August 31, 2012

The “Draw” debate

Every so often, an article decrying draws appears in a website. Some would claim that it is because of the high percentage of draws that there is a lack of viewership for chess. Ashwin Jayaram tries to analyse the different nature of draws in Chess.

The "Draw" debate
By Ashwin Jayaram

Several people have come up with different ideas such as the Sofia rule (where the draw is decided after the arbiters consult each other), the Bilbao rule (where a win is given 3 points and a draw is given one point), more rapid and blitz chess, banning the draw offer itself, making stalemate into a win (the most amusing suggestion), deciding the game based on a rapid game immediately after the game, banning draw offers before a certain move and so on.Among these suggestions, the only one that I really approve of is the Sofia rule. This means that the players have to play until the game is an absolute draw. The only problem is that it is difficult to apply this to open tournaments. The Bilbao system was introduced to encourage players to refrain from drawing. My issue with the Bilbao system is quite simply that it rewards the most erratic. A person who scores 3 wins and 6 losses should not share the table with someone who scored 9 draws, no matter how boring the latter is. Perhaps the Bilbao system can be used as a tiebreak, but not more than that. I have always enjoyed rapid and blitz and I am certainly happy that with the arrival of rapid and blitz rating, there can be more such events, although it cannot serve as a replacement of classical chess. 

The ban of draw offers before a certain move is rather obsolete as there are too many ways that this rule can be avoided, for example

At first, it seems like an exciting draw where Black first sacrifices a piece and then an exchange to force a repetition. Although this game has already been played before in Ponomariov-Anand 2002 and is known to be one of the forced draws in the Marshall gambit. The other ideas suggest that there is something very terrible about a draw itself, which is certainly not the case. There is certainly nothing wrong with draws. Any chessplayer who has played serious tournament games know that some of the most exciting games have ended in a draw. After all, a draw is a very reasonable result to a mutually well fought game. There is also nothing wrong with all short draws. I give you 2 examples of exciting short draws:

This game has been extensively analyzed in many sources and certainly has more content than a lot of decisive games. Here is a slightly more normal example that I have briefly annotated:
Here, Black played very boldly to get a sharp opening position. Towards the end, he had an opportunity to prevent White from forcing a repetition, although the positions that could have ensued after that were very difficult to assess. Black certainly cannot be blamed for not deviating earlier. This game is certainly not the most fascinating game ever played, but it is ripe with content. My point being that no true chess fan would be too unhappy after watching a game like this live. Although there are different types of draws that do irk the spectator, for example:

1. The “Premature” draw

That is to say that the game is going across a path and things seem to be getting very interesting, and then suddenly, both sides agree to a draw. For example:
I remember watching this game live. Carlsen sacrificed an exchange in the opening and it seemed as though Aronian would be able to neutralize Carlsen’s activity. Later, Aronian played inaccurately as his pieces started getting boxed in while Carlsen was getting even more active. And just when the position started getting really interesting, Aronian played 28.Bb2-c1 and offered a draw which was accepted by Black. Naturally, I found the sudden draw rather disappointing, although one cannot fully blame the players. Chess is, above everything, a sport. In the same tournament, Anand was leading while Carlsen was on 2nd place and Aronian was on 3rd place. This meant that this game would decide the 2nd place. Clearly Aronian was dissatisfied with his position, while Carlsen wanted to cling on to the 2nd place and not risk much. While I certainly understand the intentions and admit that even I have offered or agreed to a draw in positions that could certainly have been continued, it still seems unsporting to stop a game when it could continue for a while. Indeed, games like this give the “Sofia rule” good credibility. I had a vague recollection of an Aronian game in the Queens Indian, but I wanted a more recent instance of a game that was drawn prematurely. To my surprise, I found it very difficult to get a good example. This can probably be attributed to most of the elite tournaments employing the Sofia draw rule.

2. The “Boring” Draw:

This is a rather common type of draw and a fairly common scenario. White plays a normal opening, Black equalizes rather easily, some pieces get exchanged and then when the position is quite dead, the players agree for a draw. This is not really the players fault. Sometimes, the positions do give very little. In the lower levels, a level position can still become imbalanced after a few inaccuracies. Although in the highest level, where all players know good ways to equalize and have a very good defensive technique, several games can end in a draw after nothing substantial happens. The only player who seems to disregard elite level defense would be the current World number 1. There are several fantastic examples of Carlsen outplaying some of the finest players in the world in level (sometimes even minutely worse) endgames. His technique and fighting spirit is certainly the reason why any tournament organizer would be keen to have him in a tournament. He also seems to inspire other elite players into fighting till the end. Still, there are several games that fizzle out into uneventful draws. Some would say that the only solution to this is 960 chess. While it is certainly an extremely interesting chess variant, it would be quite unfair to give up on traditional classic chess just yet. There is always some content in every game and a spectator shouldn’t expect fireworks in every game, as usually that implies that a mistake has already been made, or the fireworks can blow up in the players face.

3. The “Grandmaster” draw:

This would certainly seem to be the worst type of draw. Two players deciding that they don’t want to try and agree for a draw early on. Some people do it to win a tournament, some do it for a qualification to another tournament, and some do it because they just don’t want to play that day. From the spectator’s point of view, it would of course be very frustrating to go to a tournament and find some games finished even before it started. There have been several suggestions to get rid of such practices, but if a player wants to make a grandmaster draw, there is very little that can actually be done. Most of the ideas can be either sidestepped or has a lot of drawbacks. Some organizers give a special prize for the players who have fought the most, but obviously not every organizer can do this. There would not seem to be any real solution to this problem. Although the good news is that this problem is negligible. In closed tournaments, invited players very rarely make grandmaster draws as they are more than aware that it can jeopardize their future invitations. It is certainly an issue in open tournaments, but at least from the spectator’s point of view, if one game ends quickly, the spectator has a variety of other games to view. In conclusion, certain measures like introducing the Sofia rule, or banning draw offers before a certain move, or introducing the Bilbao System as a tiebreak can certainly be used to discourage draws. It will certainly reduce the number of prematurely drawn games. Although it can do nothing about grandmaster draws and draws with relatively less content. I think that there is not really a problem at all (as far as draws are concerned) as even a brief glance at some games in TWIC would show that a majority of the games are gripping fights.