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