OPEN LETTER ON THE "NEW FIDE TIME CONTROL"
by Hans Olav Lahlum, International Arbiter
OPEN LETTER TO THE CHESS WORLD CONCERNING THE FIDE PRESIDENTIAL BOARD'S DECISION ABOUT NEW TIME LIMITS
The decision made by the FIDE Presidential Board 26.12.2000 about the time limits in international title tournaments, got at least two important aspects requiring serious discussion. I will therefore in part A) below present my opinion about the principle of shortened time limits, in part B) my opinion about the way this decision was made up.
First of all introducing myself in one sentence for this purpose : I am a Norwegian chess lover and IA aged 27 and rated 2233, organizing among other the international tournaments at Gausdal. If you have any questions or other reactions to this letter, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoying critical answers in particular, I apologize the fact if some supporters of shortened time limits find this letter to long to be readen.
PART A) : The principle about shortened time limits
This is to me the basic question about the soul of chess, and I cannot see any valid reason to support the decision of the Presidential Board. If cheating in chess at all can be prohibited in a world of modern electronics, I cannot see why shortening time limits is the right solution to achieve this. I doubt whenever it is worth the costs, but to deny players speaking with others and / or leaving the playing room without being followed by an arbiter would obviously be a much better try. True enough it is a general myth in our modern media world, that all modern humans want the world and everything upon it to rotate faster today than yesterday. Joining this myth however is no reason for us to shorten our time limits. First and foremost chess if anything can compete only on quality (compare my reason A1 below), and second most opinion polls demonstrates that this media myth is heavily overvalued. To present just one illustrating example from the media world : A television channel recently considered changing their news to make them "faster and shorter", while according to opinion polls something like 90 % of the watchers stated that they preferred the old kind of news because they appeared serious and trustworthy, and went into depth in their reports. Taking my other example on this mis-match from within the chess world : Before Las Vegas the whole concept of the FIDE World Championship was speeded up to attract more sponsors and onlookers. Then the championship as far as I know went away almost without both onlookers and sponsors - and following this for a long time afterwards without prizes.
Hidden in the other hand, I have a long list of valid reasons to go against shorter time limits. Keeping practical aspects (like the at the moment very well known organizer problem of lacking adequate chess clocks), my five most important reasons are :
A1) Chess is not only a sport, it is science, creativity and art too!
The basic question about quality and beauty in chess is the most important one to me. Chess cannot compete without quality - those looking for the speedy kind of excitement will always prefer American action movies or sports like speedway and table tennis. Whenever we play four or seven hours, makes no difference of importance to them, it is nevertheless much to slow. We defend our place in the world well as long as we among the many commercial and fast activites offered today, can compete on quality. Besides the experiences of the players this includes producing memorable and interesting game, of a quality worth to study for other chess players too. Do you find it interesting to analyze games played in blitz or rapid chess? Even a noted chess-idiot like me very seldom do. Maybe the number of games played will increase if we shorten the time limits, but the number of games worth to be remembered by the players themselves and / or others will certainly decrease. Chess without sufficient time is no science, no creativity and no art - just another superficial small sport, reminding table tennis but being much less attractive for the average TV-watcher. In short we will not attract any more TV-watchers by asking them to stay four hours instead of seven - but anyway the humans playing chess are much more important than those watching it. To state the difference here, a TV-watcher (if at all able to enjoy anything with chess except two persons trying to move strange pieces around fast enough to avoid losing on time) will probably find it entertaining that a player destroys his position by an obvious time-trouble blunder - but the player will not, even if he wins the next game thanks to a similiar blunder from his opponent. Chess might very well have a future as a sport, but only if we do not forget that it is much more than a sport too!
A2) What to do about more players, if we have nothing of worth to offer them?
If we really got more chess players by shortening the time limits, I will like to remind you that the number of players is not our only currency of luck. Regardless of their level, do we really prefer 1 000 000 players spending five hours on chess every month to 750 000 playing thirty hours every month? Related to my opinion about quality presented in A1 I do not, and if we at all can get the 1 000 000 players mentioned in the beginning of my last sentence, I fear that we will lose most of them much faster than the 750 000 mentioned at the end of my last sentence. Maybe chess can reach more players than ever as a combined computer game and blitz sport in 2030. But at the same time the finest game of the world history then has lost all identity, and is devalued until the level of computer games taking "15 minutes to create, 3 minutes to play and 1 minute to learn." Chess will hardly be an important part of the life for any of the players, and at best the results will give anyone lasting memories from playing chess. What is the point about getting the points then?
A3) We will not get any more players!
The Presidential Board might be right that most top players prefer to play faster in the World Championship, although they have so far not showed up any material to support that their current choice is the right one. Levels below top 100 of course are by far the more important ones for the future of chess, and my impression here is clearly that most of the players do not want shorter time limits. Trying to be a little scientific on this matter, I discussed the time limits briefly with almost all the 48 participants of the recent Gausdal Troll Masters. As far as I registered none of the players clearly preferred to play faster - about 6-8 was in doubt about what time to prefer, the rest all preferred seven hours game to four hours games. Many of the players, including several GMs, were shocked to learn about the idea of playing international tournaments with less than two hours for 40 moves. While almost all short-time Norwegian weekend tournaments have lost ground during the last years, my club immediately improved the participation when increasing the time limits from 1 1/2 hour(s) until 2 hours in 40 moves.
The bottom line here is : I doubt whenever a faster speed of play makes chess more attractive for a majority even of "male players at a titleholding level considering chess to be nothing except a sport", but I feel absolutely sure that a clear majority in all other groups will react strongly against the proposal if offered a chance to do. Without the full time games, we are doomed to lose scientific and / or pathetic intellectual aesthetics like me - at all levels and of all ages. I feel confident that this actually is a large group, and it is a group of players having many resources and (so far) being very loyal to chess. Probably even more serious I fear that we will lose ground among two very important and attractive groups in which we today should have a potential far above most other sports : Women players in general, and players of both sexes above age 50. This is a compliment, as I despite all individual variations consider both groups to have a wider scope on chess than the competition perspective. This also very much is the truth regarding one group we should take care of in particular : The physically handicapped chess players.
Speaking more generally about tournament participation : Some local and even national tournaments of course might be practical to arrange with four hours games (or even less), but I really doubt how many players below a professional top level that will travel abroad to play a tournament with such time limits.
A4) Those of us continuing to play will become less interesting compared to computers
I agree to those meaning that chess will be less interesting if / when the computers becames much better than all human players. Probably once more being a naive optimist, I however actually believes that the best human players will have a chance to defeat even the best computers in 2021 too. The computers will not for several Decenniums be clearly superior humans given the chance to study chess positions in their true depth - but they will every minute now be practically superior all humans in blitz and rapid chess. Every step to shorten the time limits, is a step to make the computer chess based upon calculations superior to the human chess based upon a real understanding. Hopefully not only because of my exam marks in mathematics, I do not consider this an advantage - do you?
A5) Less time means less chess - and more nerves!
I really believes that chess can help humans to a better and more harmonious life. I am not however the only player instead to become a more nervous and stressed human by the board when pressured by the clock, and then losing the quality both of my moves and my life. This kind of pressure obviously increases with less time, and I am concerned about this especially related to recrouting very young players. True enough many children and youngsters just find it fun to play fast, but I have observed many of the more serious and interested ones suffering pains I do not like to observe when pressured by the clock from the start. If more nervous players making more mistakes is attractive to some sponsors (probably some private medicament producer can be interested), I do not find them worth their money - compare the end of A2. Of course some players do not care about or even enjoy tense pressure from the clock - but our offer should have a much wider scope than the needs of this "hard core of sportsmen".
Conclusion part A : To cut the time limits further most probably will make chess less interesting, less valuable and less attractive to most groups of players and potential players, without gaining anything of importance from sponsors. However; although I have no intention to play any tournament having less than 2 hours for 40 moves myself (excluding talkingteamchess and other social evening tournament which I intend both to play and to organize - but of course only related to tournaments with full time), I will of course not try to prohibite others from doing so. I would probably voted against a proposal to accept such tournaments at a titleholding level if asked, but in the name of plurality and tolerance I of course can accept such a change as long as it is reached through a democratic election in accordance with the statutes. This unfortunately leads me into the second half of this letter.
PART B : Democratic and juridicial aspects of the presidential board's decision
I will support the Presidential Board regarding one matter of importance : Although I doubt whenever the congress in Istanbul had any intentions about starting a second revolution of the World Championship, I think they released the piece after a blunder when handling away this important case. When learning about this decision from the congress, I soon came to fear a further devaluation of the "World Championship".
I cannot however in any way understand how and when the congress even touched the piece to give up the rules for title tournaments. Quite the opposite actually happened : I probably expected the rule prohibiting title tournaments from having below six hours to be changed, but this vital rule was left untouched. The Presidential Board's decision from 26.12.2000 according to this goes against all statutes. Whenever games with more than six hours still should be accepted in title tournaments is the wrong problem to discuss, as the Presidential Board got no right to accept anything below six hours! Opinions seems to be divided about whenever the Presidential Board "just" means to allow and recommend new and faster time limits, or to make the new and shorter time limits obligatory to all title tournaments. If the second part really appears too, I got more questions : What (except of course intolerant and arrogant) is this new principle that FIDE should decide the time limits for all international tournaments, and how can the presidential board expect that such excludings should not give less tournaments and / or less players? If attracting sponsors are considered that important for all organizers, is it wise that the Presidential Board decides for organizers all over the world what time limits that will be the more attractive one for their particular sponsors? I feel absolutely confident that an overwhelming majority of the world's chess players principally rejects the principle that FIDE should decide what is the right thing to do here for all organizers and players. As "evidence one" I would like to register the appendix to this article : A protest letter signed by 48 out of the 48 participants in Gausdal Troll Masters 2001, including 7 GMs and 5 IMs.
If the Presidential Board consider such a authoritarian principle useful with or without a direct link to the suggested new time limits, they can of course deliver it as a proposal for the next FIDE congress. The historian and political scientist part of my brain however insists that if a government in any democratic country suddenly tries to impose a new law being directly contrary to one confirmed a few months ago by the national assembly, the national assembly at their next meeting is much more likely to throw out the government than to accept their law proposal.
Since at least the Norwegian chess federation has not received anything else yet, I can only use the press releases from FIDE dated 26.12.2000 and 04.01.2001 in the difficult task of trying to clearify the true intentions of the Presidential Board in this case. At least I then find no clear answer to whenever and / or for how long the Presidential Board will still accept title tournaments with six hours or more. That however was not any compliment, and neither is this one : I am shocked even by the idea that a press release proclaiming new rules 26.12.2000, at the same time proclaims them valid for the world's chess organizers from 01.01.2001 - especially when even the existence of the debate was unknown to most of the chess world's organizers until the release day! Taking Gausdal Troll Masters starting 05.01.2001 as an example I had sent out invitations about three months earlier, of course then in accordance with all valid rules. How can any responsible organizer then change something as basically as the time limits a few days before the tournament, when the players have ordered hotel rooms, plane tickets etc etc based upon the invitation? If any player during such circumstances preferred sueing me for his expenses instead of playing my tournament, he might have a fair chance to win - and I doubt whenever FIDE then had any intention to cover the extra costs of the organizer.
Conclusion part B : It is still somewhat unclear how far the FIDE Presidential Board actually wants to go for promoting their new time limits. It is however not in any way unclear that they have overstepped their authority against the congress' will, and that this extremely important case has been handled in a both undemocratic and unprofessional way. All chess federations should be able to join the Dutch protest from 08.01.2001 on this principal ground, without making up their mind about time limits.
To make the depressing conclusion on my part a and b in one sentence : Undemocratic methods going against the statutes and ideals of FIDE has been used, without warning immediately to impose an intolerant decision which might seriously hurt the future of chess, above the heads of both the world's chess players and their chess federations.
My personal conclusion following this is of course not that important for the future of chess, not even within the relatively small Norwegian chess community. I will however still present it, as I know for a fact that many others makes similar reflections at the moment :
If due to this decision of the Presidential Board being denied to arrange title tournaments with six or seven hours games, I cannot with all my love for chess and chess players motivate myself to work for free to organize tournaments with shorter time limits. I have promised my pupils to continue as their trainer even if two hours in 40 moves completely disappears, but as far as I understand it is dubious whenever they will make any use of it then. Today I cannot see myself motivated to play any more chess tournaments during such circumstances. Probably I with the help of time can be able to overcome this if, but only if, an eventual decision to outlaw six and seven hours time limits is based upon a democratic decision taken by a FIDE congress fully in accordance with all statutes.
Gjøvik in Norway, 31.01.2001
IA Hans Olav Lahlum
APPENDIX : Letter to the presidential board of FIDE signed by all 48 participants of Gausdal Troll Masters 2001.
Gausdal in Norway, 11.01.2001
Without having received the final details and regulations, we would like to express our concern for the idea of shortening time limits for all international title tournaments. Four hour games might very well be a useful time for some organizers, but it goes against all tradition for tolerance and plurality within the chess world that FIDE should uniformly decide which time limits all international organizers and players have to use. We consider it strongly desirable that tournaments with six and seven hours are still accepted as title qualifying.
Taking the Gausdal tournaments as one example, it is unclear whether they can and will survive such a break with traditions developed during four Decenniums as four hour games will mean.
GM Rune Djurhuus (NOR)
GM Joe Gallagher (SUI)
GM Einar Gausel (NOR)
GM Maris Krakops (LAT)
GM Eduard Rozentalis (LIT)
GM Heikki Westerinen (FIN)
GM Ralf Åkesson (SWE)
IM Stellan Brynell (SWE)
IM Frode Elsness (NOR)
IM Leif Erlend Johannessen (NOR)
IM Bjarke Kristensen (DEN)
IM Bin-Sattar Reefat (BAN)
Torstein Bae (NOR)
Joachim Berg-Jensen (NOR)
Harald Bonaventura Borchgrevink (NOR)
Arthur F Brameld (ENG)
Stein Kristian Bru (NOR)
Martin Bækgaard (DEN)
Magnus Carlsen (NOR)
Ragnar Edvardsen (NOR)
Carl Fredrik Ekeberg (NOR)
Göran Fant (SWE)
Christian Grubert (DEN)
Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen (NOR)
Victor Hansen (NOR)
Hans Krogh Harestad (NOR)
Ove Henning Harestad (NOR)
Øystein Hole (NOR)
Kai-Roger Johansen (NOR)
Terje Johansen (NOR)
Per Johansson (SWE)
Terje Karlsen (NOR)
Brede Kvisvik (NOR)
Bjarte Leer-Salvesen (NOR)
Kjetil A Lie (NOR)
Stig K Martinsen (NOR)
Andreas G R Moen (NOR)
John Arni Nilssen (FAI)
Erik Parr (NOR)
Øyvind Pedersen (NOR)
Allan Stig Rasmussen (DEN)
Casper Rasmussen (DEN)
Oddmund Sande (NOR)
Gudmund Stenersen (NOR)
Tarjei Joten Svensen (NOR)
Henrik Sørensen (NOR)
Geir Sune Tallaksen (NOR)
Kristian D Trygstad (NOR)
Editor's comment: The above letter was written in January. Updated comment by Mr. Lahlum appears in a subsequent post.