Punishing a Chess Pro for Making a Draw

Punishing a Chess Pro for Making a Draw

Silman
IM Silman
May 10, 2010, 12:00 AM |
118 | Other

Mr.unknown asked:

My question concerns agreed upon draws, by which players wish to protect their ratings and/or standings in tournaments (as either individuals or team members).

This seems to be a form of corruption and abuse of the game. I’ve heard that granting points only for wins/losses is one way to combat this, but I see that it isn’t applied in most tournaments and matches. What can be done to prevent the “political draw” and/or penalize it?

Dear Mr.unknown:

Yes, we definitely need to find new ways to penalize chess players. After all, most chess pros live in states of near poverty – starving artists that live for the game. And, when they play in tournaments (which often offers first prizes in the hundreds of dollars), their rent might well be on the line – if they win, they get to avoid sleeping on the streets for another month. If they lose, it’s first man to that nice bench in the park! Forget about food! Who can afford it?

Of course, the chess pro knows that chess fans will be watching his games at the event. The fans don’t pay for it, nor do they care how the poor pro finds his next meal. All the fan cares about is blood over the board and their personal entertainment. Yes, we must penalize these monsters! We must teach them that your morals are far more important than feeding their children!

The fact is that a player is allowed to offer a draw or accept a draw offer at any time. I have no problem with this. However, losing games on purpose is indeed deplorable. Though this occasionally occurred in professional circles many decades ago, it’s now very rare and, if a player is found to lose on purpose, he will be placed in a deep ditch so that only his head is above ground and covered with honey. The ants and other assorted insects will take care of the rest of his punishment.

But draws? Why shouldn’t a player want to protect his tournament standing? Why shouldn’t he wish to protect his chances for a small prize so that he can pay his bills? Why shouldn’t he wish to protect his rating, which often translates to tournament invitations and chances for better paydays?

I lectured at a series of US Championships in Seattle and often had large audiences (several hundred people). They hated grandmaster draws, but who doesn’t? However, if a middle round draw helped a player to safely get past one of his biggest threats, then it’s hard to really complain. And if a last round draw meant $5,000 while a loss meant $300, can you blame the player for reeling in what might turn out to be his best payday of the year? As for team events, you have a responsibility to the team to help it win the match. If your team is a point up and a draw on your board locks in the victory, the player will often accept a draw even if he feels he stands much better. In such a situation, playing on for ego’s sake (thus risking a personal and team defeat) shows a complete disregard for other members of your team.

Even more egregious in the fans’ mind is the pre-arranged draw! Here the players get together before the game, agree that a draw would suit them both quite well, and then toss out 10 moves before shaking hands. The spectators, many of whom have driven long distances to watch a fight, hate this (understandably so)! That's why I always had five games on demo boards at all times – if one game proved uneventful, there were others that I could turn my attention to.

In my lectures, I always posed the following situation: The players want a draw, and most just do the 10-move routine. But what about players that agree to make a draw while also understanding the need to entertain? These guys actually want the spectators to have a good time, so they sit down for dinner or a drink together and create a fake game. And, when the actual game is played, they pretend to think hard over every move – agony and worry is etched in their faces, their fingers quiver in terror when they reach out to make a move, sacrifices explode over all the board, Kings dash about in a frenzy, and somehow, as if by magic, a perpetual check takes place! The spectators, who were cheering each violent move and equally violent reply, are exhausted by the emotionality of the contest.

My question to my audience: what would you prefer, that 10-move grandmaster draw, or the players entertaining you with massive attacks, king hunts, and blood curdling tactics that, miraculously, turn into a drawn result? Everyone would agree that the fixed game was far superior to the grandmaster quickie.

Your comment that draws are a “form of corruption and abuse of the game” is preposterous. It’s a legal and natural part of chess, and if players wish to make a draw so that they can assure themselves a payday and continued meals for another month, then why shouldn’t they do so? On the other hand, if the event is a 10-player all-play-all, and the participants were paid large fees to fight in each and every game, then I agree that such draws should be avoided. In situations of this kind, failure to fight usually leads to the offending coward not being invited back for the following year’s event.

When I was an active player, I won many tournaments. However, though I was always happy to pick up a few bucks and avoid street living for another month, there would often be a huge sense of dissatisfaction if I didn’t play at least one memorable game. Wins are nice, but if they lack all artistic merit then I walked away more depressed than pleased. Most of my fellow professionals are no different.

Please understand that chess professionals are not trained monkeys that are there to give the spectators pleasure. They are there to do two things: 1) IT’S A JOB. They are there to make money in any way possible so they can feed their families … just like everyone else that has a job. Should I visit the company you work for, find your desk, and demand that you do a dance for me? How about juggling? 2) They play because they love the game, and they long to create works of art on the chessboard.

Offering and accepting draws are a common and legal part of the game. Wanting that to change is pure selfishness, and shows a lack of understanding of what professional chess is all about.

I will add one last thing: When I was an active player, I attended a meeting of the Southern CA Chess Federation, which happened to be held at a large tournament. I proposed that titled players get free entries into all S.CA events since, 1) They often pay an entry fee, win nothing, and have in effect worked to lose money; 2) These are the players that everyone watches – their participation enhances the event.

There were a lot of players watching these proceedings, and after an official from the federation announced that my proposal was shocking and would place too much strain on tournament organizers, some random guy in the audience rushed down to where I was standing and loudly said (foam literally pouring from his mouth!), “You will pay entry fees into these tournaments, I will watch your games, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

It turned out that there was something I could do about it – I never played in another S.CA tournament.

ADDENDUM

I was aware that I was kicking a hornet’s nest (I mentioned this to Mr.Pruess before the article came out), and sure enough, the readers didn’t disappointment me. Of course, I know that people who feel that draws are bad won’t change their minds, so anything I say won’t have any effect on them at all (other than to add grist to their mill). Fair enough … everyone is entitled to their own opinion. However, I’ll add a couple new thoughts, and also comment on a couple of reader letters:

1) Someone mentioned that perhaps the letter was fabricated, while another person thought the question was stupid. No, it was a real question. Occasionally I mix up reader questions and am not sure who wrote what question. When that happens, I just call the person “unknown” or “NN” or something of that kind. In this case, I knew exactly who the person was, but decided to not give his name for two reasons: A) I’ve faced this question (and I feel it’s an important one!) for many years, so my response was going to be an all gun’s blazing kind of thing. B) Since I would be rather aggressive in my tone, I felt it better not to give the gentleman’s name, since he might feel personally attacked. Again – he is not the first nor the last to ask this question, and he shouldn’t feel that my response was personal. Thus, no name.

2) During the time I’ve been doing this column, I’ve noticed people writing to say that one question or another wasn’t worthwhile, while their question was. Why is one question better than another? What kind of ego feels that he’s the only one that has a right to ask what’s on his mind?

3) The real question isn’t whether offering/accepting draws is okay – it’s legal and is obviously okay. The real question is whether the laws should be changed. I feel the rules of chess shouldn’t, but others have equally valid arguments to the contrary. In the World Championship match, the organizers wanted to abide by Sofia Rules, which only allows draws in dead positions or via stalemate and 3 time repetitions. Anand refused, saying that he plays by the World Championship rules, not the organizer’s rules. I applaud Anand for this, while others will feel very differently.

4) One letter equated the hard effort pro-basketball players give in each game to how chess games should be. Really? Pro-basketball players are assured of anywhere from $100,000.000 to a few million for EACH game. Who wouldn’t make a major effort every game for that kind of money? Also, spectators that actually go to a basketball game don’t get in for free … have you seen the prices for good LA Laker tickets lately?

5) I made a clear point in my article that if a player is invited to an event and the organizer (who stipulates that he doesn’t allow quick draws) pays them beforehand (expenses and cash), then the players should abide or not play. But if one plays in a normal event, he can draw in 12 moves if he’s so inclined … that’s legal.

6) I have to smile at all this moralizing “we’d play to the end so you should too!” rhetoric. Is this true? At the World Open they have class prizes of ten grand for “C” players, “B” players, and “A” players. How many “B” players, who found themselves in a last round game for all the marbles, would refuse a 6-move draw if it gave them clear first? If you say you would refuse a draw and play to the end no matter what, then I tip my hat to your resolve. But I’ve seen very few players of any rating refuse a big pay off if a simple handshake makes it a reality. But perhaps the people commenting here mean that pros should play to the end, but they themselves should have the option to take draws if it suits them.

7) One guy hinted that I might be insane. Did I ever say I was sane? And what’s wrong with insanity?

8) One guy said (in response to my, “Chess spectators are owed nothing”), “Neither are chess professionals.” I agree with you! Chess pros aren’t owed anything! And that’s exactly what they get – nothing. No health insurance, no monthly paycheck, nothing. And that’s their decision. But they also should have the right to fight for prizes in any (legal) way they can.

9) Finally, my meaning of “owed”. Many writers crank out several books a year so they can bring in as much cash as possible. Some try and do good work, while others just do database dumps. In my view, any chess fan buying a chess book is indeed owed an effort by the author. My books take years to write because I put everything I have into each one. I try to make it special, and I want readers to come away feeling that they’ve learned something, and that their money was well spent. I owe this to chess fans.

But if a guy walks into a tournament hall, comes up to me, and demands that I go over his game for free (this is quite common!), or if I’m playing, that I sacrifice all my pieces to entertain him … no, I don’t owe this guy anything at all.

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