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puzzle about the world chess championship

The Wikipedia summary of the world chess championship is a story of chaos. At first, chess looks like a lot of other sports and games. It is considered the realm of amateurs and the “world champion” title is basically the person who is considered the best by peers. And like many non-professionalized sports, there are controversies about who is really the top person.

But interestingly, chess has a chaotic and lengthy period of non-institutionalization. Even though it became clear by the early 1900s that you could make a living out of chess, no person or organization can firmly establish the rules over who becomes the champion or even how it is determined. It was only until the 2000s that there is a stable world champion. During the entire 20th century chess is less like baseball, which established a “world” champion by 1903, and more like boxing, where you have competing groups and individuals and it can be hard to know who is the legitimate champion.

To help you get a sense of where chess sits in the world of sports and games, consider three models of sports governance:

  • Mono-centric: A single sporting association is universally considered to be the governing body. You win the tournament set up by that group and every one admits you’re the boss. Examples – international soccer (FIFA); American basketball (NBA), football (NFL), or baseball (MLB).
  • Poly-centric: There is no “champion” but people can win trophies set up by specific groups. Or, alternatively, people and teams can be sorted into non-competing leagues. Examples – tennis (Wimbledon vs. French open), golf (PGA tour vs. Masters), and club soccer (Bundesliga vs. UEFA Champions). It is important to note that even though someone, or some team. can be ranked #1 via an ELO rating, there is not a “champion” but rather just champions of specific tournaments.
  • Contentious:  There may be “championship” games or matches, but nobody agrees on which is important and people make conflicting claims over titles and status. Examples – boxing, college football pre-2013, and chess (!).

Of all these games, you would think that chess would be ripe for a mono-centric model. The rules of the game have been established for centuries. With modern transportation, it probably wouldn’t be too hard to gather people for top tournaments.

So what gives? I don’t think you can chalk it up to corruption or incompetence. For example. various governing bodies in sports (FIFA, NCAA) have been accused of gross corruption but they still operate a system leading to a clear champion. Here are my hypotheses:

  1. Cash: Board games draw smaller audiences than physical sports. There is much less incentive to build and defend a global chess institution. One should note that many games (e.g., contract bridge, Go) did not have a real world champion system until after they were established for athletic games (e.g., FIFA soccer, NBA basketball)
  2. International scope: Chess seems to have been a relatively global game since the start. With the best players coming from places as far off as Cuba, the US, Britain, France, and the USSR. Today, top players come from Armenia, India, and China. That just raises the coordination costs enormously.
  3. War: It seems that at a few points in the early 20th century, chess championships were about to become stable and then WW 1 and 2 disrupted things.
  4. The Cold War: The USSR decided to invest quite a bit into chess and it may have tried to make things hard for non-Soviet players. This would have destabilized the world champion system.
  5. Personality Cults: Chess seems to have some real strong personality cults. For example, people treated Bobby Fischer like a god. How many millionaires would sponsor a rematch for two old basketball players or tennis players, in the same way that sponsors paid for a 1992 rematch between Fischer and Spassky? If LeBron James decided to bail on the NBA and start with own league, how many would follow? In 1993, Gary Kasparov did exactly that his league was disruptive, even thought it folded after a while.

I don’t think that chess is unique in any of these traits but it may be unique in that they are all present in the sport and few sports would be able to fully institutionalize under so much pressure.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 22, 2019 at 12:11 am

Posted in uncategorized

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