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|Issues on the Chess Table|
A Typical Scenario
The last round of the Super Grandmaster chess tournament has started, the playing hall is packed with spectators, and everyone is watching the games with great interest on the large monitors. The main sponsor's Marketing V.P. has stopped by to see what the firm, a well known, multinational, high-technology star, is getting for its scarce promotional funds, and to discuss funding next year's event with the tournament organizer.
Twenty minutes into the round, a player stops the clock at one of the tables; both players shake hands, stand up, and walk off. The spectators get excited, 'What just happened? Did one of the players overlook a mate in one like Kramnik in his 2006 match against Deep Fritz?' No, the monitor shows a complicated position, pieces attacking and defending everywhere on the board. Then at another table, the players follow the same ritual: stop clocks, shake hands, leave. The same happens at another table, then another.
Finally, there is only one game left. The lowest rated player in the event, a local hero, is already in a difficult position, battling for a draw against a world top-10 player. He sinks into long thought for half an hour. With only one game to watch and nothing happening, most of the spectators leave quietly. The Marketing V.P. checks his watch, remembers another sponsorship opportunity with a tennis organizer, and leaves quickly.
Real story or fiction? With the exception of the sponsor, it's a real story that happens every year in top chess tournaments.
Current StatusWhile no one knows for sure what the result of a perfect game of chess would be, most experts suspect that it is a draw. Many memorable games between the greatest players have ended in draws. As the players attack and defend with equal skill, pieces from both sides are captured and disappear from the board. Finally a position with few pieces is reached where the result is clear. With normal, common sense play on both sides, neither side can win. The game is recorded as a draw, each player receiving 1/2 point.
'Would you like a draw?'
The problem with short draws in chess is not that the games are drawn, but that they are drawn before the result is clear. One of the players proposes a draw and the other accepts. Sometimes the players agree on a draw after only 15-20 moves have been played. These short draws are sometimes called 'grandmaster draws'.
Short draws are not the same as pre-arranged draws, where both players agree before the game that the result will be a draw. Pre-arranged draws are frowned on by most and considered cheating by many, but no one except the two players can tell if a short draw was pre-arranged or if it was agreed during the game. This isn't the only problem with short draws.
Among competitive activities, only in chess can the players abandon the contest before determining the sporting outcome. In team competitions the idea is unthinkable, while in individual competitions like boxing, fencing, and bowling no one ever suggests that there be no winner. This only happens in chess, undoubtedly because a draw is a natural sporting result of a game.
Many agreed draws occur in positions where it is not at all certain that the game will eventually be drawn. The position might be full of life, but both players decide independently, for their own reasons, that a half point is an acceptable score.
Some short draws occur naturally. There are opening variations where a triple repetition happens before 20 moves have been played, or where so many pieces are swapped off at an early stage that only Bishops of opposite color remain with a rigid Pawn structure. These games are only a small percentage of short draws.
HistoryThere is no shortage of examples showing the joylessness of short draws. The longest World Championship match ever held, 48 games over five months, was the first Karpov - Kasparov match (1984-5). It featured one string of 17 straight draws. In 11 of those games less than 25 moves were played, including two 15-move games. Later there was another string of 14 draws. Ironically, the match was annulled after Kasparov won two consecutive games, giving the impression that draws were satisfactory, decisive results unsatisfactory.
The 1995 Kasparov - Anand World Championship match (PCA) started with eight draws, only one of which was longer than 30 moves. Chipmaker Intel terminated its sponsorship of the PCA a few months later. The reasons for the termination of the contract were never explained, but some observers speculated that diminished fighting spirit was one factor.
Curacao 1962, a candidates' tournament, was the final event in choosing a challenger for World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik. The eight player quadruple round robin, a 28-round marathon, had five Soviet players. Three of them -- Petrosian, Keres, and Geller -- played only draws with each other and finished in the first three places. Afterwards, American title hopeful Bobby Fischer, 19 years old at the time of the event, where he finished fourth, published an article in Sports Illustrated titled 'The Russians Have Fixed World Chess'. He complained that their pre-arranged draws allowed them to conserve energy and to play at full strength against the others. For the next cycle, the format of the Candidate event was changed from a tournament to knockout matches, but Fischer refused to participate. Long after the incident, Fischer's accusations were shown to be correct.
Although pre-arranged draws might be considered only borderline cheating, there would be no doubt if one player intentionally lost a game to the other player; 'only a draw' makes it palatable. The Curacao affair showed that pre-arranged draws give an advantage to the players participating in the conspiracy.
The 2003 Kasparov - Deep Junior man-machine match and the 2003 U.S. Championship were both marred by short draws in the last round. GM Maurice Ashley (see linkbox) described the disappointment of the organizers and the spectators at both events. Top players, who routinely complain about the meager sponsorship opportunities in professional chess, seem unaware that their own behavior is a major factor in the lack of sponsors.
CausesWhat are the causes of these short draws? Most are not pre-arranged, but are agreed while the game is being played. A statistical study published at Chessbase.com ('Most and least aggressive world champions'; see the linkbox), showed that the number of short draws became significant when the Soviet school of chess had become the dominant force in professional chess. One of the principles of that school was 'Win with White, draw with Black'. When one player is already satisfied with a half point at the beginning of the game, more draws will occur than when both players are playing to win.
Current World Champion Vladimir Kramnik is known for his willingness to take a short draw at every opportunity. The Chessbase study came after the 2004 Kramnik - Leko title match, where six of the 14 games were drawn in less than 25 moves. It was intended to determine the validity of Kramnik's claim that previous World Champions, like Petrosian and Spassky, were just as prone to short draws. The statistics showed that where the other champions had taken on peaceful dispositions later in their careers, Kramnik had started as a peacemaker.
Peter Leko, Kramnik's opponent in the match, is also known as a peacemaker. This underscores the general opinion that it takes at least one committed warrior to make a fight of a chess game. Veselin Topalov, Kramnik's opponent in the 2006 unification match, is just such a warrior and there was not a single short draw in their match.
One factor contributing to grandmaster draws is the depth of modern opening theory. The home preparation of top GMs is spent mostly on preparing opening novelties. If, when the day arrives to try a prepared variation over the board, especially as White, the opponent neutralizes its effect after a few moves, the player of the White pieces may willingly concede the draw. Many games of the Kramnik - Leko match seemed to follow a set dialog: White: 'OK, I'm going to play this new move. Show me what you got.' Black: 'Here's the move I prepared.' White: 'Looks good. Draw?' Black: 'Agreed, draw.'
Other factors can be a balanced position with little chance to prevail, a complicated position which is not well understood, or an uncomfortable position which the player just doesn't like; fatigue; not feeling well or not feeling confident; fear of a stronger opponent; or short on time with many moves to be played. Sometimes a draw offer is made just to see the opponent's reaction.
SolutionsWhile the causes of short draws are many, so are the solutions which have been proposed. Almost all of them have drawbacks.
Match play, with its one-on-one format, demands certain strategies for a successful outcome, tournament play demands other strategies. Ditto for round robin tournaments and open tournaments. In an open tournament the prize for a win might be slightly more than for a draw, while the prize for a draw considerably more than for a loss. If a loss means not being able to pay next month's rent, is it any wonder that players accept an easy draw? Qualification events also dictate certain strategies. If a draw qualifies both players to the next stage of a multi-phase competition, why should either player risk a loss? These factors aren't valid only in the final round. Tournament standing can be a factor for a quick draw in earlier rounds.
Some solutions to the short draw are more appropriate in certain types of competition than in others. For example, organizers of invitational events can invite only fighting players. They have more freedom than organizers of opens or of tournaments where the participants have qualified. Financial incentives for a win in the last round are more appropriate to Swiss systems than to matches. Replaying a drawn game at reduced time controls until there is a decisive result don't work well in knockout competitions, where players can preserve their energy in early rounds by heading for the rapidplay or blitz games after an early draw.
A common suggestion is to change the scoring system. Three points for a win and one point for a draw is one suggestion; giving Black slightly more than 0.5 points for a draw, while giving White slightly less, is another. This penalizes all draws, even long games which reach a theoretically drawn position. The idea would also have an impact on how theoretical draws are evaluated.
Another idea often proposed is to increase the risk of proposing a draw. This can be done by charging a time penalty for a player who offers a draw, by giving extra time to a player who declines a draw, or by giving the recipient of a draw offer longer than the next move to consider it. One radical idea is to give a player who declines a draw offer the right to turn the board around and play the position from the other side.
Where it StandsThe idea that has been tried the most frequently is to prohibit draws before a certain number of moves have been played: usually 30 or 40 moves. These rules often fail because the penalty for agreeing to a draw is inconsequential, or because the players find the means to extend the game to the required number of moves.
Perhaps the most effective way to reduce the number of short draws is to prohibit draw offers completely. Why should a chess player be allowed to propose a draw to the opponent at any time? The origin of this practice is buried in the sands of time, and most players consider it a natural right. The Sofia M-Tel Masters, held on Topalov's home turf, has this rule:
The players should not talk during the games; additionally they should not offer draws directly to their opponents. Draw offers will be allowed only through the Chief Arbiter in three cases: a triple repetition of the position, a perpetual check and in theoretically drawn positions. The Chief Arbiter is the only authority who can acknowledge the final result of the game in these cases.
Breaking the Sofia rule into its three parts:
Will this become a standard in chess? Spectator and sponsor interest might depend on it. (January 2007)