Tie Another Day
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Tie Another Day


I recently helped arbiter at the Delancy UK chess challenge held at Harrow High School last weekend. The UK chess challenge holds a special place in my heart as it was my first introduction to competitive chess over 16 years ago. At the tender age of 9 I competed in the first tier of the competition: "The Megafinal." I felt confident in dishing out hefty punishment to my opposition as I steamrolled through my school qualifier with an impressive 19/21pts (+6=0-1: Curse you Tom King for ruining my winning streak! I have still not forgotten!). My results were due to me unleashing my unstoppable opening! The Scholar's mate! At nine I was unbeatable, winning games by either checkmating in four or dancing my queen around the opposition's position winning games through their careless missteps:

Sadly I completely underestimated my competition and proceeded to lose my first three games to start the tournament with a disheartening 0/3. My queen strategy faltered as defenses began to get tougher and tougher! In order to qualify to the next stage (The Gigafinal - clearly there is a computer theme here...) you needed to score 4/6... With my third loss I returned to my father to report the bad news. My dad, reassuringly just said: "Oh well boy (he still calls me boy, but that's another story for the psychiatrist...), you can now just play your own game now. There is no pressure now." My dad's sage advice worked and thankfully I had managed to find my form and in the second half of the tournament I managed to score 3/3 ending on a slightly more respectable 3/6!  Considering my impressive come-back it was a real shame that I did not qualify for the next round...

Unfortunately my school would not run the UK chess challenge the following year and I would never return to a mega-final to reap my revenge. Instead, by helping run the event, I would in turn watch the mixture of disappointment and joy from the children competing. 

The event, the challengers, involved around 370 children competing to reach the Terrafinal (The National final) an event that initially started with 40000 children across the UK making it easily the largest chess competition in the world! I would be running three separate sections in this particular event: The U18s, U14s and the U12 girls. As this is close to the final national stage, the level of play at this point is very strong. In the U14s section alone, if I competed, I would be somewhere in the middle of the playing field seeded 14th/28! Even the top seeded player had an impressive FIDE rating of over 2000! Very impressive considering his young age. 

The event started like any of these events normally do. The first rounds are always chaotic as both children and parents clamber over each other to find their seating positions in their relevant sections. However by round 4, weird results started to crop up. As a preface, for this special "last-chance saloon" event the player with the highest score in each section would qualify for the national Terrafinal (no tiebreaks for the top score though).

The top two players on board one instead of throwing everything into their position, decided to play a very unusual game...:

The players were to raise their hands when the completed the game so I could record the results. "We have a draw by repetition" stated one of the players.

"But you have not played any moves" I said.

Immediately the other player retorted: "Oh we have, but it was a three-fold repetition" before proceeding to show me the monstrosity that was this game. Now here I should have defaulted both players for unsportsmanlike conduct, but as there were kids I decided to declare the game a draw and let them continue in the tournament - After all their foolishness by agreeing to a draw may cost them later in the "winner takes all" scenario I outlined earlier.  

The next few rounds pass and more and more draws crop up. In round one every game was a decisive affair. By round 5/6, fifty percent of the the results were being drawn! In one of the final games, a player rated 1900 FIDE on the second board, was two pawns up in an easy rook and pawn ending. Again his hand was raised: "We have agreed to a draw."

I quickly assessed the board. "Really?" I stated "but you are clearly winning."

"It's okay" said one of the players. "We both wanted to compete in the Terrafinal so have agreed to a draw."

The top board suspiciously followed suit not long after. One side clearly winning, then a draw offer appearing completely out of the blue! I had suspected that in-between rounds, parents and kids discussed all the various permutations in this final round to ensure that as many of them could compete in the national final to share costs of travel and accommodation (as someone who works in hotels this is quite often the biggest cost, especially if the event is over a number of days).

I am sure the black knight would not disagree with a draw option!

Nonetheless my heart began to sink for the integrity of the game. What was happening in this tournament! Surely these kids want to win! Now four players completed their tournament with a result of 4.5/6.0 thus clearly qualifying them for the Terrafinal. There was one last weird result that appeared. On board three both players stood on 3.5/5. Both needed a win in order to qualify for the finals. The final position was like this:

A tricky situation...

White, although able to promote on the next move, would fall prey to a deadly knight fork, drawing the game immediately thus dooming both players from entering the final. A critical decision was reached for this thirteen year old boy. Does he decide to throw the match and give white the win? Or does he not think about the player and just play what is on the board, coldly snatching victory from white?

What made matters worse for black was that the two players were clearly friends, judging by the rapport they had with each other, and a former result may have ended their relationship! I decided to sit down and observe this thrilling conclusion to this final match (it was the last game and my feet were beyond tired). Black raised his hand. "What do I do here?" he asked me "this isn't fair." Black was clearly distressed by this situation but sadly I of course as an arbiter could not intervene as I am not allowed to give advice for players whilst the games are going on. "If I draw, we both lose, if I lose, he goes through and I also lose" he rationalised. "Its a lose lose here..."


Almost reminiscent of the classic prisoner's dilemma

So reader. I turn to you. Based on what you have already seen in this tournament. What would you do? Would you throw the game and let white win allowing him to go to the Terrafinal? Or would you fork the newly promoted queen and knight to win the game! The 13-year old boy had 1 minute and 20 seconds to make this decision - You have all the time in the world. Depending on the comments perhaps I will reveal what happened in a future blog but for now I will leave you with the 13 year-old dilemma...

What would you do?