Chess championships are usually determined in long one-on-one matches, sometimes involving Cold War posturing or at least a few accusations of espionage.
In men’s chess, in the confusion over the Garry Kasparov split and the flirtation with the International Olympic Committee, FIDE (the international overlords/organizing body) settled on March Madness-style tournaments as the way to determine a world champion. The first, in 1999, gave us new FIDE world champion Alexander Khalifman — a fine champion if you overlook the fact that Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov and Vishy Anand skipped the tournament, or the fact that Khalifman wasn’t rated in the top 40 at the time. (He did make the top 15 and even the top 12 a couple of years later.)
Anand won the big FIDE prize in 2000, the same year Kasparov finally lost an independently organized world championship match to Vladimir Kramnik. The Kasparov-Kramnik group had trouble organizing the next match, and Kasparov himself refused to play in the candidates matches to determine Kramnik’s next challenger. Over the next four years, all sorts of unification series were suggested, usually involving some permutation of Kramnik (the lineal champion, more or less), Kasparov (still the world’s top-rated player until 2006), the winner of a major candidates tournament, and whoever held the FIDE tournament title at the time.
Ruslan Ponomariov, the 2002 FIDE winner, was also ranked #1 — among juniors. (He was at least a top-10 player through much of his reign.) The 2004 FIDE tournament was a farce, with only two of the top 10 players in the world participating and world #44 Rustam Kasimdzhanov taking the title. The real action in 2004 was in the independent group, where Peter Leko took Kramnik to the wire before the champion won Game 14 to level the match 7-7 and retain his title.
By 2005, the situation was improving. FIDE held an eight-player (not eight-man — Judit Polgar participated) round-robin tournament, with third-rated Veselin Topalov winning. Kramnik and Kasparov declined to participate, but Kramnik faced Topalov in an actual unification match in 2006 and kept the title despite a controversy over the toilets.
FIDE held another eight-player double round-robin tournament in 2007. Anand, long a top-three player and No. 1 in the wake of Kasparov’s retirement, won the title. From then on, FIDE’s champion has been the undisputed champion, and Anand has defended the title in three matches (2008, 2010, 2012).
So that’s men’s chess. What about women’s?
For decades, the women’s title was decided by traditional matches. The exceptions were either unfortunate (a round-robin after the 1944 air-raid death of longtime champion Vera Menchik) or curious (FIDE’s insistence on a three-player tournament with the champion, the past champion and the top contender in 1956).
Until 2000, when they decided that this “tournament” thing was such a great idea that they’d try it on the women’s side as well. China’s Xie Jun had held the title much of the previous decade except from 1996 to 1999, when Hungarian-American Susan Polgar held the title and was stripped when she couldn’t agree to terms with FIDE about returning to action from childbirth. Xie managed to defend her title in the 2000 tournament, a remarkable feat, but passed on the 2001 tournament.
The 2001 winner was the fourth seed, Zhu Chen. The runner-up was a remarkable 17-year-old prodigy named Alexandra Kosteniuk, who kept up her overachieving ways in European and other tournaments. The absurd comparisons to Anna Kournikova (they’re Russian, they get attention for their looks, they hang out in Florida) were smashed to bits when she won the world title in 2008.
The 2004 tournament was lacking the last two champions — Xie and Zhu — along with Judit Polgar, who prefers the men’s (open) tournament. But the winner was the solid Antoaneta Stefanova, ranked 10th at the time but higher than that in most rankings in the years before and after the tournament. No. 6 Xu Yuhua won in 2006, then No. 10 Kosteniuk in 2008. In 2010, Kosteniuk passed the title to another prodigy, Hou Yifan, the top-ranked junior and third-ranked woman in the world.
Then finally, the women’s title reverted to matches. Humpy Koneru, the only non-Judit Polgar player ranked ahead of Hou, won the Grand Prix for the right to challenge for the title in 2011. Hou won three games out of eight; Koneru won none. Title defended.
FIDE has decided to alternate championship approaches. Matches in odd years. In even years, we’re back to tournaments.
And this year, the upsets that have often shook up the men’s tournaments struck the women’s tournament. Hou and Koneru, still the top-rated players behind Judit Polgar, were knocked out in the second round. Your finalists are the former champion Stefanova, now ranked 19th, and No. 38 Anna Ushenina.
The good news for Hou — she has already won the Grand Prix, giving her the right to challenge for the world title next year. So to recap: The world champion won a challengers tournament so she could challenge for the world championship after losing it in a crapshoot tournament. Got that?
Meanwhile, in Mexico, top-ranked woman Judit Polgar has advanced to the final of a tournament and will face Magnus Carlsen … the top-ranked man in the world. Carlsen, who will turn 22 this week, dropped out of the qualifiers for the 2012 world championship match. But he’ll be in the mix the next time around. For now.
It’s better than boxing. The top players in the world play each other regularly. But the world championship needs to be special. The world champion shouldn’t lose his or her title in a two-game tournament “match.”