In a recent article I commented on the availability of sufficiently strong teams in Europe and the other continents, and also about finding the right balance between the two blocks. I concluded that, for the Men’s and Women’s World Championships, most likely 24 remained the best number of participants, especially as 20 creates complications regarding the format.
But there are other concerns, for instance regarding the overall length of the event (especially for players from the top club teams with heavy match schedules), about the intensity of the WCh schedule (especially for players who are not used to such a pace, and generally due to increased risks for injuries), and also the abundance of uneven and boring games between very strong and quite inexperienced teams. On the other hand, these events are the only chance for the No. 2-3-4 teams from the non-European continents to measure their strength against opponents from other continents. And it is important to find a format where the teams that at that moment are the best really get a chance to fight for the higher spots in the ranking (rather than having been eliminated in qualifying 6-12 months earlier).
Looking at these considerations, it should be possible to come up with a format that takes these different and seemingly contradictory arguments into account. But one needs to think about it in a slightly unorthodox manner. Is it really necessary to have all the 24 teams participating from the outset? Is it not sufficient that the teams 17-24 do get a chance to be there in the end and to show that they have moved up in the rankings! And would it not be an advantage if some of the top teams with a higher proportion of top players got a somewhat reduced schedule?
My idea is to have the teams 9-24 participate in 4 groups of 4 teams from the beginning. This is likely to lead to a lot of more closely fought games among teams who want to move on to the next round. The less experienced non-European teams get to play a variety of teams from other continents but will not have to play against the top 8 teams at this stage. And the top eight teams get an added and well-deserved advantage from having done well in previous events. The only debate might be about how one decides which the 8 seeded teams should be. Perhaps one would have to be a little bit ‘political’ and include one team each from Africa, America and Asia, to ensure that they are represented in the next round.
So the top two teams from each of the initial four groups of four would advance to the main round, while the bottom two would get two more games in some kind of President’s Cup to work out the placements 17-24. The eight teams that move up would be placed again in four groups of four, with the team seeded 1-8 having been distributed two each in these four main round groups. The top two teams in each of the main round groups would qualify for quarterfinals. The remainder would play for positions 9-16.
This means that the bottom eight teams get five games each during roughly 8 days. The teams seeded 1-8 would start later and would have 6 games each in about ten days. The heavier burden would fall on the teams that move on from the preliminary round to the main round, and they would get eight or nine games, depending on their ranking in the main round. But these teams would include the solid middle group and possibly also some teams that cause a surprise and move all the way to the quarter-finals and beyond. Surely these teams do not mind getting some additional matches and surely the spectators would not mind seeing a bit more of them.
I am not trying to argue that this is the best or the only new idea that could be considered. I just see it as an illustration of how one could address the different issues: a chance for 24 teams to participate, a way of ensuring that those who are best at the right moment also do rise to the top, a way of ensuring less pressure on many of the top players, and a higher proportion of games that are close and exciting. Undoubtedly, others could come up with other alternatives. But the point is that one has to be prepared to move away from a format where all the teams participate from the beginning.