Columns | February 17, 2009 5:22

Beauty in Chess IV: What we can learn from ski jumping

Samual Bak - Quite ClearIn his fourth column about beauty in chess, Michael Schwerteck was inspired by the recent German championship, as well as by ski jumping.

It has always bugged me that the scoring system in chess is so primitive. As everybody knows, there are only three possible results: 1, 1/2, and 0. However, there are so many different ways to achieve them!

Let’s compare two different kinds of games: in one game the players are full of fighting spirit, both strive for the full point, blow meets counterblow, and finally, after a tough 80-move battle, there are only two bare kings left. On the neighbouring board, meanwhile, the players have reproduced 10 moves of well-known theory, shaken hands and spent the rest of the day at the beach. The result is exactly the same: half a point for everybody.

Another example. Somebody plays a brilliant attacking game, has his opponent completely on the ropes, but suddenly suffers from chess blindness, hangs a piece and has to resign. He gets exactly the same thing (zero points) as someone who makes mistake after mistake, blunders one piece after another and gets mated quickly, at the same time overstepping the time limit (yes, these are real-life examples!). Isn’t this totally unfair?

They say that chess is not just a sport, but also an art. However, artistic play usually gets little reward. Perhaps we could learn from ski jumping: there it does not only matter how far you can jump, you also get points for style. I don’t know much about the details, but let’s say for argument’s sake that a nicely performed 110-metre jump is worth more than a 115-metre jump with a botched landing.

I’m not saying that an ugly win in chess should be worth less than a beautiful draw. Still, it would be nice if there were higher rewards for good style in chess as well. This does not necessarily mean that you have to sacrifice loads of pieces. As far as I’m concerned, you could just as well display some excellent endgame technique. It’s not so easy to give a precise definition of „good style“, but those who read my articles probably know what I mean.

At least there are some tournaments, if only a few, where best game or brilliancy prizes are awarded. At the recently finished German championship, for instance, the general public was invited to vote for their favourite game via internet. The winner of each round got 100 €. This is not a bad idea, but sometimes the outcome was quite surprising and I have the nagging feeling that some people voted not for their favourite game, but for their favourite player. There shouldn’t be any doubt that the jurors are both competent and impartial. Thus I prefer the system that was introduced in Wijk aan Zee: there it was GM Ivan Sokolov who awarded best game prizes (250 €) and there can be little doubt that his choices were justified. It would be a good idea to implement this system in other top tournaments as well.

Still, I wouldn’t be completely satisfied. There can easily be two or three equally great games in the same round, and if there is only one prize, what can you do? I would go even further: why shouldn’t „style points“ even influence the results, as they do in ski jumping? One idea is to use them as a tiebreak system (at least in round-robin tournaments): if several players have the same number of points, priority is given to those who played the most attractive chess. For particularly well played games you can gain style points. If, on the other hands, you make boring draws and show no fighting spirit, points should be deducted.

Now you might say: what about the Sofia rules? Don’t they prevent short, uneventful draws? Well, to a certain extent, yes. However, if the players really want to make a quick draw, they can always find an opening line which leads to an early move repetition or perpetual check. E.g. the following line is very useful: 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.f4 Lg7 5.Nf3 c5 6.Bb5+ Bd7 7.e5 Ng4 8.e6 fxe6 9.Ng5 Bxb5 10.Nxe6 Bxd4 11.Nxd8 Bf2+ draw. When this was played for the first time, it was brilliant. When it was played for the next thousand times, it was a disgrace.

Let’s go back to the German championship. In the last round the leader Michael Prusikin (6.5 points) played one of his pursuers, Klaus Bischoff (6), and the other pursuer, Arik Braun (6), was paired against David Baramidze (5,5). Since Braun had the better tiebreak (rating performance), a draw was a dangerous result for Prusikin. One would have expected him to at least keep his game going for a while to see what would happen in the other encounter.

Alas, he made a draw after 12 moves with White! His decision was duly punished when Braun, who chose a highly complex and risky opening, eventually ground down his opponent. However, this game could just as well have ended in a draw and Prusikin would have been rewarded for his non-game - quite annoying in my view. If you want to win a chess tournament, you have to play chess, for heaven’s sake. Admittedly, my above-mentioned idea wouldn’t have changed much in this case. Perhaps our readers can come up with even better ideas?

I’m glad that Arik Braun won in the end, because he certainly has an attractive playing style – aggressive, dynamic, not afraid of complications. I’ll give you one of his games with light comments:


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Castro's picture

For the record: I'm completely against Sofia and Bilbao rules. 2 plain stupidities!

Thomas's picture

@Mike: Interesting sideline of this discussion .... . I agree with you that the Alapin can still be efficient (read: white can play for a win)
- as a surprise weapon
- if black also wants to win (probably the case in Svidler-Kasparov). If white can at most obtain a "meaningless +=" in certain lines, black has even less fighting resources ..... .

"About me": Coincidentally, just last Monday I picked up 2.c3 again in a club game against a weaker player, for two reasons: I am not comfortable with the line he plays in the open Sicilian, and - given the rating difference (1900 vs. 1600) - I was reasonably confident that += out of the opening would be enough to win in the end .... indeed I won, but due to his 'creative' play it wasn't a typical Alapin structure.
And the other side of my personal medal: I also play the Sicilian with black, and I tend to be a bit annoyed if white avoids the open lines ..... .

About Svidler: Yep I remembered that game, and found it back on - and an interesting comment from 'plang':
'Svidler describing his opening choice in this game "I thought it was a better idea to play chess against the guy to comparing my opening preparation with him. So I needed something obscure which he had never had on the board before".'
The same database also shows that Svidler continued using this line as a surprise weapon (6 times in a span of 10 years). And once (2001 FIDE WCh) he had a quite convincing win with black against Adams in the same line.

Jeans's picture

Good chess style and fighting spirit must not be obliged by rules, but rewarded by the admiration of others.

Manu in Mar del Plata's picture

At this moment Sofia rules and BIlbao system are the best remedy for draws , other than that it comes to organizers to chose carefully who they want in their tournaments.

Peter Doggers's picture

Very nice article again, Michael!

Mike's picture

Excellent games! Regarding the game Fridman - Strohh?§ker, I myself as a club player had got good results in most of my games when I use the 3.Bb5 (Rossolimo) or the 2.c2 variation of the Sicilian. The early castles and the center pawns that white creates after 2.c3 or 3.Bb5, with d4 and e4 is normally crushing. I seems that Black's long castles in this game of was almost suicidal...

NBC's picture

Short draws are a part of chess just as in football (the real, european kind) you can have games in which the ball rarely enters the penalty box. There is no need for "remedies against draws" because players who make too many draws are less likely to win tournaments and less likely to gain many chess fans.

I am not even sure the celebrated Sofia rules have brought much. I have the feeling of having seen an increase in exchange-everything-as-fast-as-possible type draws since the advent of Sofia rules, but I suppose this could also be an effect of increased focus on opening theory.

Michael's picture

You seem to have a masochistic tendency, Arne ;-)

Manu in Mar del Plata's picture

¨Short draws are a part of chess just as in football (the real, european kind) ¨
The real , european kind?
You must be kidding , or you chose the worst example to defend your theory.
Or you have the worst taste for footbal a person can have.

Mathijs's picture

It's true, the best football players play in Europe. Thats just not arguable.

guitarspider's picture

I think he was thinking american football - european football (american soccer).

I think we should keep it the way it is. 3 points for a win is not a good idea. Brilliancy prizes should be more common though.

Manu in Mar del Plata's picture

The best football players are southamerican , THAT is something you cant argue about.
Most of them play in Europe becouse of the money , and still southamerican leagues (especially Argentina and Brasil) are far more entertaining than most of the leagues in Europe.

Thomas's picture

@Mike: I used to play the Alapin (1.e4 c5 2.c3) myself, also as a club player - mostly because I consider it inefficient (or I am too lazy) to study loads of theory in other main lines. However, I more or less abandoned 2.c3 because many continuations are very drawish - usually white cannot build up or keep the strong centre you mentioned.
In the featured game, black was 'cooperative' (or wanted to play for a win), particularly by castling long .... .

Mike's picture

@Thomas: I see. You probably are right, because of the modern techniques used in master chess which are used to destabilize the classical center of pawns. But anyway, these openings directed towards rapid development and the establishment of the White's powerful center (a la Morphy..) are always at least a reserve weapon..You probably know that game when Peter Svidler played 2.c3 against Kasparov (at Tilburg Fontys) and won after sacrificing one of the center pawns during the opening, posing a lot of problems to the Black's pieces...

Arne Moll's picture

Great article, Michael! For me, however, the fact that chess, like life, contains an element of cruelty (actually often a huge part!) is somehow a huge consolation and even a source of inspiration. Life just isn't perfect and be honest, would you want it to be? Wouldn't it be terribly boring?! What about another sport where points for style are important: ice figure skating? Isn't it terrible, yet at the same time wonderful, that one tiny mistake can lead to a fall and to defeat, even when all intentions of great performance are within the mind of the skater and all other jumps are executed perfectly?
In fact, perhaps people call chess an art not because it can contain beauty (although that, too, of course), but precisely because it's such an unfair and cruel game. After all, isn't all great art in the end about tragedy, unhappiness, failure and death?

Mike's picture

Chess is traditionally a mathematical, rational game. I don't think a good idea to introduce the subjective judgement of some kind in order to attribute different points to drawn games for example. The best way is just change the obsolete way (in my opinion) of counting points, for example, just change to: Loss=0, Draw=1 and Win=3 point. This will turn the "drawisch" players into "no-winners" at all, and one will think two times before setting a "cheating" draw (If he want to win something..)

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