Who voted for whom, and why?

[Edited and updated translation of a German version] Early January 2016 is the time to look back on 2015, also regarding chess. I will focus on “best player” and skip the rest: best game, best endgame, highlights and lowlights, … . Many people, experts and others (titled and untitled chess players) seem to agree who should and will get the Chess Oscar, once again. Only one person seems to disagree, saying – in English more clearly than in German – “I want to make a certain point”. From #2 onwards people disagree – players are mentioned or not, and ranked quite differently.

Chronologically: (For me) Emil Sutovsky was the first one to publish his “vision of the Chess Oscar 2015” on Facebook. Chess24 ‘recycled’ his list, which provoked discussions and eventually six more lists. More or less concurrently two other experts published their lists: Stefan Löffler – in German here, in English  here, and Sergey Shipov – Russian version here, English translation also at chess24. This piece is inspired by the discussion at chess24, including my own contributions – but there each comment is limited to 2000 characters, here I can mention everything and more in one article. My own opinion is one of many, and turned out to be surprisingly “average” or “mainstream”.

I start with Sutovsky, who – like others – explained his choices, within the list and regarding “who not and why” in the subsequent Facebook discussion. He listed, from top to bottom (but #10 is obviously still high), Carlsen, Karjakin, Giri, Aronian, Kramnik, Vachier-Lagrave, Svidler, Eljanov, Ding Liren and Wei Yi. Immediately some people missed two names, but I will first summarize his (apparent) rationale for his list: He calls the World Cup “most important and toughest tournament of the year” – I agree, while the list is rather affected by three players doing extremely well (at least result-wise) in Baku. Semi-explicitly he focuses on results of the second half of 2015 – more or less thereby justifying his choices of Aronian, Kramnik and MVL, broadly it is also the case for Giri. Here I disagree and miss one name that wasn’t mentioned in the Facebook discussion. Others missed Topalov and Nakamura, Sutovsky’s explanation: “Topalov had one truly great event in Stavanger, but otherwise his play was not convincing at all. Nakamura with all due respect did not win a single top classical event (actually, was not really close to it) and beating much lower-rated opposition in Gibraltar, US Champ and Millionaire Chess does not have as much weight in my opinion. Even if it comes with a massive payout. Anyways, all that is subjective. And the list is not about the best players in the World (where Nakamura surely belongs), but rather about the best players of the year.” – later adding that Zurich, won by Nakamura, was a mix of classical and rapid. I agree with Sutovsky, and would add that Topalov was gifted 1.5 points in Stavanger by Carlsen and Hammer – also corresponding to 15 Elo points, and it was more obvious and blatant (though, to avoid any misunderstandings, certainly not done on purpose) than other cases of “winner’s luck”. While Nakamura won Zurich only after an ad hoc tiebreak introduced by a regulation change during the event. The reader might be able to guess which names also don’t appear on my list, and maybe also whom I add to Sutovsky’s list – more tricky whom to delete, as the top10 has room for exactly ten names.

My list: Carlsen, Vachier-Lagrave, Giri, Anand, Aronian, Kramnik, Karjakin, Svidler, Eljanov, Tomashevsky. I had missed Anand – in contrast to several other players, he was shining in the first half of 2015 (Shamkir, Zurich, Stavanger) and no longer in the second half. Tomashevsky got the #10 spot only after others insisted on (exactly/only) ten names – before, he shared this spot with Nakamura, Ding Liren, Wei Yi and Caruana. For the rest: Carlsen is obviously number one, but in my view only primus inter pares. Then I was uncertain how to rank the players, and gut feeling played a role: “Nice guy” bonus points for MVL and Giri (I spoke with both in Wijk aan Zee 2015, with Giri also at other occasions), and the three (other) World Cup semi-finalists ranked according to the final result. One reason why I do not mention Topalov at all is his relative inactivity – while this applies similarly to Kramnik and Anand, only Topalov managed to “defend” a 2800+ Elo by NOT playing. I could also do this, another story is that such an Elo is entirely out of reach for me and at least 99% of the chess world. It is also true that I do not particularly like Topalov as a person (hint: “Toiletgate”) – this shouldn’t play a dominant role, but this is also a tiebreaker.

So far two opinions, all opinions matter (equally for the sake of this contribution). Among those commenting at chess24 I mention the country – in one case it certainly played a role as he added “(lol)” after his #10. In some cases it probably has limited meaning – e.g. I am German living in the Netherlands and registered with a Dutch IP address. If Kramnik (under pseudonym) has an account, he might be – depending on when/where he registered – French or Swiss? It also has arguably limited meaning for Stefan Löffler (German but spending many years abroad in several different countries) or Emil Sutovsky (Israeli with ongoing ties to his original country Azerbaijan). Still: The first six opinions may not be representative for the entire amateur chess world – to only name a few leading chess countries: nobody from the entire former Soviet Union, the USA, China, India, … . Now all nine lists – due to space constraints I abbreviate one name [and as someone else generated the graphic I keep the German country names – Norway, Bulgaria, Netherlands, Israel, Sweden, Austria]:


Two ways to summarize these lists: first according to official Oscar rules with bonus points for the first three (13,11,9,7,6,5, …): Carlsen 115, Giri 72, Nakamura 59, Aronian 57, Vachier-Lagrave (now I have anough space available) 48, Kramnik und Karjakin 39, Topalov 28, Anand 27, Wei Yi 24, Eljanov 12, Svidler 11, Caruana 7, Tomashevsky 5, Ding Liren 4, Ragger und Pelletier 1.

Then according to how often players were mentioned: Carlsen, Giri, Aronian 9, Kramnik and Karjakin 8, Nakamura und Vachier-Lagrave 7, Anand 6, Topalov and Wei Yi 5, Eljanov 4, Caruana, Svidler, Tomashevsky 3, Ding Liren 2, Ragger and Pelletier 1.

Boundaries are flexible, but broadly there are consensus names mentioned by (almost) everyone, controversial names mentioned by roughly half of the jury, and exotic names mentioned only/at most a few times. Carlsen almost always number 1, that’s OK. Giri number 2, while no-one put him that high – but six third, four fourth and one seventh place. Somehow this matches his tournament results: rarely if ever at the very top, but often near the top – this has positive consequences, also for his Elo. Nakamura and Vachier-Lagrave get comparatively mixed scores: high up, not that high up and also not in the top10. For Nakamura it probably depends on how people value “second-tier events”, maybe also how they value his personality. I see no reason to not like Vachier-Lagrave – here it may depend on how people finally assess his rollercoaster chess year 2015. Aronian again gets slightly more stable scores – and finishes slightly behind Nakamura who received more top3 bonus points. Kramnik and Karjakin were (almost) always mentioned, but (almost) never very high in the individual lists. My list is “mainstream” in one respect: for every player I mention, at least one other jury member has him in the same spot, or just one spot higher or lower.

Maybe interesting why some people don’t have consensus names on their lists. I already gave Sutovsky’s and my own opinion about Nakamura. Löffler might not like Karjakin – I went into more detail in the German version, here it may suffice to say that he also published his earlier lists and never included Karjakin. In other cases I asked people in private (one reason for now translating the article). Eyal about Kramnik: “the main thing for me is that he didn’t actually win any individual events, and in most of those he played (Zurich, Gashimov Memorial, Dortmund, World Cup) didn’t even come close. … He did very well in two team events where his team won, but in general I attach less importance to these events.” That makes sense to me, so do other opinions or evaluation criteria. At the same time he put Kramnik, Svidler and Wei Yi on his reserve list, but only/exactly ten spots are available. Shipov also has a reserve list: Svidler, Ding Liren, Vachier-Lagrave, Wei Yi, Grischuk [an exotic name for 2015], Eljanov, “etc.”. slavmavrodiev ‘ignores’ Vachier-Lagrave “based on his poor first half of the year … he ran 28 games without a win”. Giving more importance to this than everyone else (execption Shipov?).

Sauron is another “outlier” for Kramnik – putting him as high as #2, I also inquired: “mostly I admire him for regaining 2nd place in world rankings at the age of 40. I guess he got some “age bonus points” from me being in a similar age group 😉 “. On my feedback remark “it doesn’t quite fit with not mentioning Anand … who had regained 2nd place in the world rankings at the age of 45 in the course of 2015”:  “If Anand hadn’t had this pronounced slump (combined with plenty of less inspiring games) in the later months of 2015 he surely would have ended up highly on my list. He is a true gentleman. And of course you are right that being 5 years older his age performance in a way is even more admirable than Kramnik’s.

About Anand, now a quick comparison laymen-experts (untitled vs. titled jury member): Five out of six laymen have Anand, but only one expert – Shipov s the last name on his list. Are experts more prone to the temptation to consider mainly the most recent results? Again: in the first half of 2015, Anand played great chess in Shamkir, Zurich and Stavanger. Two of three experts nominate Svidler, I am the only layman. Do layman only like winners (exeption Giri), while experts do not care as much? Svidler did after all lose the World Cup final, though reaching the final was already a victory (qualification for the candidates event).

Topalov seems to be controversial. For Wei Yi, the question might arise whether he already belongs in between the world top, just because he will probably join the world top in the near/foreseeable future. On balance, I don’t think so, here (as in otheer cases) opinions diverge. Eljanov – broadly see Svidler. Caruana, Ding Liren and, not mentioned at all, Wesley So – on one hand pretty stable top10, on the other hand no very spectacular results in 2015 – this seems to be the majority opinion. My main reason for putting Caruana on my reserve list: he won Dortmund convincingly.

Tomashevsky won two tournaments, both as outsider, both convincingly – Tiflis Grand Prix and Russian Championship. Isthis already forgotten, and/or do many first check the most recent Elo list before weighing players? Tomashevsky dropped to #26, because Qatar was disappointing for him (also for Wei Yi) and before he had lost some Elo points at the World Cup. It might also play a role: top10 = 10 names, for many ten other names got priority. fabelhaft added a comment: “We have probably all been unfair to Tomashevsky who had two very impressive wins, in one of the Grand Prix tournaments and then the Russian Superfinal. But it all is so subjective that it’s difficult to even make the same list two days in a row.”

Ragger and even more so Pelletier are in my opinion, compared with the other names mentioned, “little jokes”. I would consider Ragger a candidate for the “B-Oscar” – a competition between players that never had Elo 2750+ hatten and might never cross this level (currently a better definition of “absolute world top” than Elo 2700+ !?). Other names that have been mentioned, some by myself: Harikrishna, Li Chao (while both currently have Elo slightly above 2750), Rapport, Kovalenko, Hammer, Grandelius, possibly Jobava. This election would certainly be even more subjective and controversial – anyone may have his own favorite and might not even know some of the other candidates. I can ‘endorse’ but not rank all the mentioned names, and some are certainly still missing … . [Side remark: the original German article was written before the Keres Memorial won by Kovalenko, and the evaluation period is in any case all of 2015]

So far everything was subjective, an objective criterion might be the tournament performance rating over the entire year!? TPR über das gesamte Jahr!? This list is also available (at least while I type, soon it will be updated with results from Tata Steel and Gibraltar). I won’t go into detail: for me it also plays a role, how often someone has played, and against whom. In this list, Wei Yi is number 27 (Ragger number 38).

The point Stefan Löffler wants to make by putting Wei Yi ahead of everyone, Carlsen included: “Wei was not invited to a single top tournament. It is a shame that the young Chinese player, who could well be the next world champion, has been sidelined by the organisers.” In the German version, he added that “it can’t be his enterprising playing style, maybe the fact that he is Chinese”. My take on this: Which organizers should be ashamed? The Chess Tour insisted to always invite the same players – something I generally criticize, but it wasn’t personal against Wei Yi. Gashimov Memorial came too early (and they might give priority to players who knew Gashimov personally), this might leave Dortmund and Biel. I presume that players are usually invited a few months before the event, and a general criterion might be: “first cross Elo 2700, then confirm this level for a while, then top invitations might follow.” There is certainly no discrimination of Chinese players, but there are too many of them … . Candidates for top invitations are Ding Liren, Yu Yangyi, it might also be Li Chao’s turn, and Wei Yi. Hou Yifan also gets many invitations – something I do not quite understand (quantitatively and in comparison with male players of comparable age and Elo)

With respect to the German version, I omit further details on Stefan Löffler – quasi-historic overview as he had also published his Oscar lists in earlier years, but this might be more interesting for a German audience. On the other hand, I add one collective and one individual opinion which weren’t available a few days ago: Chessbase had a poll for “Best player of the Year” – not strictly comparable with the above lists, for two reasons: 1) It was about THE best player rather than the top10, and – so I assume – participants could or did vote only once. 2) They came up with a shortlist – similar but not identical to the names given above, people couldn’t vote for Tomashevsky or Ragger or Pelletier. Anyway, these are the results (number of votes per player): Carlsen 286 (49%), Giri 77 (13%), Kramnik 60 (10%), Wei Yi 31 (5%), Vachier-Lagrave 26 (4%), Anand and Nakamura 22 (3%), Eljanov 14 (2%), Aronian 10 (1%), [and seven other names with less than 10 votes]. No information available on who voted, it may or may not be representative for the chess world as a whole. Chessbase also has average Elo performances for 2015, slightly different from the other list – hopefully, readers don’t expect me to check everything and redo all calculations!?

Finally, as closing remark, a quote from someone who knows a thing or twenty-two about the chess world, but might want to remain anonymous: “I don’t have a chess Oscar top ten. I think it’s almost impossible to rank so many people in so many places, though I guess that’s half the fun :) Probably Carlsen no. 1 and Giri no. 2 and after that… who knows. It’s true perceptions change a lot depending on when people had success.” Like the Chessbase poll participants, he has Giri as high as #2 – one thing I can reveal: he doesn’t work for Chessbase. I generally agree with him, but on one detail: it isn’t half the fun but all the fun that everything is subjective.


April 2018
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