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On Chess: Bracket frenzy at the Chess World Cup

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 22, 2013 - What is it about a bracket that brings such fervor?

Chess could admit that its tournament systems can get a bit impotent and confusing at times – from round robin to Swiss systems, half points to full – but the good, old-fashioned bracket has the ability to transcend all forms of competition with its familiar emotional frenzy.

FIDE, the governing body of international chess, has collected 128 of the world’s best players for the Chess World Cup 2013 in Tromso, Norway, all of them Grandmasters save for a handful of IMs – smashing together some of the earth’s most-talented egos and letting a bracket sort it out. Though the format pays the price in length, running through most of August, the World Cup is well designed and intriguing from both a player and spectator point-of-view.

With seven single-elimination rounds needed to declare a champion, every round is given three days to complete. Players take the white army one day, black the other, and if needed, the third day consists of continuous two-game tiebreaker matches that decrease in time control until someone falters. Those players who take care of matters in the first two days are awarded the third as a day of rest before the next round.

The prizes are built to keep the competitors striving as well. You cannot call yourself a chess spectator unless your eyes roll when you hear the term “Grandmaster draw,” an entire final round of which delivers the most anticlimactic end a tournament could hope for – but the bracket won’t stand for that. And at the World Cup, cash prizes increase with every round won.

Just making it through the first round earned 64 players $6,000, and the final four are destined to pull in $35,000 each. The lion’s share of $1.6 million in total prize money goes to the final match, but perhaps the biggest reward to those final two players are berths into the 2014 Candidates Tournament, the eight-slot competition that decides the challenger to the World title.

Three well-known names suddenly particular to St. Louis are missing from the current World Cup bracket. The first is the earth’s highest-rated player Magnus Carlsen, who is preparing to challenge World Champion Viswanathan Anand this November for the 2013 World title. The next is earth’s second highest-rated player, Levon Aronian, who was the top seed in the World Cup but bowed out in the third round after losing to Russia’s Evgeny Tomashevsky. The third is U.S. No. 1 Hikaru Nakamura, who was eliminated on Wednesday in bracket-busting fashion to the No. 22–seed Anton Korobov form Ukraine (Nakamura entered the event a No. 6 seed.)

Carlsen, Aronian and Nakamura will be in the Central West End in less than a month, competing in the strongest tournament in the history of the U.S., the Sinquefield Cup. The Cup will also feature the U.S. No. 2, Gata Kamsky, who still fights on in the World Cup, while Carlsen, Aronian and Nakamura play golf.

Seeded by FIDE rating No. 8, Kamsky had a rough opening, needing four extra games of tiebreaks just to get out of the first round. He now finds himself in the elite eight after two brilliant games against Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.

The World Cup will have a winner declared by Sept. 5, and while a fan is left wondering what kind of effect jet setting between elite tournaments has on a chess game, I won’t put it past the reigning American champion to come back to St. Louis as sharp as ever.

You’ll remember that Kamsky’s best run of the year came in May when he played through a series of consecutive elite tournaments, winning the U.S. Championship along the way, wowing the FIDE Grand Prix event in Greece and cracking into the World’s top-10 by rating. The way Kamsky has played in the World Cup to this point, he might just bag the whole thing and roll back into St. Louis as a Candidate.

The bracket will decide.

Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.