 times fast after each move. (Can be combined with any format above.)

Advanced geometry

Begin in the normal two-dimensional version of chess. If that game is drawn, move on to three-dimensional chess. If that game is drawn, move on to four-dimensional chess, then five-, and so on. If the match gets to 12-dimensional chess without a winner, chess as a game is dissolved and never spoken of again.

The truest test of all

“I think there’s some cut-off point after which draws stop being normal and become a problem,” Carlsen said after the game. “But I don’t think we’ve crossed the Rubicon yet.”

The actual match rests tomorrow, and Game 6 begins Friday at 7:30 a.m. Eastern. We’ll be covering it here and on Twitter — please send along your best format tweaks — and we’ll spin around 10 times fast before writing each paragraph.

Seven Games by Oliver Roeder

For even more writing on chess and other games, check out Roeder’s new book, “Seven Games: A Human History,” available in January.


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