Magnus Carlsen’s Withdrawal, a case study in sports

The question we must ask ourselves is whether chess is more similar to football or to boxing.

Magnus Carlsen’s decision to withdraw from the world championship cycle this week has surprised and confused the chess world in equal measure. In his letter addressed to FIDE, it’s difficult to understand exactly what his contention is with the current system, since he describes it in general terms such as “unfair” or “shallow,” characterizations of the current Cycle that no other top player shares. One thing is clear from the letter, and that is that Carlsen prefers the tournament format, as took place in Mexico in 2007, rather than the candidates matches format. His argument is that the current cycle is not fair because it’s not a fight on “equal terms” as the reigning champ has one out of two tickets to the final. He bases much of this “fairness” on comparison between chess and soccer.

There is no universal concept of “fairness” that can be applied to all forms of competition. The boxing world champion keeps his title and has the same “privileges” as the chess champ, in fact it isn’t seen as a privilege that he doesn’t have to compete in qualifying rounds a second time around, but rather it would seem patently absurd to ask him to do so…about as absurd as it would be to exempt a football team from from doing the tournament process. Ultimately, its a question for the case study method, and we should decide which is more similar to chess: football? or boxing?. I think a case study method comparison can help us draw some conclusions. In football, many teams with many players play many games in a knockout format leading to a final game. Luck is a major factor in such a format, hence the American football maxim “any given Sunday” to describe the not uncommon occurrence when the worst team miraculously beats the best one, as statistically must happen now and again. However, this “luck” factor is tolerated by fans and teams, and a stronger team who lost one game to a weaker one would never object to the overall format of the tournament, or demand to play a few more games to determine who is actually better. No one is arguing that applying the current chess world championship cycle to football would not be absurd. To demand that the world cup winner be exempted from competing in the qualifying and knockout rounds would raise objections from everyone unanimously, and there is no doubt that the candidates matches structure would lead to numerous injuries because of the number of games. So, it is impossible to disagree with Carlsen in his analysis of “fairness” regarding football. It becomes difficult to follow his logic, however, when he attempts to apply this to chess. I cannot agree with Aronian more when he says “I think we’re playing a different kind of game than football, and it takes a tradition, and becoming World Champion … takes much more effort [than in football.]

In Boxing, the world championship is a privileged title, and the run up to it is made alone, against many contenders who fight in the cycle towards the same goal: the privilege of fighting the world champion and sharing the prize money that such a fight brings. Applying the Football tournament format to a boxing world championship would be just as patently absurd as applying the boxing format to football, because these sports are different in kind. They don’t share a common tradition with one another, and holding either one to the other one’s standards of “fairness” would create confusion needlessly. Thus, I do not think that there is some concrete notion of “fairness” that can be applied to all forms of competition.

The question we must ask ourselves, is whether chess is more similar to football, or to boxing?