What’s a national championship worth?

by admin on May 29, 2008

Apparently not much, if you believe this article by GM Joel Benjamin at U.S. Chess Online. Benjamin was responding to a reader who asked why so many top U.S. players — Kamsky, Nakamura, Christiansen, DeFirmian, and Benjamin himself — who were eligible for this year’s U.S. Championship declined their invitations.

Basically, Benjamin argues that there are two things that would make the U.S. Championship attractive to elite players. One is a high level of competition, and the other is a large prize fund. For many years, the U.S. Championship was an invitational, round-robin tournament, which clearly met the “high level of competition” threshold. In the past decade, though, the tournament has gone to a format with more players, including some slots open to qualifiers who are not GMs or even IMs. Benjamin’s implication, which I suppose must be correct, is that this has diluted the level of competition.

Originally the move toward a larger and more open tournament was made because the sponsor (America’s Foundation for Chess) wanted it that way. The elite players kept coming because AF4C also offered a very attractive prize fund. However, that sponsor has since departed, for reasons we will not go into here (please!). Frank K. Berry, the Oklahoma organizer, stepped up and literally saved the tournament last year. But unfortunately, he was not able to offer such a big prize fund, and so we now have (from Benjamin’s point of view) the worst of both worlds: small prizes and weaker competition.

It was very interesting to read Benjamin’s reasons for not attending, and I respect him for “telling it like it is” and explaining the practical difficulties of a grandmaster’s life. I am reluctant to criticize him until I have walked a mile in his shoes… and since I am never going to be a grandmaster, that’s never going to happen.

Nevertheless, I found the situation extremely disappointing. On principle, the U.S. Championship should be the most prestigious title for any American player, second only to a World Championship. In any other sport you care to name — tennis, golf, figure skating — I can’t imagine a top U.S. competitor voluntarily skipping the national championship.

Benjamin’s article attracted a lot of comments — 25 at last count — which were generally supportive, but at least one reader took him to task in very colorful fashion:

In my opinion, “Any Chess Player” that would not consider it an Honor to play for the US Chess Championship, needs to take a burlap bag, pull it over their head, and sew it to their shirt collar and be ashamed to show their face in this country ever again. I would really like to tell you exactly what I think, but common civility, and decency for the mixed audience that may read this forum, hinder me.

Yes indeed, what ever happened to honor, anyway? It’s been in short supply for a long time. I have a lot of sympathy for this reader’s position. But let’s face it, hurling insults at the top players isn’t going to solve the problem either.

I have to admit that I have a selfish interest in this debate. I love the qualifier system. I love the fact that ordinary players like me can dream of qualifying for the U.S. Championship, even if it’s a million-to-one shot. I’ll even confess to you my deep dark secret dream, which is that someday I could be the second Mackenzie to be the U.S. champion. (The first was George Henry Mackenzie, who according to Wikipedia was the “champion by acclamation” from 1871 to 1889, succeeding Paul Morphy.) Realistically I know that will never happen, just as I know I will never win a multi-million dollar jackpot in Las Vegas, but it’s still fun to know that it’s theoretically possible.

But putting aside such fantasies, what is definitely true about the qualification system is that it has allowed up-and-coming players such as Sam Shankland (2299) to compete. Our ChessLecturers Jesse Kraai and David Vigorito qualified for the tournament, and probably would not have been able to participate if it were invitation-only. IM Josh Friedel would not have been invited, either; all he did was tie for fourth and earn his third and final GM norm.

So the bottom line, to me, is that it has become a much more interesting tournament with the addition of a small number of qualifiers. I hope that people like Nakamura and Benjamin will reconsider whether the addition of people like Friedel and Kraai really dilute the tournament all that much. I don’t think so! At the same time, I hope that some way can be found to increase the prize fund, perhaps by finding other sponsors. (Why should Frank K. Berry have to carry the burden every year, anyway?) And I also wish that the U.S. Chess Federation would find some way to get corporate sponsorship for individual players, rather than tournaments. If GMs could count on a regular paycheck, perhaps they wouldn’t have to live such a hand-to-mouth existence, and then they would be more willing to play in a tournament like the U.S. Championship just for the honor and prestige of it.

Other opinions? I’d love to know what other people think about this issue.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carina May 30, 2008 at 12:15 pm

Well, I’m not from the U.S., but I can have an opinion anyway. 😛 Personally, I think these two reasons

1. small prizes
2. weaker competition

for not participating in a big chess tournament, if you’re part of the elite, are bad reasons, almost invalid in my opinion. I think the only valid reason for declining it, is if you’re too busy with something else that’s important. The reason I think this, is because it helps the tournament and therefore the game to have big names participating. With the tournament being in trouble already, chess players are doing themselves a disservice by not giving support. After all, if there were no tournaments (for example as a consequense of widespread indifference and selfishness in players and community), they’d have to get a job just like the rest of us.

Sure, we’d like more prize money and “worthy” competition, but the way to get it isn’t to decline invitations. That’s just childish. Players are supposed to love the game regardless of the external factors anyway, and demonstrating this would be nice.

But again, if people decline because they have important business elsewhere and can’t prioritize the tournament high enough to go, then that’s fine.

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