May 13, 2012 20:00

In praise of draws

Boris Gelfand and Vishy Anand shaking hands at the opening ceremony of their 201

What’s the best and most unique thing about chess? Of course it’s the fact that we have long lasting world championship matches. The immense tension is not restricted to one or two hours (football, tennis), or a few days at most (cricket, snooker), but lasts several weeks or even months. This is something we should praise, not condemn.

Boris Gelfand and Vishy Anand shaking hands at the opening ceremony of their 2012 World Championship match

Only two games have been played in Moscow so far and already Vishy Anand and Boris Gelfand are heavily condemned on this and other chess forums for playing ‘boring chess’ and 'not putting up a fight’. People demand the Sofia rule and prefer the ‘fighting chess’ of Aronian and Carlsen.

This criticism shows not only lack of historical awareness but also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of world championship matches in general, because they are and have always been about slowly strangling your opponent instead of swiftly overcoming him with flashy aggression.

First, it should be noted that starting a world championship match with a couple of draws is absolutely nothing unusual in the history of chess. In 1910, Lasker and Schlechter started their match with four draws. Eleven years later, Lasker and Capablanca’s first two games were drawn. Of the first five games in Botvinnik-Tal, 1960, and Botvinnik-Petrosian, 1963, four were drawn. Karpov-Korchnoi, 1978, started with seven draws and Kasparov-Karpov, 1986, with three. Most of these draws were short and uneventful from an individual game perspective. Yet these were all extremely exciting and tense matches throughout.

Korchnoi vs Karpov in Baguio City, Philippines (1978) started with seven draws

But it’s not even necessary to look back in history. Just consider: how did you fall in love with chess yourself? Most chess players I know became interested in chess because they started following a world championship match. For many people the matches Spassky-Fischer, 1972 and Karpov-Kasparov, 1984 formed the turning point in their chess lives as they became utterly absorbed by these epic fights, those outstanding clashes of personalities and playing styles.

For me, Seville 1987 was the match that changed my life, hooking me to chess every since. I remember buying several newspapers every day, cutting out the game reports and pasting them into a notebook with my own comments written in the margins.

Draws, be they long or short, form an essential part of chess, and especially in matches. They are inevitable because the players need to save their energy, because it’s more efficient to look at a surprising new idea in your hotel room than behind the board with the clock ticking, and because offering and accepting draws is always a psychologically significant part of a chess game. In short, draws form the basic ingredients of long chess matches. We, the spectators, instead of complaining, should be patiently analyzing every nuance, every detail, every little hint of physical or psychological weakness.

For me, two world championship matches stand out in this respect: Capablanca-Alekhine, 1927 and Karpov-Kasparov, 1984. Yet if you go by the comments on the web, these would now be regarded as the most boring matches ever. Capablanca and Alekhine repeated the same opening again and again (the Queen’s Gambit Declined!), with both Black and White, trying to improve play with the subtlest of novelties and improvements. Kasparov sat desperately in his hotel room for months, together with his mother, drawing game after game, many of them extremely short, in order not to lose the match 6-0.

Many QGD's in Alekhine-Capablanca, Buenos Aires 1927  this photo however is known to be fake

Yet these were classic duels, infinitely more rich and complex than Muhammad Ali’s best boxing fights and Björn Borg’s epic Wimbledon clashes with Jimmy Connors. And they became classic not only because of the victories that we all know, but because of tension caused by less obvious psychological methods. By repeating opening lines, by sometimes making quick draws, by patiently awaiting the right moment to strike - in short, by not conceding an inch, mentally and physically, over weeks or months.

If you don’t like this – if you only like fast, aggressive action - then you don’t really like chess. Don’t spoil it for the rest of us. Go watch wrestle mania or something.

Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Harvey's picture

Agree 100%. I find most of those complaining about drawn games are either very young, or don't play over-the-board chess anyway. Their loss if they don't really understand chess.

Anonymous's picture

I am old enough to remember following the Fischer-Resevsky match live. The issue is not the draws, but the draw with a lot of play still in the position (because both players do not want to risk a loss). A FIDE rule change could easily stop this modern corruption of the competitive quality of our great game.

Creemer's picture

That´s to the point.
I´m no advocate either way on this issue, but it seems that the anti-draw lobby is (partly) misrepresented in this otherwise fine post.

Oh, btw, you know of course this photograph of Capa and Alekhine is a forgery. An amusing one, but still.

Rodzjer's picture

This is exactly the point of the article. These 2 players are not there to give you a good time. Nobody who plays chess, does that to give the audience a good time.
If you want decisive results, chess is not the game for you (once again, as the article pointed out).

redivivo's picture

"If you want decisive results, chess is not the game for you (once again, as the article pointed out)"

That makes it sound as if there is something wrong with preferring a couple of decisive Kasparov wins over two GM draws. But the whole idea about people being against draws as a result is just a straw man argument, of course no one would have complained about the last game between Lasker and Schlechter if it had been drawn instead of a win for Lasker. Some games are just more exciting than others and nothing will change that.

Anonymous's picture

I'm sorry but it is not a "modern" corruption. In the 1920's chess fans would get excited with anticipation when Alekhine, Capablanca and Rubinstein would appear in the same tournament. All too frequently they made short draws with each other and then all tried to score the most points against the lesser players.

Creemer's picture

Chess 960.

Problem solved.

NBC's picture

I think you completely missed the point.

GeneM's picture

Creemer wrote: "Chess960. Problem solved."

Not quite.
Discard the "Random" from "Fischer Random Chess"!

slonik's picture

Gelfand is no Muhammad Ali or Björn Borg though

shuki's picture

but maybe he is Joe Fraser

Bardamu's picture

Well spoken!

Carl Lumma's picture

First, it's a different equation when the match is max 12 games, to be decided with rapid games in case of a tie. Second, the substance of these two drawn games is also much much less than the draws of Kramnik-Kasparov 2000 or Anand-Kasparov 1995, for example. I followed both those matches on the internet and nobody complained of too many draws (except Kasparov after he lost!). Are people complaining now for no reason?

Go on, I dare you. Show the match draws from history that you mention - the games - and show how many moves were found over-the-board compared to the present games.

We know chess is a draw, and we are even OK if continued progress in theory results in an increase in draws. What we are not OK with is a world championship where the players are indifferent lumps of coal. Anand has not been playing and Gelfand is currently 21st in the world.

And you're right, the games of Carlson and others put the lie to the notion that theory has caused boring games. Even the draws of Kramnik (which, I concede, are often criticized) are usually very theoretically interesting. Despite attempts of the press to spin these first two games, they are really just miniatures.

christos's picture

Kasparov was trailing 0-1 when this game was played:
Kasparov - Kramnik London 2000 (m/7)
1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Nc3 e6 6.g3 Qc7 7.Qd3 Nc6 8.Nxc6
dxc6 9.Bg2 e5 10.O-O Be6 11.Na4 1/2-1/2
And 0-2 when this game was played:
Kasparov - Kramnik London 2000 (m/13)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.
Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.Nc3 h6 10.h3 Ke8 11.Ne4 c5 12.c3 b6 13.Re1 Be6 14.g4 1/2-1/2

foo's picture

Thank you!! :)

Amos's picture

Yes, and Kasparov received very harsh criticism for these games. I remember them vividly.

GeneM's picture

Carl Lumma wrote: "we are even OK if continued progress in theory results in an increase in draws."

Then there is no foundation for discussion of the high draw rate problem.

Luzin's picture

Thank you Arne!
thank you for speaking on behalf of the silent majority (i want to believe) that really enjoys chess!
and thank you again for the epic epilogue dedicated to bullet-raised internet haters:

"If you don’t like this – if you only like fast, aggressive action - then you don’t really like chess. Don’t spoil it for the rest of us. Go watch wrestle mania or something."

Per's picture

Couldn't agree more - the downside of the internet is that everyone can moan and whine about anything, so loads of people without much knowledge of what chess really is are able voice their (trivial) garble.

I just wish it was possible to filter it all out.

Creemer's picture

It is possible. Don't be silly. Don't complain.

randi's picture

I fully disagree. I think the criticism is directed somewhere else. Many complaints are caused by facts. Gelfand recently said that he will try to lure anand into blunderland while he draws himself out of trouble. But fact two is far more important: most people, including me, feel that the challenger spot should be represented by one of at least 3 other players. Furthermore, Gelfand qualified for this spot facing the weakest opponents in the Kazan roster and did so by taking advantage of it's system, as many others attempted to do. The percentage of wins in Kazan illustrates the point. Finally, a comment on Gelfand's play. Not a big fan of Gelfand's play, it's simply effective but cold and passive, full of fear or "too much respect" as many put it. Aronian, Carlsen, Kramnik and probably few others are stronger players than Gelfand. I think Kasparov's comments on the match aim in this direction and I agree with him 100%.

To my understanding, no one is criticizing the existence of them draws, nor their function, as we all understand draws form an intrical part 'of the game of chess'.

slonik's picture

Good post

Bronkenstein's picture

Just to name few (to put it mildly) controversial points(this would turn into Ebook otherwise):
´Most people feel...´ has much more to do with , lessay, Eurovision song contest than any sport. Also , the somewhat metaphysical terms such as ´No1´ (meaning nothing more than Elo No1) or`stronger player(s)` are way too easily used in the text.

Kaspy´s recent comments are simply echoing his post-Kramnik match bitterness , and he was impolite enough to state them publicly (again...).

randi's picture

If Carlsen plays vs Vishy, it will be a true fight for the stongest of the chess world, being a fight between the world champ vs the no 1 rated player and arguably the strongest of all at the moment. Instead, we get to see and old zar sadly fighting to draw the match and hope for an inspiration moment against Vishy. Anand on the other hand, is relaxing and having a blast getting in shape vs an opponent who doesn't offer much. Once he feels the game again, maybe game 4 onwards, Vishy will push one into a win and kill Gelfand when he tries to catch up in the score.

Anonymous's picture

10 Points for Bronkenstein! He hit the nail on the head. Good post.

Garnoth's picture

Have you actually watched the Kazan matches? Gelfand was playing the sicilian almost exclusively with black! The petrov is in his repertoire but he decided to fight. So I don't agree that Gelfand's play is passive and full of fear. Plus, since the Kazan matches led to quarter and semi-finals he can't have played only weak opponents. Grischuk was very far from weak, although I resented his steering to rapids from the word go.

Besides, the two draws so far were hard fought opening duels with draws being agreed on positions with very little life left in them.

rivaldo's picture

"Not a big fan of Gelfand's play, it's simply effective but cold and passive, full of fear or "too much respect" as many put it."

this is just crap. check your database and you will see loads of exciting Gelfand games. in kazan for instance he certainly was the biggest fighter and the most creative player there.

Sergio Estremera's picture

Fortunately chess is still something different than football

Harish Srinivasan's picture

Cant express how much I longed for such an article. Well said.

Pozzi's picture

Thank you Arne for writing a different point of view.
I agree with you, that a draw is not a problem in general in a world champion match. Also the played moves were very interesting to analyse and not obvious to find.
I do not agree with you, that these short draws are ok, because of the following reasons:
1. the number of games is only 12 and not compareable with any of the mentioned battles. It will not take months to decide the next world champion, because of Tie brake. I do not like this, but it is a fact.
2. I play over the board chess myself and especially in the first game on my level against the bishop pair a draw is not obvious. I think even Nigel Short asked Gelfand, why he did not continue playing. I am quite sure that Anand-Gelfand would have drawn also after 40 more moves, but I would like to see them and learn how to draw this.
3. I also think for chess marketing, fighting games are better to sell. A draw is ok, but not if there are so many pieces on the board and most of the audience will not draw the final position against a GM. For that much money it seems like they are not working for it. For me personally this is not a problem, because I do not make a living from chess.

The Devil's picture

This column is funny. The author claims expertise on the history of chess and then posts a photo of Alekhine-Capablanca that is essentially proven to be a hoax. Such is life I guess.

Arne Moll's picture

You're right although I would hardly call it 'common knowledge'! Added a link to Edward Winter's website which has the full story.

Harish Srinivasan's picture

Correction on the first game. The bishop pair was going to come off the very next move and the c and e pawns as well. Besides the first game was quite amazing. Just look through all the possible crazy side lines involving ...Bxc3 in the opening or just read through GM Shipov commentary.

Most people with complaints are just not going over the games asking questions about the various moves played and not played. There is a lot to learn. For eg the significance of ...Kh7 in the second game dint occur to me for long until I happened to read the commentary. Also it's important to follow commentary by different people to fully learn all the nuanced involved as some commentators miss some things that are mentioned by others.

Eric Hansen's picture

Good thing the author is not too actively involved in chess anymore otherwise I'd be a bit worried. As we can see there is still a minority of chess people who wish to hold chess back but slowly they are being extinguished. This is definitely the most unappealing W CH match in recent memory from both the chess world and general media.

Creemer's picture

"This is definitely the most unappealing W CH match in recent memory"

hear hear

Still, we are hooked...

Kamalakanta's picture

I am against the Sofia rule, because I find it disrespectful to the players. I highly dislike the idea of an authoritarian-type rule that tells the players what to do in a game.

Lee's picture

If you're playing for pleasure or an event where I've paid to play, then I totally agree with you.

However, if I was being paid to play, such as an elite invitational then I'd be happy to abide by whatever rules and guidelines were imposed by the organiser.

Anonymous's picture

A Sofia rule is necessary to keep the players from being disrespectful to the chess playing public.

S3's picture

Lol. How about the rules of chess?

Ians's picture

What the general audience do not like , is players coming at the table , playing their opening preparation or spending a bit of time remembering it after a few moves , and then agreeing a draw out of the opening because claiming there is no edge

People want to see players to think over the board as much as possible and concede the draw only if the position requires it mechanically , because they think it will encourage fighting chess

The comparison with 1927 Buenos Aires and Kasparov-Karpov is difficult , in 1927 the Queen's Gambit was the only "playable" opening in a match , it was not just Alekhine or Capablance , the theory was still in its infancy , besides the match was twice longer , and Kasparov-Karpov was a 48 games marathon , so it's more logical to see short draws there

I think that if you make a comparison , it should be with the previous Wch , Kramnik-Topalov , Anand-Topalov .

For me , it's too early to judge after only 2 games where players were sizing each other up and checking the prep of the other , but we must also take into consideration that both Anand and Gelfand and players over 40 years old , they are experienced masters , so perhaps their style of play is less aggressive than younger players even though they are both extremely strong in sharp positions

Also we must look at the psychological position : Gelfand is a very solid player with nothing to lose , playing what he knows best , whereas Anand is under tremendous pressure to prove he can outplay Boris and keep the title , so basically , Gelfand is waiting for Anand to take the risks unless he finds a weak spot in Anand's play over the board , whereas Anand knows taking risks against Gelfand is highly dangerous and that the first one to lose a game will have a huge blow and very hard time to win the match : So both players are cautious and it reflects in their play , even though they know the match is only 12 games , so if they keep drawing until game 6-7 and are tied , then the pressure of winning a game will be much higher and we may see decisive games in the second part of the match

S3's picture

Topalov-Kramnik (Sofia rule) : no short draws, and Anand-Kramnik nearly none.

So comparison-wise there is no reason to worry about silly draws. But like many said, the psychology and style of the players have a strong influence.

And that's were I feel slightly uncomfortable in this match. I do not agree with you on the position of Anand and Gelfand. To me (so far) it looks like it is Anand who is waiting patiently for Gelfand to show a weakness. And Gelfand though well prepared and agressive seems insecure after the opening, even with an advantage, considering his time usage. The clock might have been a major reason to draw the first game. With Sofia rules we might have seen a decisive result already.
But as it is I'm afraid that we may see quite a few half games, that is if Gelfand doesn't crack and none of 'm hits a mine ofc.

Kamalakanta's picture

In the Lasker-Capablanca match in 1921, out of 14 games, 5 were draws in 30 moves or less, and there was one 31-move draw.

In the Capablanca-Alekhine match in 1927, out of 34 games, 9 were drawn in 30 moves or less.

Kamalakanta's picture

I have to say, from a fan's perspective, chess engines take the fun out of it. I go to another site, where you can see the engine analysis, and people comment....everyone is an armchair GM, and the atmosphere can be quite arrogant, with over-reactions to any move, due to the slightest engine eval changes.

I miss the day when people used their own grey matter to find a move, and not look down on super GMs just because some chess program says the move was not "the best".

eltollo's picture

Nice expression, "armchair GM" and o so true! It's best to simply ignore these reactions, I suppose.

Casaubon's picture

Put simply Arne, the majority of commenters here (and elsewhere) are idiots and really know very little about chess.

Septimus's picture

I take it that you consider yourself to be above all mortals or perhaps the second coming of Jesus Christ?

Casaubon's picture

You can take it however you wish, I don't judge.

vishy 's picture

draws can be interesting too as draws in football.

GeneM's picture

A soccer (football) game that ends 2-2 is more interesting than a soccer game that ends 0-0.
In 0-0 the imbalance in favor of defense over offense is too extreme.

But in chess there is no such dimension as Goals Scored.
Therefore: Most drawn chess games are Not analogous to the fun of a 2-2 soccer game.

S3's picture

I too don't mind draws but I fail to see why the author of this piece thinks that people with other opinions should be directed away from chess. Ok, their complaints can get repetitive and tiresome but no one is forced to listen to these complaints and there may be something in it as well.

After all, the short and limited wch matches of now are not comparable with the endless matches of 1927 and 1984. BTW, the latter was from halfway on one of the most boring matches in the history of chess and consequently it led to many problems and the eventual and abrupt termination of the match. 1927 and 84 are clearly not suited for this kind of reference and that is one of the reasons why I find this article poorly written.

More importantly though is that the author basicaly tells people to p*** off and stop watching chess entirely just cause they have another opinion, even if it's ill founded.

Anyway, I am fine with the status quo, but I wouldn't mind either if Anand and Gelfand were forced to play on to the 40th move or first time control. There is no reason to think that a match would be ruined by implementing such a simple rule while there are obvious benefits attached to it.


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