Playing for a Draw

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Mikhail Tal once described a typical case in his book. In 1959, at the Candidates Tournament (which was won by him, and which gave him the right to challenge the world champion at the time Mikhail Botvinnik) Tal was leading by 2.5 points ahead of his main rival Paul Keres. There were only five more rounds left to play, and Tal had the white pieces. He knew that a draw would be sufficient for the desired visit to the champion. And at the same time he was hoping to level the mini-match against his main opponent. For the first time in his life he understood during that game, that playing for two results (noone plays for a loss normally) is impossible. He started the game, aiming for a long, five-hour game, but somehow burned out during the game. Keres for his part, finely adjusted to the situation, and won a beautiful game:


Tal experienced a difficult psychological problem in this game. He did not know what he was playing for.

            In reality though, we sometimes find ourselves in a situation in which we need to make a draw. Either to achieve a norm, or to gain a good prize, or just to make a good result.

            I have not been in a lot of situations like this. Commonly, the situations in which I am are must-wins. Still, this summer I had a tournament in which a draw was the desired result. I was playing as Black, against GM Benjamin, when a draw would almost certainly secure a tie for the first place. A win would be sufficient for a clear first (or in the worst possible case-shared first). In a situation like this, it is advisable to take away one of the results from your mind. This is how this short game went:

Why did I offer the draw that early? Was I not afraid that he would reject it?

            Both yes, and no. Offering a draw is giving to your opponent some extra confidence. Therefore, I usually try not to do so, especially if the situation is in his/her favour. Here though I offered, and I consider this a good decision. There are two possible answers, and both of them are good for me.

1)      He accepts the draw- the job is done, the aim is achieved, the prize is taken. This is that simple.

2)      He rejects the draw. The game goes on, but I have profited from the situation. At least now, I know what I am playing for- the game is getting normal, and we will both be fighting for the point. Who will prevail? You never know, but as the position is equal already, it might well be me. There is an additional reason for offering the draw that early. This draw offer puts the ball into the opponent’s corner. He/she is the one who needs to prove something, to show that he is playing for a win. Sometimes they have to take risks to do that, subconsciously looking for ways to avoid the draw, and at the same time the players who reject the draw in such a situation might tend to gamble unnecessary.

GM Joel Benjamin did not want to risk. After all, he was sharing the tournament win with the draw too. And as he pointed out in the post-mortem, after having a good tournament he did not want to risk and spoil it at the last possible moment. The colour of the pieces here did not matter at all either, as the final position is completely leveled. 

Not always do we have such an understanding person facing us. On the second board at the same tournament GM Rozentalis needed a win only against GM Arencibia to catch us. At the same time his opponent was happy with a draw. Here is that game:


The Cuban GM played extra solidly and achieved his aim.

However, I would like to end this article with one more story of Tal's. Even as a junior player, he had the reputation of a "hussar", a gambler, ready to sacrifice anything. This was not the kind of player which a trainer might need in a team competition, and his trainer by that time prohibited him from playing too aggressively, and being against all draws. 

In his next game Tal sacrificed a pawn (it was a theoretical line where the sac was usual) but then, when the position required drastic measures (a piece sacrifice) recalled his trainer's advice and made a solid, but passive move. Naturally, he did not get the compensation he was looking for, and lost the game.

And this happened always when he was betraying his style.

The moral of all this is that the best advice one can get when playing for a draw is- be yourself, and play your usual chess. A draw can also be achieved with colourful and full-blooded battle, which will increase your satisfaction.

Good luck!

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