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


redivivo's picture

Yes, the 1984 comparison doesn't really work. They played for five months, I wonder how much energy Gelfand would have three-four months into a title match. And of course most of the first K-K match was quite boring, but not at the start, Karpov won four of the first nine games.

Matches can be very exciting even if many games are drawn, and no one is against draw as a result. This far it's hard to say that the match has been particularly exciting though, if the remaining games would be similar to the first two I don't think anyone would disagree that it would be the dullest title match ever. But I'm hoping for a fun game today to begin with, and no complaints from anyone tomorrow.

S3's picture

redivivo, is that really you??

test's picture


Lee's picture

Clearly a lovingly written article, so hats off. Draws are absolutely a part of the fabric of chess and frankly, they can be quite glorious.

Maybe for a WCC match the fans could be more forgiving of short draws given the gravitas of the event and the impact on the players. On the other hand, maybe we should be less forgiving given this is the highlight of the WCC cycle and should be the most enjoyed by fans, observers, organisers and those funding the event. I don't know the answer.

Comparison between current times and the past can be a shakey exercise. So many sports evolve to enhance the conditions for players and the enjoyment of fans. I think short draws are an area where chess can similarly update its stance to elevate the game and expand the fanbase.

The points on the psychology of a WCC match, the mental game, probing the opponent are well stated. But I can't help thinking that over a 12 game match, there's only a limited ability to posture and play the mental game. Will one of the players rue missed opportunities at not having played on in some of these shorter games?

One final point, which I can't articulate well at this point is the monetisation of chess, which I think will be hampered by short draws. If we ever get to the point where on-line coverage is supported by advertising revenue (providing better coverage + fiscal compensation for organisers and players) then the short GM draw would need addressing.

Siva's picture

Having seen the kind of play by youngsters like Carlsen, Aronian, etc in recent times it is clear that most positions pack enough poison if only the players have the vigor and the strength to extract it. As Kasparov rightly said this is the first time the world championship match is not between the two strongest players in the world. And given they are both over 40 one should expect some senility in their games.

Johan de Witt's picture

Chess is one of the few sports in which the players can agree with each other that the game stops and ends in a tie. With this right to shake hands at any given moment, chess players are in a very luxurious position compared to other sportsmen.

Chess players should not abuse the right to draw by mutual agreement. When a position still has plenty of opportunities for both sides, but the players agree to a draw, I think they abuse their right. It usually only happens because the players don’t want to risk losing, don’t want to waste energy, want to steer the classical match into rapid tiebreakers or they’re just bored with the position.

Imagine a football game in which the score after the break is 1-1, after which the two teams decide that it has been enough because they keep up with each other very well. That would be unthinkable, a disgrace. But it often happens in chess.

If you think it’s a drawn position, chess players, I would say, why don’t you show it then? Often, there’s much to get from an "equal" position. Carlsen showed that in his game against Ivanchuk in the seventh round of the 2011 Bazna Kings tournament. He squeezed a point out of a position that seemed impossible to win.

On the other hand, Grischuk and Gelfand agreed to a draw after fourteen moves in the third game of the finals of the last Canididates Tournament, which rightly provoked criticism from many viewers. According to Grischuk the position was “completely equal”. Without the white advantage it’s also completely equal before the game begins! That’s the point of chess: to find a way in order to win from an equal position.

Aren’t we allowed to ask of our beloved players to play on until the bitter end, like all athletes do? I think arbiters and rules should prevent draws with enough excitement and opportunities left to continue playing. I have no problem with draws themselves, but come on: sport = battle and a draw right after the opening or in an interesting position from which it can go in any direction clearly isn’t a battle. Instead, it damages the competitive value of chess.

Aditya's picture

I like your post Johan, precisely my opinions. Just like it's very likely that white and black are equal before the game begins but we would all like to know if they really are, we would also like to know if and why these 'equal' positions are really equal. I also suggested on another thread that the players prove the equality by each continuing playing separately with a common engine and the result of this used as a tie-break. Heck, forget the tie-break..I'd just like to see them play that 'equal' position against an engine just to understand the equality of short draws. They can surely do so much if they are so confident of the 'obvious' equality in the position.

Septimus's picture

I don't mind somebody arguing their opinion, but to demand that those with different opinions silence themselves is not the way to go.

Every spectator has his or her own definition of what constitutes an enjoyable match. Opinions that are as diverse as the participants themselves. It is a sad day indeed when you cannot express your opinions.

Lee's picture

Most of the discussion here seems pretty well thought out overall. There's definitely less of the usual internet 'just die already' commentary, which is when it gets pretty pointless.

It's a little funny though that the original article, which was so well written until it finished with a call for people to go watch wrestlemania if they don't like short draws. Talking down to the readers doesn't usually play out well.

Anonymous's picture

Boring article trying to defend 25 moves draws between the world's no. 4 & 22. Lame

randi's picture

To the jugular!

randi's picture

This match is bull-oney. Anand will win.

redivivo's picture

In yesterday's cup final between Sons of the Leader and Factoryworkers United some people in the audience were considered not to be excited and enthusiastic enough, so the loudspeakers repeated their: "Fun! Exciting! Wonderful!" louder and louder until only a handful were seen that weren't cheering loudly enough. They were carried away while being told: "Don’t spoil it for the rest of us. Go watch Anand vs Gelfand or something!"

Thomas's picture

Let me first join those giving compliments to Arne.

For me there are three kinds of draws:

1) premature ones. Best examples are when players shake hands before they finished developing their pieces. A (more understandable) variant is if players chicken out in a complex position with mutual time trouble.

2) "correct" ones. Players try for a while and then realize or consider that no resources are left in the position. It's perfectly normal that strong GMs reach this point earlier than amateurs - and in amateur games the probability of a subsequent blunder is higher.

3) spectacular ones - a drawn game can still get a beauty prize.

To me, the draws between Anand and Gelfand were correct ones, and only premature draws are deplorable. But any rule to ban premature draws will be artificial: it depends neither on the number of moves, nor on the number of pieces exchanged, nor on the time spent at the board. The football comparison is also artificial: a football game always lasts 90 minutes (in exceptional cases 120 minutes), a chess game is open-ended. Some games finish in 2 or 3 hours, others (maybe also future ones in the WCh match) take 6 hours or more.

Bert de Bruut's picture

Quite correct!

A small addition could be made: a football game is usually also the whole match (during the finals) or at least half of it (in preliminary rounds), but no matches exists in football as in chess, with a long string of games to be played over a period of several weeks or (formerly) even months. So despite the fact that chess is not a physical sport, the decision not to make efforts in unpromosing positions is quite natural. Forcing players to continue from dead level positions perhaps forces the occasional decisive result, but would contribute little to chess proper.

Jovan's picture

There is one simple thing how to prevent being bored in WCC match,DRAWS NOT COUNTING,first player to win 6 games is the champion,but limit the match to let say 2-3 months.I think it would be better.

Rodzjer's picture

""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.""
Well - to be honest if you see tension for a chess WCC match as the combination of all games, then I'd say: a cycle for a football WC takes nearly 2 years, and the final tournament last 3 weeks. Not too impressed with this statement :P

Soviet School's picture

The photograph at the end of Capablanca and Alekhine they seem to be playing with a Vienesse coffee house set and not the clock from 1927, is it a photoshop or a picture from a different event?

As regards draws I think sometimes both players can evaluate a draw as being good for them, I think this happened I. The Kramnik vs Grischuk match.
For example on player thinks draw with Black is good the other sees it as one game closer to a rapid playoff where they are favourite.

Remember too the majority of Anand v Gelfand games have been draws I tournaments the difference between them is small. We often see in football games how the actions quiet until the first goal then it livens right up.

rob's picture

Agree with the football-comparison:) The post-article-read here is even worse then a post-football-chat. Today Anand had an opportunity but hit the bar;)

Septimus's picture

A couple of rough tackles can also light up things. :)

Private's picture

Agree 99%.

sirschratz's picture

it's about time one discusses the seemingly live coverage on the official website of the match.

game three is in it's decisive phase and there is repeatedly the long winded interview about the gallery.

this is not the live coverage of a world championship but the commercial page for Russian culture AND Russian companies who show their commercials and products

FIDE has sold chess. FIDE officials get rich at the expense of chess players and their fans. This exactly how you do not promote chess - actually this is disgusting, I'm sorry to say

sirschratz's picture

Now that the position is a draw (after 22...Kg7) the commentators are back.

For almost half an hour there have only been commercials and Russia has been given the chance to present itself in a favourable light - while everybody knows about the dictatorial behaviour of old and new president Putin. Only a few days ago all streets round the Kreml were closed to avoid people from protesting against this Putin.

Why, I must ask, does Mr van Geuzendam give his name and his person to such behaviour. I regard this man very highly - does he know what is going on here???

The FIDE board surely gets money.... Some Russian pressure group obviously has bought the people

Johan de Witt's picture

"I don't mind somebody arguing their opinion, but to demand that those with different opinions silence themselves is not the way to go."

"It's a little funny though that the original article, which was so well written until it finished with a call for people to go watch wrestlemania if they don't like short draws. Talking down to the readers doesn't usually play out well."

"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."

I completely agree with you guys.

By the way, here's John Nunn's opinion about this topic. It would be ridiculous when Arne said to him "you don’t really like chess when you dislike quick draws".

"Every so often someone raises the matter of the frequency of draws in chess. There are two versions to this complaint: one is to take issue with draws in general, and the other is to object to the frequency of short draws.

I have little sympathy with the first version. The draw has always been part of chess, and most people believe that if a game is played correctly by both sides then a draw is the inevitable result.

On the other hand, to complain about short, peaceful draws is in many cases valid. Chess is one of the few sports or games in which the players can at any moment simply agree not to continue the game. This is a privilege which should not be abused.

If you have a group of players of roughly similar strength, it is of course inevitable that many games will end in a draw; what seems to me more important is that the games are genuine fights. It is perfectly reasonable to expect them to display their skill to the best of their ability, which is after all why they are being paid an appearance fee."

(Parts from a column by Nunn on ChessBase.)

Tiger-Oli's picture

Thank you, Arne, good point!

Nardoni's picture

I Think a match of only 12 games, with tiebrake, must have some kind of inovation, for exemple: each game must have a positive result, if the normal game finish a draw, a game of one hour without of increment wil be played, if we stil have a draw, a game of 10 wil be played, then a game o five minutes. For a normal win 5 point, 1 hour game win 3 point, 10 minutes win 2 point, 5 minutes win 1 point, all draw 1/2 point, in the end, who acummulate more point will be the winner.

h8dgeh0g's picture

I think the problem of draws are represented badly in the article. Fighting draws are not problems, GM draws are.

Johan de Witt's picture

Fragments of an essay by GM Maurice Ashley in This Week in Chess:

At King’s Island in 2002 where I was in sole first by half a point going into the last round, I expected and steeled myself for a heavy struggle. Imagine my surprise when my opponent, a GM known for his fighting spirit, offered me an early draw even though he had White! He said that he had been out the night before and was too tired to play. The story got even more curious when boards two and three, with some of America’s strongest players now with a legitimate shot of tying me for first, also saw quick draws, one because of “fatigue” and the other because of friendship.

Certainly a draw can be a natural result of a well-played game. Few would complain when two players slug it out, throwing caution to the wind only for the fireworks to fizzle to a lifeless position. But the draw offer, especially one that is made after ten or twelve perfunctory moves, seems just bizarre. Imagine a basketball game being played for a few minutes before both sides decide to stop and call it a day. “You know, we had long flight in, our players played last night and are a little tired. Would you like a draw so that we can all go out and have a beer?” Not only does that sound completely ridiculous, in some places the fans might start a riot!

When I put in a phone call to Tom Brownscombe at the USCF he read me rule 14.b.6 out of the USCF rulebook which states: “It is unethical and unsporting to agree to a draw before a serious contest has begun.” Frankly, I didn’t even know this rule existed, but the way it is worded means it has no bite whatsoever. On top of that, it doesn’t address an even more fundamental question: why are we allowed to offer a draw in chess? At what point did this become allowed?

In Medieval chess (Shatranj) the draw was recognized, but apparently only in simplified endgames in which it was clearly impossible for either side to force a win. There is no apparent reference to draws earlier than the late stages of the endgame in Shatranj literature. Even until the 18th century, there seems to have been no draws by agreement other than in very simplified endgames. In the Oxford Encyclopedia of Chess Games, the earliest draw of any kind was a perpetual check in 1750, although that book has recorded games all the way back to the 1400's. Staunton's Handbook (1848) refers to draws by agreement only if the forces are greatly simplified, such as K+Q vs K+Q. The earliest reference to draw by agreement I could find was in the American Chess Code of 1897, which allowed draw by agreement at any time.

Draws are a natural part of our game, and to play for a win in many positions is stupid if not suicidal. However, the draw offer in a position full of life with mysteries yet to be revealed has got to be the most abused rule in all of chess. I am not even sure you can call this a rule: it is more like a practice that has been regulated, or, in this case, not regulated enough. In chess, the attitude is, “We can do it so why not?”

Today’s chess players would think you insane if you told them that Botvinnik used to be able to stop a game in progress, go have his assistants analyze the position for several hours, and come back with analysis that had been polished and spit-shined for him. Of course, computers really precipitated the demise of this ridiculous exercise, but it didn’t seem so ridiculous back then. It was just accepted as the way things are.

No draw before move thirty is a great place to start, but why not after fifty moves instead? We already have a fifty-move rule so this already creates some harmony. The reason I am not jumping to eliminate the draw offer entirely is to deal with the reality of those endgame situations where there really is nothing to play for. Fifty moves seem like a reasonable compromise although I would not be against someone saying sixty or seventy. The key is for a real game to be played.

Paul Truong, who also shared in this discussion with Susan and me, suggested that if players wish to draw then it’s impossible to stop them. They could always create a game that ends in perpetual check or three move repetition. This is true, but I think the vast majority of players are more honorable than that. Almost all early draws are not due to prior agreement, but more out of convenience or fear of losing. If players were not allowed to have quick draws, they would simply erase this option from their minds and just play chess.

Naturally, the older you are the harder it will be to adjust to the rule change. The ten-year-olds who will be our stars in the next decade will have no problem because they will not have known any other situation. Possibly the idea of regulating draw offers will be one of the easier changes to enact. No doubt, the world’s top players can expedite this change if they can come to some agreement. For the good of chess, we can only hope that they do.

Something I found in the Wikipedia article about draws by agreement:

The respected chess trainer Mark Dvoretsky, writing in a column for the Chess Cafe website, suggested that agreed draws should not be allowed at all, pointing out that such an agreement cannot be reached in other sports such as boxing. Although some have claimed that outlawing agreed draws entirely requires players to carry on playing in "dead" positions (where no side can reasonably play for a win), Dvoretsky says that this is a small problem and that the effort required to play out these positions until a draw can be claimed by repetition or lack of material, for example, is minimal. He also suggests that draw offers could be allowed if sent through an arbiter—if the arbiter agrees that a position is a dead draw, he will pass the draw offer on to the opponent who may either accept or decline it as usual; if the arbiter believes there is still something to play for in the position, the draw offer is not permitted.

andi's picture

I can understand both perspectives. An intensive game that ends in a draw can be very interesting, especially when one player escapes in a spectacular way, and on the other hand a short draw is boring and not what a chess-game is meant to be.

What about that: instead of finding rules against draws, why not change the evaluation of a draw? Somthing like Black gets 0.7 points for a draw and White only 0.3. This way there is always a "winner" and a "looser", and it is impossible not to change the standings in a match. Also it reflects that statistically it is easier to play White.

A.Kuffour's picture

If you can't spot whats missing in this 12-game World Championship match then chess may not be for you.Go take up birdwatching or something.

GeneM's picture

The ultimate point of this article is to claim that World Chess Championship matches, and elite chess in general, would be less interesting if most games were decisive instead of drawn.
Or that a hard fought decisive game is no more entertaining than a hard fought draw.
. . .
Each reader can confidently judge that claim for himself, even if the reader knows nothing about chess history. Because it boils down to personal taste for what is more interesting to each individual person - a decisive game or a drawn game.
. . .
Mig Greengard put it well, saying something like - "Competition is supposed to happen on the scoreboard, not just on the chess board.".
A draw rate above 25%-30% suffocates the competition on the scoreboard.

GeneM's picture

Arnie Moll wrote:
"Most chess players I know became interested in chess because they started following a world championship match."

We all know lots of chess players, and this claim is plainly false.

Aside from Fischer mania in 1972, the WCChamp matches are not what prompt sons to pull dad's chess set off the shelf and begin to wonder.

GeneM's picture


Arnie Moll wrote:
"Most of these draws were short and uneventful from an individual game perspective. Yet these were all extremely exciting and tense matches throughout."

Then let us praise not just the drawn individual game. By the same principle let us also praise the tied match!

Of the five WCChamp matches since 2001, the majority have ended in a tie (assuming Gelfand can draw game 12). Hurray! This is proof there is no draw problem in chess, I guess?

Yet for an unexplained reason, people who do not care whether individual games are decisive nevertheless care whether matches are decisive. (I wonder why the discrepancy??)

As evidence, I point out that Kramnik-Topalov 2006 was decided by Speed chess (yuk), with the rules of chess so seriously bent that Armageddon chess was nearly used to determine the classical WCChamp (as illogical as that sounds).
Anything extreme then to avoid the dreaded tie as the match outcome.

The pre-match rules of Anand-Gelfand 2012 also resorted to Speed chess to determine the classical WCChamp.

To go to extremes like Speed chess and Armageddon, it is obvious the chess community hates the tie-goes-to-current-champ policy that declared Kramnik, Kasparov, Botvinnik, and Lasker the "victors" of tied matches in Kramnik-Leko 2004, Kasparov-Karpov 1987, Botvinnik-Smyslov 1954, Botvinnik-Bronstein 1951, and Lasker-Schlechter 1910.

If you are unhappy with non-decisive outcomes in matches, contorted reasoning is required to nonetheless say we should be happy that most WCChamp games are drawn.
The majority of chess enthusiasts dislike both non-decisive matches and non-decisive games.

GeneM , 2012/05/26
(Anand-Gelfand 2012 is tied with one real game remaining.)

dikeman's picture

If people find tie breaks to be interesting. Let us just play blitz and who ever wins, wins the match. Is that the direction we want World chess championship chess to go?


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