Columns | April 08, 2009 19:08

Team chess for fun and team chess for blood

Team matchesI've always found it difficult to take the concept of chess as a team sport very seriously. The U.S.A., arguably the country most obsessed with team sports, didn't have a national chess team competition until 2005. Makes you wonder, doesn't? Then there's the fact that a team sport seems to require by definition, cooperation - which is pretty much the only thing strictly forbidden during a chess game. And without cooperation, what is a team but a random collection of individuals pursuing their own individual goals?

Look at Germany. Their Bundesliga is the strongest team chess competition in the world. They've got the strongest players in the world, including the World Champion, Vishy Anand. This makes for a great line-up and some great chess afternoons, but I've always wondered: does a professional like Anand, who happens to play for Baden Baden, really care for his team? Does he look at the games of his team mates with any more interest or excitement than the games from other teams? Is he upset when his team loses? Is he upset when his team loses while he played a great game? Is he happy when his team wins in any way comparable to the joy a football supporter experiences when his team scores a goal?


Vladimir Kramnik once played in the Dutch League for Groningen...

A couple of years ago I was doing a report for ChessVibes on Vladimir Kramnik's debut in the Dutch chess team competition. Back then, he was still the reigning World Champion, and it was quite a spectacular event in the Dutch chess world, especially for the city of Groningen, for which Kramnik played. I noticed several interesting things. First of all: Kramnik did shake hands with his team captain and several officials - sponsors, perhaps - but not with his other team mates. I remember thinking: 'Okay, so why is he sharing a team with them anyway?' What 'was' this team, apart from a name consisting of a city and its sponsor? As far as I could see, the usual reasons to form a team were absent in this case: almost none of the players lived in the city in which the team was based, nor did they seem particularly chubby with each other.

The second interesting thing was Kramnik's opponent: Dutch young grandmaster Jan Smeets. While a great player already, Smeets hadn't won the Dutch title yet, nor was he at the time the strongest player of Groningen's opposing team HSG, which also included, for instance, the higher-rated Loek van Wely.  It was clear that HSG had resorted to what is known in Dutch as a 'tactical line-up'. I don't know if there's an English translation for this phrase, but it basically means mixing up the line-up to confuse the opponent's preparation.


...and he drew with Black against Jan Smeets

Usually, a tactical line-up means putting a weaker opponent on first board, hoping for a 'miracle' against the opponent's top player, and trying to secure an advantage on the lower boards with stronger players. The additional advantage for Smeets, of course, was that he knew Kramnik would be sitting on first board - you don't put the World Champion on board 3, do you? Smeets had no doubt prepared for Kramnik, perhaps together with some of his team members, and achieved a solid draw with White. It must have been a bit of a showstopper for the Groningen team, watching the World Champion draw against this promising but not yet world-classy Dutch junior.

Although tactical line-ups are not necessarily a bad strategy when you don't know how strong the opposing team will be, they are forbidden in many team competitions, and for good reasons. Smeets was still a good player, but imagine the look on Kramnik's face when he realized he had to face a really weak player - someone like me, for instance. (It could have happened, you know. I played in the same league as Kramnik that year - although not on board 1, obviously!). Come to think of it, imagine the look on his sponsor's face when he realized he payed thousands of euros to have Kramnik done what any decent IM could have! It would have been outrageous.

This is why, even when they're not stricly forbidden by rules (for instance demanding a line-up based on FIDE ratings), tactical line-ups still feel very weird intuitively. Some even think it's unsportsmanlike. (I imagine Kramnik's sponsor would.) And quite apart from the message it sends to the opponent, it can also lead to difficulties within the team. Loek van Wely is a nice guy and I'm sure he didn't mind Smeets playing on a higher board than him, but of course there are situations when such a line-up simply cannot be tolerated. We all have ego's, don't we? (In The Netherlands, everybody recalls the days when there was incredible fuss within the Dutch Olympiad team about the order of boards.)

To avoid all these problems, in the Bundesliga the line-up is simply announced beforehand. This certainly prevents the kind of issues described above, but it does make the competition more predictable and, in my view, even more individualistic, since personal preparation is now even more crucial. But this is great, right?  Is chess an individual game, or what? Well, yes, but when you're playing in a team, this individuality does sometimes leads to difficulties.

I am always kind of annoyed by team members who refuse to share their team's gloom after a lost match, just because they themselves happened to have played a good game and gained some rating points. On the other hand, I've personally never been able to be really happy with a team victory if my contribution to it has been a lousy zero. We all know a loss in chess is a personal loss, and can be quite painful. Although I think it's extremely impolite to just leave when the match is not over yet, I've occasionally done it myself as well. Sometimes, it's just too much to face one's team members after a loss.

Of course, it's precisely because of this individualistic nature of the game that many like some kind feeling of 'being together' from time to time. It's just fun! Travelling together to a different town, discussing possible opponents with other team members, drinking beer afterwards while analysing each other's games - these are pretty good reasons to play chess in teams. Usually, this is all there is to it. But sometimes, the team result influences the game itself, and this is where things can become confusing again. I have witnessed players who were forced by their team captain to make a draw even when they had a very good position - all in the team's interest, of course. I myself have many times been in a position where I simply had to win my game to save the match, even when I was aching to go for a move repetition after surviving a worse position. On top of that, making a bad decision for the benefit of the team (trying to push for a win when all you really can get is a draw, or accepting a draw in a good position) is often, at least in my experience, not only pretty bad for your own mood after the game, but also for the team spirit.


Ljubojevic: "Team games shouldn't count for the same rating as individual tournament games"

The problem is not that this is somehow unfair, but that the result of a chess game can still only be 1-0, 0-1 or 1/2-1/2. The FIDE  rating system does not take into account this kind of 'twisted' results, let alone team results. I recently heard that already back in the 70s, noone less than Ljubojevic tried to negotiate that team matches would not count for FIDE rating, if only because some players always want to play with either black or white, thus corrupting a 'fair' colour distribution. 

Here's a dilemma: imagine you need a draw for an IM norm, and your team captain suddenly tells you that in order for the team to win the league cup, you need to really try and win your game! You have a forced perpetual, but you can also play a risky piece sacrifice for a speculative attack which you can't calculate till the end. What would you do? I'm sure most people would go for their own personal interest, and, for what it's worth, so would I. But this is an extreme scenario. I've often seen players trying to force matters in the interest of the team, sometimes successfully so. It's an admirable character trait, but I myself usually experience extra pressure when playing in a team - causing me to play more cautiously than when the result is only 'mine' and not in any way connected to others.

I recently heard a theory that in team matches, you shouldn't play risky opening lines because sacrificing a pawn is actually sacrificing a pawn that belongs to the team! At the time I thought this made perfect sense, but now that I think about it again, I think it's absolute nonsense. If you can't play the moves you want to play, why play chess at all? On the other hand, I must admit that I have sometimes used the team's interest as an excuse - usually for plain bad play, such as 'I could have made a draw, but I tried to win because of the team' or 'I could have played this solid line but since we played with substitutes, I thought it would be better to play agressively'. Jonathan Rowson aptly calls this what it is: story-telling.

Perhaps chess players - being, after all, chess players - just tend to think too much about stuff. It's hard to imagine a football player sleeping badly if his team wins the world cup, just because he personally received a red card. His team has won, so he has won, end of story. But still ... a chess player still has to personally extend his hand and stop the clock. It's an individual act of resignation. For me, no team result will ever change that. Playing chess may be done for fun, even when it's done in teams - but resigning is always for blood.

Arne MollArne Moll regularly writes columns for ChessVibes. Here you can find previous columns all listed together.
Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Arne Moll's picture

JF, I agree completely with your description of an ideal team match, and I don't think we disagree at all! It's just that fun and blood can't always be combined, especially not when official stuff like rating is involved, hence the title of my article.

CAL|Daniel's picture

what guitarspider is trying to say is that its hard for players to make a living off of chess in the US. True but chess does not suffer here just cause bums can't make millions playing a game instead of working a job.

JF's picture

I disagree with the reasoning in this article.

First of all, I think that the problem is not that big. I have been a team captain for a few years now and I only 'forced' (he is allowed to decline) a player to draw once. As a team player, I have seen this not that often either, and maybe twice in my own games. And if this happens, I will act according my team captain's wishes. After all, I committed myself to a team and this implicates that team interests prevail.

Which brings me to the most important thing: a team match is simply great. It already starts with the preparation. Who are our possible opponents? Can we expect a certain line-up? Oh, mr. X is in their team. This guy always plays the Kings Indian. Well, in my team, Charlie is only 6th on rating but when he plays against the Kings Indian, he is worth 150 points more. So Charlie plays at the first board. Well, Danny has been on the second board for the last three games and I think his opponent will be preparing for him. Danny hates opening preparation, so therefore I will put him on four this time.

After a travel full of fun, we arrive at our opponent's club house. It is a nice atmosphere and I can chat with some old friends. During the game, I ask my team captain about his opinion on the other games. I have the choice between a solid move and a slightly risky attacking move. Because our prospects are not that positive, I decide on the latter. Otherwise I probably would have chosen for the solid continuation, but I act in interest of the team. So the team influences my play and maybe my rating, but a tournament standing could have influenced it as well. Some may find this horrible, but I like a team match because of these decisions. This exactly is the difference between a team game and an individual game. When my team wins, I am happy (even when I lost myself - although sometimes this can be a bit difficult). On the other hand, decisive wins from a totally lost position are my personal best memories of chess.

When the match is over, we have dinner and some drinks in town. For me, the social impact of a match is important. I am enjoying my student life quite intensive and as a consequence I spend little time on studying and playing chess. Team matches give me the opportunity to keep in contact with my old friends and to see them regularly. The special circumstances in team matches connect me to my fellow players and that is how they became friends. I doubt that I would still be a chess player without these team matches.

guitarspider's picture

This whole team competition in the US issue does detract from the point. Even if there are amateur events, there was no professional league. Which speaks volumes about the chess situation in the United States.

DrTom's picture

Very interesting column, thanks !

In my humble opinion, the problem is just that the rules of chess as a team sport have not yet been written...
We try to play chess in team with the same rules we play it single, but with a different score count. But the fact is we should use different rules, just as Tennis does it for example.
An example : all members could play on the same board... Just like tennis players play on the same court - it could also be a combo of single and multiplayer matches, just like in the Davis Cup.
And as multiplayer matches, I'm talking about 2 or 4 players vs 2 or 4 players on the same board, where each player takes turn to play one move.
There are many other ways to play "multiplayer" matches in chess, practised in clubs for fun, that could lead to interesting ways to serious team chess.

Stephen's picture

How about an Elo rating for the team as a unit ?

DrTim's picture

Football is sure a team sport... But they are certainly players that have interest different that the one of the club : imagine if he want to play for the opponent' club next year, or he don't want to be injuried because he has to play something other that his club will play in the future, or because he has a chance to receive a personnal prize for the best football player or the best fairplay player... In every kind of team sport, we always can find individual interest...
And player we don't care about the other players of his team because he is a star.

patzerboy's picture

A solution to the problem of the difference between team games and individual games for rating purposes is to have two results for each game, ie you can agree a draw for rating purposes earlier in the game and still play on for the team (non-rated) result.

Thomas's picture

Patzerboy, but how would you resolve the opposite situation, conceding a draw in a won position in the interest of the team?? "Let's make a draw, provided that you resign for rating purposes !?" :)

guitarspider's picture

Chess professionals don't identify with their team because they have so many of them. Most are playing in several leagues, which led to the situation that a team couldn't participate in the last european club cup, because its players were already playing for different teams.
I'm sure if players would only be allowed to play in one team, the situation would be a bit different. In football everyone would like to play on teams like Real or Bayern Munich. On the other hand playing all the different leagues is a good way to make a living for the pros.

test's picture

Counting board points instead of match points would mitigate these issues a lot wouldn't they?

Daaim Shabazz's picture

It may have been mentioned, but the author is wrong about team chess competitions in the U.S. Team competitions have been held in the U.S. for decades. The most popular is the Amateur Team Championships that are held in four regions of the country. There is also the Pan-Am Intercollegiate Team Tournament which has been in existance since the 40s I believe. There are many industrial and banker's leagues in the U.S., not to mention hundreds of scholastic team events.

Perhaps there is an assumption (primarily out of Europe) that there is not much of a chess culture in the U.S., but there is quite a history of events and people are typically passionate about team chess and there are all types of gimmicks including best team name... costumes are outrageous as well.

Bartleby's picture

Take Armenia, two-time Olympiad winner: When you see them play, or hear them talk about it, it's obvious that they have as much fun working together and fighting for each other as a lower league village club. The Armenians consider team spirit crucial for their success. They show what can be achieved if you take the concept of chess as a team sport seriously.

patzerboy's picture

'I offer a draw for team purposes and let's play on for rating purposes'

patzerboy's picture

Of course a clever/gambling opponent might decline this and offer a draw for both rating/team purposes. Very simple solution.

patzerboy's picture

Of course a clever opponent might decline this and offer a draw for both.

Songamonga's picture

The sentence of Mr. Ljubojevic: "Team games shouldn't count for the same rating as individual tournament games" is sharp to the point. Different rankings would sort out most of the problems. The gap between team and individual interest would be rather short.

totoy bato's picture


Jack McVitie's picture

Excellent article that was waiting to be written.

Regarding 'tactical' lineups - sadly far too commonplace in what should be the competition of all team competitions - the Olympiad.
Far too often lower-ranked teams have sacrifical lambs higher up then their single FM or IM lower down to mop up and try for a board gold medal. Disgraceful.

Should be in strict FIDE rating order. By the last rating list, or perhaps considering fluctutations, an average of the last three lists for order.

Arne Moll's picture

Good point, guitarspider! For professional football players, their team is their full time job. For many chess grandmasters, it's one of many part-time jobs. If they would get paid per hour by their clubs, the chess world would look totally different!

Thomas's picture

From my own chess experience in other countries, "extreme" tactical line-ups (as - potentially - Moll-Kramnik) are a relatively unique feature of the Dutch competition.
As Arne Moll mentioned, in Germany the order of boards has to be given before the season. One can still move one, but only one board up or down (e.g. to account for color preferences). Or a team can have a tactical line-up (weak player on board 1), but that one is then fixed for the entire competition. Teams like Baden-Baden still have other options: They have Anand, Carlsen, Shirov and Svidler on the top boards - but usually only two of them are actually playing, and the other team doesn't know in advance.
In France, a maximum ELO difference of 100 points between higher and lower boards applies, i.e. a player rated 2600 cannot play 'below' one rated 2499. "Homogenous" teams still have all options - circumventing the other team's preparation, while themselves knowing whom they will face on each board.
What about rules - if any - in other countries?

Harish Srinivasan's picture

Great column.
I suppose, if the rating system did change for team games - something like you always gain rating if your team wins and lose rating if your team loses, then as time goes, the notion of playing and fighting for the team could come to chess players.

And yes guitarspider has a great point. Chess by nature is not a team sport.
If you do want to make it into a team sport, call it something else and have a separate rating/ranking system.

Ingvar Johannesson's picture

Excellent article, good read and some good points!

CAL|Daniel's picture

Peter your article is factually incorrect: "he U.S.A., arguably the country most obsessed with team sports, didn’t have a chess team competition until 2005"
the US has the US amateur Team championships (West, East, South, North) for 26 years (since 1983).

CAL|Daniel's picture

also there are many many team leagues that have existed long before the USCL (ie CICL): a team league that has been going since 1950! (59 years!).

Thomas's picture

I had another long post earlier this evening which is "presently lost" (maybe it still shows up eventually?). The short version: The "Kramnik case" is rather common for top league teams: players flying in for a game, having little ties with their teammates and even less with the club (particularly with amateur players from lower teams). And not only (cf. Guitarspider) do they play for several teams from several countries, they also easily and readily switch clubs within one country (if another sponsor pays them more for the next season).
The "Bartleby case" is, I would say, common in lower leagues - and let's not forget that the vast majority of chess players are amateurs.

Arne Moll's picture

@Cal|Daniel: my information is based on the hyperlinked Wikipedia article. Perhaps someone should change it!

CAL|Daniel's picture

excuse me not Peter's fault but Arne moll

CAL|Daniel's picture

No this is why you should never use wiki as a source. Any idiot can post whatever they want to it thus leaving you with incorrect facts. you should check such things with real sources before posting them as facts.

CAL|Daniel's picture

I would also note that the CICL uses its own rating system for exactly the reason Ljubojevic demanded. I've been forced to take draws in almost cleanly winning positions so as to bring no risk to the team victory. This does not effect my USCF rating however my CICL rating is about 200 pts lower than my USCF r ating as a result of all these draws where I would have gone on to win undoubtedly.

Thomas's picture

@CAL|Daniel: Of course I don't know (I do not even know who you are ...), but I wonder if conceding draws in better/nearly won positions is the only explanation for such a HUGE rating difference - so I will speculate about possible other reasons:
- consistently playing much weaker opponents, thus having to score close to 100% to maintain your 'other' rating (this could make sense, as every draw seems to cost you many rating points)
- having to play black all the time, because a teammate insists on the white pieces.
I also thought about you possibly having a "track record" of frequently blundering in won positions (at least in the opinion of your team captain), but this would only make sense if it only happens in team matches.

On the other hand, if Ljubojevic has such a strong point [are there (many) other examples with similarly huge gaps between CICL and USCF ratings?], one solution could be to make board points (rather than match points) the first tiebreaker.
In a way, team chess would then be similar to running, another typically individual sport: In relay races, every single athlete has to do his/her very best (nothing remotely similar to conceding a draw), and times are simply added up in the end.

CAL|Daniel's picture

funny you should mention having to play black all the time... i've only ever had white ONCE in team games. I've always had black. This makes it extraordinarirly difficult if my opponent's team has chosen to draw my board by strategy so I see many things like exchange slav, exchange kid etc... Usually I am playing people close to 400 pts beneath me but this because I play the bottom board and our team is the strongest in the field. Still the reason for my rating difference is just as I previously stated, the draws in winning position to secure team wins since it is not about personal glory hence playing on a team.

Board tiebreaks is the worst tiebreak system known to man. An online teamleague for icc (called 4545) uses this system and every season every team complains yet the TDS don't care. For this reason myself and many others have quit this terrible league. Board tiebreaks basically favor the cheating that Arne moll talked about stacking the lower boards. Even if you reverse the board tiebreak to favor high boards this is random and shows no sign of skill of the team. It is best at this point to just call the game a draw not pretend one team was better than the other.

Accepting a draw in a won position should not be penalized. The captain decided even though you are winning he wants no risk so take the draw. Your team wins 3.5-2.5 with no risk of a 3.0-3.0 score even though it likely would have been 4.0-2.0. This is the captain's decision. If you have any respect for your captain, teammates or the match you will do what your captain has decided.

I saw captain tell teammate with score 3.0-2.0 to draw because he had under a minute on his clock but he had B+3P vsN+P so he sacced bishop for pawn and they agreed draw. He could have won but he might also have flagged!

Alexander's picture

Separate ratings are a bad idea since it may give rise to fixed matches.

Arne Moll's picture

Cal|Daniel, I added the word 'national', I hope it's correct now. Actually I used Wikipedia only to check what I thought was a plain fact! But it seems you're right and there's a lively local amateur chess competition in the US as well. I even found out that my friend Elizabeth Vicary writes nice articles about it on the USCF site and her own blog, so let me make up for my mistake by linking to her latest article about it.

Thomas's picture

CAL|Daniel, I was actually speculating based on my own experience - in a slightly different context: In my team, the upper two or three boards (including me) are far stronger than the rest [and could easily play in a higher league]. In practice, this often comes down to "must-win" situations - both to keep our ratings and in the interest of the team (we cannot expect too much from the lower boards ...). And we often have to deal with tactical line-ups from the other team ... .

"Forced draws" to secure team victory may well be more common with relatively smaller teams - I always played on eight boards, and here 4.5-3.5 or 4-4 is not such a common result. And chances that YOU have to concede such a draw are 1/8 rather than 1/6. Moreover (cf. your last paragraph), time controls - especially lack of increments in the final phase (?) are very relevant. At one occasion, after a long, difficult and unclear game I was 'suddenly' queen and bishop up with seconds left on my clock ... "somehow" I managed to give mate in the middle of the board immediately.
Warm congratulations and compliments from my teammates followed because the final score was 4.5-3.5 - I hadn't had the slightest idea that my game was the decisive one ! With a 4-3 score for my team (and if I knew ...) I wouldn't have hesitated at all to offer a draw - interesting question: would my opponent have the (moral) right to refuse? I don't think there is anything in the rules permitting to CLAIM a draw because you have a clearly won position.

test's picture

Edit: strike that. ;) The team would matter even less. (Was thinking of being forced to play a draw in better position.)

Bartleby's picture

I like to play in a team very much. For the reasons mentioned in the article: Travelling together, discussing possible opponents, fighting for the team to win, drinking beer afterwards, analysing each other’s games. Maybe it helps that I care more about having fun than about my rating. Serious preparation and analysis is also a great way to learn from each other, and to learn to appreciate each other.

guitarspider's picture

@ CALDaniel: That's a bit harsh, isn't it? And i think if you want to describe the state of chess in a country it's fair to look at how many players play the game, the number of clubs and how many good pros this country produces.

elizabeth vicary's picture

Thanks for the link, Arne!

I think you are right in spirit, at least. The USCL is historically unparalleled (Chicago? not even close) in its prominence and national scope. The US Amateur team tournaments are terrific fun and historic events, but they aren't leagues, per se.


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