March 05, 2013 10:42

The (continued) debate on the (very) short draw

Eljanov-So shake hands after three moves at the Reykjavik Open

The three-move draw (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 ½-½) between Pavel Eljanov and Wesley So at the Reykjavik Open has re-opened the never-ending debate on (short) draws in chess. Was it acceptable? Does it matter if such a last-round draw lasts 10 moves, or 15? Let's look at a few different arguments which have been expressed in recent years.

Eljanov-So shake hands after three moves at the Reykjavik Open

"The draw" in chess has been a subject of discussion as old as the game itself. Well, almost. Until 1867, tournament games that were drawn were in fact replayed. In that year, in a tournament in Paris, there were so many draws that replaying them all would cause too many organisational problems. In 1868 the British Chess Association decided to award each player a half point instead of replaying the game, according to The Encyclopaedia of Chess.


The subject became highly topical right after the Candidates Tournament in May 2011 in Kazan, Russia. There, out of 30 games, 27 ended in draws. This high number, combined with a few very quick draws in the rapid sessions (especially the 8- and 14-move draws between Grischuk and Kramnik come to mind), led to a heated debate in the chess world.

At the time, the President of the European Chess Union (ECU) Silvio Danailov called it a

shame and disaster for the image of chess and FIDE

while all the way on the other side of the spectrum, the winner of the tournament, Boris Gelfand, argued:

(...) overall, it strikes me that it’s not important what the result is. The main thing is that the games were interesting.


Two months later, Rustam Kasimdzhanov made a bold suggestion: to abolish draws altogether. In an open letter, the Uzbek grandmaster wrote:

If we want success, sponsors, public and the rest of the parcel, we need to abolish those draws in classical tournaments. And not by Sofia rules – tournaments with Sofia rules produced as many draws as any other; and not by 30 move rule, where players are often just waiting for move 30. We need something entirely different. Like a tie-break in tennis. We need a result. Every single day. And here is how it works. We play classical chess, say with a time control of four to five hours. Draw? No problem – change the colours, give us 20 minutes each and replay. Draw again? Ten minutes each, change the colours and replay. Until there is a winner of that day. And the winner wins the game and gets one point and the loser gets zero; and the game is rated accordingly, irrelevant of whether it came in a classical game, rapid or blitz. This way the expectations of the crowd will never be deceived. There will always be a winner, there will always be blood.

About two weeks later, early August 2011, Russian grandmaster and commentator Sergey Shipov joined the debate on his site Crestbook. He agreed with Kasimdzhanov that there should be some kind of playoff system for games that end in a draw. He didn't like rapid games, though:

My suggestion is this: in round robin tournaments, after a draw in the main game, play two blitz games, with a time-control of three or four minutes, plus two seconds' increment, and if they do not produce a winner, then you play an Armageddon. Even those who are tired after the main game can manage this, and it also takes little time. The player who wins the main game gets three points, the winner after the blitz gets two points, whilst the player who loses in the blitz gets one point.

At the same time, in the main game, Sofia rules should be retained, or some similar prohibition on draw agreements before a certain number of moves, so that players cannot economise on their strength by agreeing a quick draw in the main game, getting to the blitz, and then heading for home. FIDE rating should only apply to the main games, which would therefore retain their status as the most important element of the battle.

(Translation by Steve Giddins)

Around the same time, IM Greg Shahade joined Kasimdzhanov and Shipov at Chess Life Online and suggested three options:

Solution 1: Start the game normally, whenever the game ends in a draw, you reverse colors, and you keep the same clock time from the previous game. This continues until there’s a winner.
Solution 2: Start the game normally and whenever the game ends in a draw before move 40, you reverse colors and keep the same clock time from the previous game.
Solution 3: If you offer a draw, your opponent has three choices. Accept the draw. Refuse the draw. And a new third choice: Switch sides and keep playing!

Draws: an essential part of chess

Our columnist Arne Moll's first reaction to Kasimdzhanov's open letter was this satyrical suggestion to "abolish mistakes altogether". In May 2012, however, he wrote a more serious piece in praise of draws. This was during the Anand-Gelfand World Championship, where 10 out of 12 classical games ended in draws. Moll pointed out that the criticism showed

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. (...) 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.

Open tournaments

So far the debate was mostly about the absolute top level chess: World Championship matches and Candidates tournaments. Things are different for (open) tournaments, where norms and prize money might be of bigger importance than the individual result of a game. We again quote Greg Shahade, who in November 2011 made the point that it's especially harmful for children to "play for norms" and in the process play quick draws.

Chess is a very difficult and competitive game. It’s extremely hard to become one of the best players in the world. To do so, you need to do almost everything right throughout your chess career. You should never squander opportunities to learn or grow as a chess player if your goal is to be one of the best in the world. (...) That means every time you have the chance to play a Grandmaster in a tournament game, you take advantage of that opportunity. You don’t take a draw in 15 moves, you don’t give a draw in a slightly better position to secure some rating points. Whenever one of our talented players does one of these things, they are hurting their chances at being one of the world’s best by a very tiny amount. The  problem is that we congratulate them for it!

Since then, Shahade got back into chess some more, and at the moment he is again playing on a regular basis. In an article published on February 17th, 2013 he reveals that he has "softened" his views on taking easy draws in final rounds in order to earn norms.

In theory it’d be nice to not care about titles, but you can't expect someone to ignore the huge benefits. (...) So I’ll revise my viewpoint as follows. There are certain goals in chess that are very important to achieve. These are mainly winning major tournaments and earning FIDE titles. If a draw will help to facilitate one of these two things, it’s totally acceptable to lose the opportunity to play one single chess game in order to achieve these goals. (...)

This assumes the rules of the tournament allow you to take a quick draw- more and more events require 30+ moves. Events which attract lots of press and media attention may also be a particularly poor choice for taking quick draws- you may lose the opportunity for future invitations or sponsorship. I still think quick draws are not good for chess, but the onus on disincentivizing lifeless draws should be on organizers more than on players.

Rogers on Eljanov-So

Ten days after Shahade's article the game Eljanov-So at the Reykjavik Open was played, which caused quite a stir at various chess websites. By now everyone knows that the game lasted just three moves; the ones that define the Grünfeld Defence. In my report for the official website I made clear that I was disappointed. I must add that although I was working for them, I wasn't necessarily expressing the organizers' opinion, but I still feel that most people in the chess world think something is wrong when the biggest game of a tournament lasts less than a minute. But what exactly is wrong with it?

GM Ian Rogers, in his online report on the Reykjavik Open for Chess Life Online, didn't mince words. The well-known Australian journalist wrote that

Shahade should never have resiled from his attitude expressed in an earlier article (...) as a teacher, one of his responsibilities is to teach moral fiber to his students. Or at least personal responsibility for their decisions.

Rogers continued:

One leading chess journalist was ropable after the Reykjavik finish and declared that neither So nor Eljanov should be invited back to the tournament – or other top tournaments - if they held the organizers and their fans in such contempt. Appeals that Eljanov and So were really nice guys cut no ice – players had to be taught that their actions which damage chess, even though perfectly legal, can have consequences.

A boycott is unlikely to achieve much – except perhaps to encourage players to disguise their intentions a bit better.

Shahade is right that, since there will always be the temptation for players to take draws to achieve titles or money, the scourge of the short draw is likely to persist and  anti-draw measures, while unpopular, are probably necessary – but that is only true  if players learn from Shahade that making short draws to achieve personal goals is acceptable.
Rant over.

In the same article a reply from Greg Shahade was given by the editors:

I do not approve of prearranged draws under any circumstance. However if a draw results in a clear personal achievement that may further your career, I believe it is reasonable to play a normal chess game with that in mind…Even if there was an anti draw measure in place that Eljanov and So will draw the game. That is why I do not even think that a draw should be an acceptable result of a chess game.

Eljanov's reply

In the days after the last round in Reykjavik, on Facebook both Wesley So and Pavel Eljanov expressed their surprise about the criticism they had received. Especially Eljanov wrote quite a big text on his profile page, which included some good points. We asked him if we could cross-post the text, but he wasn't sure and wanted to work more on it. But, today we found Pavel's text copypasted at two different sites: Natalija Pogonina's blog and the tournament website.

Because it is "out in the open" already, we feel free to quote from Eljanov's Facebook post:

Probably we were wrong when he offered a draw and I accepted on move 3. We’re not proud of it. But first of all I don`t see a big crime here anyway and nobody still didn`t prove me that 10-15 moves grandmaster draw any better in fact that 3 moves draw. (...) We are all humans and our forces are not unlimited. (...) After the tournament I talked about our draw with main organizer of Reykjavik Open Mr. Gunnar Bjornsson who is also the president of Icelandic chess federation. He told me that he didn`t mind, has no claims for me and Wesley and satisfied with our performances during the whole tournament. Also he has no plans to invent Sofia rules. I agree with him as in open tournaments (unlike closed tournaments where Sofia rules fit perfectly) I don`t see a big reason to do it as there is always plenty of games to watch and usually fight is tough as this is kind of natural selection as financial conditions not so sweet like in super-tournaments and prizes are not so high. So after all I think that all accusations that we have not fulfilled our obligations to the organizers are far-fetched.

Ian Rogers gave us the following response to Eljanov:

I am not questioning Eljanov's contribution to the Reykjavik Open in the first nine rounds – he was the stand-out player in the tournament and played hard in nine of the ten rounds. My issue is solely with his decision to play a three move draw, with the white pieces, in the final round when first place was on the line.

From the players' perspective it's understandable to agree to a draw. In fact for Eljanov it was quite risky to play on: he knew he would have the best tie-break, so drawing would mean winning the tournament. 

All in all, there's a big gray area and everyone seems to be making valid points in this debate. We've tried to summarize the main arguments expressed in the past few years, without choosing sides ourselves. We do hope that tournament organizers will test some of the suggestions by Kasimdzhanov/Shipov/Shahade so that we'll know a bit more about the (side-)effects. Besides, they sound like good fun!

Peter Doggers's picture
Author: Peter Doggers


elgransenor1's picture

abolish chess altogether, this is the easiest solution.

wortwart's picture

Playing only for 3 moves is as close to abolishing chess as you can get.

Anonymous's picture

Excellent point!

sab's picture

"Playing only for 3 moves" is... well... "playing only for 3 moves". Nothing more, nothing less.

Hydnum's picture

Simple solution: One black pawn should be taken from black at random then if a "draw" is achieved this should be counted as a win for black. That kind of chess would be so interesting!

Talekhine's picture

Interesting? For whom? This is as nonsensical like most of the proposals above.
To prevent short draws in the last round at the top boards is not so difficult. Just let the top 4 players after the penultimate round play a rapid chess knockout event instead of the last round to decide places 1-4. The rest can finish the tournament in the usual way.

AAR's picture

Players don't always play for the game result. They play for the tournament results, sometimes for ratings, sometimes for norms, sometimes it is not worth fighting for, sometimes satisfied with what they have, sometimes they are tired...

brabo's picture
Septimus's picture

Players making short draws should be disqualified immediately.

boardgame's picture

I like the comparison with boxing. Just imagine over 50% of all box fights ended draws. I think no one would argue that this would harm its popularity to some extent. So I argue less draws in chess would increase its popularity simply because it is more exciting. There is more at stake if the point cannot be split. There are no peace offers, there is only a winner and loser of a battle, like in every other sport, too.

People want to see blood, even top GMs, who arguably understand the game and its subtleties pretty well, think so. All the others got no balls and simply like the idea to chicken out with a draw ;-)

Anonymous's picture

But soccer does have plenty of draws, and it's the most popular sport in the world. Let's have more draws!

Septimus's picture

Draws in football occur after 90 minutes, not within the first two minutes like GM draws. Also in football, if teams walk around without attacking, the crowd will get angry and the players may be beaten up.

Maybe we should import some hooligans from football into chess. Make a short draw and risk disqualification or a severe beat down.

boardgame's picture

Haha, good idea septimus. But I think, actually there are already hooligans of chess. However, chess is largely being "consumed" on the internet. That's why you can mainly find them in forums. But probably you are right. A couple of people shouting "Kill the draw!" at the press conference of players after a drawn game, would probably have a much bigger impact. Worth considering ;-)

Chris's picture

Main problem here is not a draw but avoiding the play.
Chess tournaments are not having many spectacors.
Guess why?

boardgame's picture

Soccer is a team sport, which might explain why the likelyhood of draws is much much lower than in chess. Therefore, draws are not a problem in soccer, simply because the probability of a draw is sufficiently low (Again, if the fraction of draws in soccer was sth. like 60%, Im sure soccer would be less popular as well). However, in chess the fraction of draws is not sufficiently low.

So in order to make chess as popular as soccer, we should aim to reduce the fractions of draws to the level of those in soccer. That would be the conclusion I would draw when comparing soccer and chess ;-) So I am simply arguing that a reduction of draws increases the popularity of any sport.

Anonymous's picture

Staying with your boxing reference, imagine after two rounds the boxers decide to stop the fight and split the purse. That would be the end of the boxing careers of both boxers.

boardgame's picture

I totally agree. Sadly, it is nowhere near this in chess.

sab's picture

Which shows how nonsensical is the comparison between the way one earns money in boxing and the way another one earns money in chess.

Chess is not a show; a chess player doesn't need to care if the mob had enough sacrifices and "blood" for her apetite.

boardgame's picture

Every professional sport is nothing but a circus. If it wasn't for the audience, nobody could make a living of it.

sab's picture

This is not about "make a living of it". It's about usefulness and impact of draws in chess. The quantity of "blood" and "uppercut moves" don't make the quality and the strenght of a chess player. Which is quite the opposite case in boxing. Thus the comparison between chess and boxing doesn't stand.

Anonymous's picture

Yes because the audience pays big money to watch these chess games.... oh wait.

Tournaments like this are not a circus, because they are not played for the audience. They are played for the fun of the participants, and in a limited way for the sponsor. The sponsor doesn't care about the play in one specific game, they just want to be able to invite business relations and use chess metaphors ("thinking ahead", "decision making in time trouble") in speeches.

So the prize money comes from that too: entrances fees, and sponsor money. But not from spectators, who all watch for free.

boardgame's picture

Do you really think they organize all that just for the players themselves and possible business relations? Why the video streaming then? You should really check the definition of sponsoring.

Just think one move furhter... Why do they want to use those metaphors you are talking about? Right, they do that to appeal to potential customers, the... a u d i e n ce !

Btw, those sponsors are also paying our entrance fees to watch this "circus" because they hope they can sell their products to us.

Crow T Robot's picture

Using blitz games to decide classical chess tournaments and matches makes no sense to me. Maybe it is time to abandon classical chess time controls. The 2011 candidates tournament was basically a blitz knock out tournament. Blitz games completely determined who would play in the classical chess championship. That is sad and confusing to chess fans.

iLane's picture

Professional chess is (all) about money. The root of the problem is in the financing. In chess basically you play for sponsor money. If you play badly you don't win much but you don't lose either, not too bad. Let's turn it around and play buy-in tournaments! 8 player round robin? OK, 5000 euro buy-in, first 3 take the pot, the rest go home empty handed. Fighting chess guaranteed? You bet!

Thomas Oliver's picture

In case you didn't know, at the Reykjavik Open three players took most of the pot - Eljanov, So and Amin. The first two because they played fighting chess in nine out of ten rounds. A football comparison would be: a team leads 4-0 after 80 minutes and then relaxes, maybe bringing in some substitute players etc. . Would fans strongly criticize such behavior? I don't think so, I don't hope so.

Anonymous's picture

I don't really understand the sense of entitlement people have. Yes, it would be nice for you if they played a hard fought game, because you would like to watch. But why should they care about you?

Also, if this draw had taken place on board 90 instead of on board 1, would the Internet outrage have been as big? Why not? Does the fact that Eljanov and So are better at the game mean they have more obligations? I don't understand.

I play in tournaments too. I never win them, but if I ever find myself in a position where I can secure $7000 by drawing and a draw is offered to me at move 3, I'm going to accept, regardless of whether there are no Internet spectators or thousands.

elgransenor1's picture

well said, If I had 7000 dollars in the bank, I wouldn't give a monkeys if a few spectators were grumbling about my quick draw.

sab's picture

Well said!

Big Alex's picture

well said.... In a tournament this is totally acceptable

Septimus's picture

This is not about entitlement, but about preserving the dignity of the game. Drawing in three moves is an insult to the game, which no serious chess lover should tolerate.

Catfishcore's picture

Do you hear all the people laughing, insult to the game. There's too much crying over draws. Just play chess. It's not like it cost anything for me to watch.

Remco Gerlich's picture

There are millions of chess games played, chess isn't insulted by one three move draw.

Anonymous's picture

I agree, plus it discourages sponsors from coming forward.

sab's picture

"This is not about entitlement, but about preserving the dignity of the game."

No one there is playing to preserve "the dignity of the game". Cut that c*** and get your facts straight. There's money at stake and most players do what it take to win by following the rules.

"Drawing in three moves is an insult to the game, which no serious chess lover should tolerate."

Tolerate what you want, the players don't give a s***.

Septimus's picture

"No one there is playing to preserve "the dignity of the game"...PRECISELY THE PROBLEM!

sab's picture

Never been the problem of the players.

Anonymous's picture

I know exactly zero chess players who have ever sat down to play a game in order to give the game of chess a little more dignity.

Big Alex's picture

They are simply playing with the approved rules.. What's up?

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boardgame's picture

I think it helps to look at chess from two perspectives, first from the perspective of chess as a sport, and second from the individual of its players.

Concerning the first perspective, where do you think this money comes from? From sponsors. Why do you think sponsors are paying them? Because they want there company name positively related to the public image of the tournament/player. Guess what happens if the tournament or player is not liked by the public any more? Less money is given. Just look at Tiger Woods if you don't believe me.

Concerning the second perspective, I agree partially. However, like other commentators have already pointed out. There is some sort of moral obligation towards the fans, which is difficult to influence.

That's why I would focus on the first perspective and try to change the system as such and not the players playing it.

elgransenor1's picture

the money in golf is going up all the time (most of this is due to tiger woods) so I fail to understand your argument.

boardgame's picture
elgransenor1's picture

perhaps not, but that still doesn't change the fact that tiger brought in most of the huge money you now see in golf, in the first place.

boardgame's picture

The point is that sponsors care about the image and distribute their cash accordingly. I used Tiger Woods to illustrate this and only this point. Whatever influence he had before his afairs became known is irrelevant to make this point. But if you don't like the example Im sure you can find another one or are you seriously questioning the point itself?

elgransenor1's picture

my point is without tiger woods there wouldn't be the cash there in the first place to take away.

Amos's picture

I also don't understand this "sense of entitlement". But not that of the spectators, but that of the players. This happens in almost any Swiss tournament in the last rounds — leaders make quick draws, players calculate tie-breaks and how the prize money will be split. They feel they have earned their money as if it just fell down from a tree.

I would never sponsor a chess tournament in my life. If I sponsor a chess tournament, I want to see chess being played. I want to see spectators at the event and on the events website. As a sponsor I don't get any of this with these short draws.

And don't get me started on game selling in the last rounds of Swiss tournaments... These players also feel entitled to throw the games away.

In my opinion, there should be more team events in chess. With established leagues and clubs, playing every weekend for a whole season. Players should have contracts with their clubs, and live of salaries, not prize money.

sab's picture

"If I ever find myself in a position where I can secure $7000 by drawing and a draw is offered to me at move 3, I'm going to accept".

And this is true for most ranting people here who would have seized the opportunity to secure the money without a shred of hesitation even if they tried here to act like some sort of Don Quijote.

sab's picture

Sorry, wrong thread.

sab's picture

"If I ever find myself in a position where I can secure $7000 by drawing and a draw is offered to me at move 3, I'm going to accept".

And this is true for most ranting people here who would have seized the opportunity to secure the money without a shred of hesitation even if they tried here to act like some sort of Don Quijote.

sab's picture

Sorry, wrong thread.


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