A Dangerous Offer

A Dangerous Offer

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Chess is unique from sports in that it is usually possible for the players to simply agree to a draw. Of course, many people think that this rule should be abolished, and many tournaments include a rule forbidding draw offers before a certain number of moves. Nevertheless, the draw offer often plays a role in the game.

Perhaps the rule was originally intended for situations such as rook and three pawns versus rook and three pawns, to prevent the players from having to move to and fro for fifty moves. But soon it became, in some cases, an escape hatch from a complicated position.

A draw can occur when a full game is going on for various reasons. One common one is that the stronger player has fallen into trouble, and judges that it is time to raise a white flag. The weaker player may accept, believing that the advantage is not sufficient to outweigh the difference in playing strength. Other times, two players of equal class may agree to a draw in a complicated game, if both of them feel that the competitive or emotional gain from winning does not outweigh the pain from losing (i.e. mutual fright). Sometimes draws are agreed because both players evaluate the position pessimistically. Since you cannot switch sides, you agree to a draw! Additionally, there are the so-called “grandmaster draws” – but I am not discussing these here, since if the draws are very early, then they are in a way non-games, mere formalities.

What are the psychological effects of a draw offer? A draw offer (and rejection) will have effects on both the one offering, and the one rejecting. Let me show some examples.

I played this game long ago, when I was not only much weaker in chess, but also very inexperienced. The effect of the draw offer from my grandmaster opponent (and my rejection of it) is very easy to see!

As you can see, one effect on a player who rejects a draw offer is that he may feel the need to justify his actions. This is exactly what I did with the impulsive 16.h4? and 18.h5? I hope that nowadays I would have more self control!

The next example was pretty interesting. It was the last round in a small tournament in Novi Sad which I played in April. I had four out of four and needed only a draw to get clear first. My opponent was much lower rated than myself (2247), and at first I thought about playing for a win anyway. But I decided before the game to offer an early draw, since I was sick with severe allergies and anyway, my opponent was a young player who was maybe stronger than his rating. To my surprise, he declined. But I knew the opening better and soon reached a position which was basically winning. He then offered a draw back. I did not seriously consider accepting it, but nevertheless, the psychological effect was clear.


I think I would say that, had he not offered the draw, I would have won the game easily. But rejecting the draw offer (when I only needed a draw for first place) made me very nervous. Suddenly I started thinking for a long time, checking and rechecking my calculations. Because of the nature of the position (I had an extra pawn but some slight worries about my king) there was not a chance for me to do something reckless like in the above game against Zaitchik. On the other hand, the problem I experienced was an excess of caution. In a normal situation (e.g. in a first round game) I would easily decide on 24…Rxg4. But in this situation, I saw ghosts and convinced myself that I must not take any risks. Fortunately the game ended in a draw anyway.

It seems pretty clear that the effects on the person refusing a draw are stronger than the effects on one offering it. This is natural, since after the offer is refused, the one who did the offering has not had any choice in the matter, and therefore has no regrets. The one who has made a choice and decided to take a risk, on the other hand, can have regrets.

Occasionally, having one’s draw offer refused can take away some confidence or cause a feeling of doom. I had to go back quite awhile to find an example from my games where I offered a draw which was refused. I don’t offer draws so much in the middlegame, it seems (although I did offer a couple draws last fall after blundering against lower rated players, which were naturally declined).

Here was my game against GM Kidambi Sundararajan, from the Philadelphia international last year. I was doing very well at that point, with 5 out of 5. I was a point ahead of the rest of the players. This was the second game of the day in the middle of the tournament, and I was extremely tired. Nine rounds of incredibly long (40 moves in two hours and the rest of the game in the hour) games in the course of five days is simply inhuman and should not be permitted.

Naturally, I would have liked to use the white pieces to extend my lead, but a short time into the game I decided that playing in the state I was in was too reckless. So I offered a draw. But my opponent declined, since (as he told me after the game) I was leading the tournament so he needed to try to catch me.


It is hard to say if the draw offer had anything to do with the subsequent blunder. As I said, I was very tired, so that may be more of the culprit. I think in this case, having the draw offer rejected energized me a bit. I did not really want to agree to a draw with white, but at the same time I felt it was the practical decision. Now my decision was made for me. I think this may have accounted for my reckless play with 19.Bd3. Fortunately I was in very good form and was able to scramble to a draw.

Clearly the psychological effects on the one declining a draw are stronger. Typically one may feel nervous (“responsibility” for the result increases) and sometimes also reckless (feeling the need to “justify” one’s decision). It pays to keep this in mind during the game, and watch for these kind of reactions in your thinking process. A draw offer can be a way to undermine your opponent’s equilibrium. But don’t forget, it has one major downside – it might be accepted!

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