On Quick Draws in Tournament Chess

IM dpruess
Feb 3, 2009, 5:35 PM |

Imagine: someone takes a bus to a subway station; rides the train for 40 minutes to arrive at the airport; stands in a line to check in their luggage; stands in another line for an hour being reminded that the world is full of evil people who want to kill innocent people; wriggles about uncomfortably in an airplane seat that doesn't fit them for 4 hours; exhausted, pays 30$ for a taxi to a hotel rather than figuring out the public transport system in a new city; checks in and, after a quick call to a loved one, goes to bed without doing anything, so that they will be in peak shape the next morning; showers, dresses, and hurriedly downs some eggs in the hotel restaurant (they won't be seeing the sky anytime soon); finally! sits down at a chess board; plays out some opening moves they have seen before... and then offers their opponent a draw, which is promptly accepted with a friendly handshake. What happened here? Did they suddenly realize they have something they would rather do than play chess? This seems nonsensical to me.

I have long been of the opinion that early draws, and to some extent any draw in a position with pieces left on the board, are reprehensible from three different perspectives. First, they show a lack of character on the part of the parties to the draw. I think draws have two primary motivations*: fear, and lust for honor and rewards. I don't need to write at length to demonstrate that if you shy away from playing through fear, it's unattractive. Look, I am not calling it criminal. I'm just saying, people will find someone who has 1) the perspective to enjoy playing without regard to losses or 2) the strength to master their fears rather than being enslaved by them, much sexier. Anyone taking draws due to a lust for honor should bear this in mind: you look cooler losing after playing your heart out for 40 moves against Topalov than after coughing up 10 moves of theory and agreeing a draw with Kramnik, because he's not motivated to beat you that day. As for the final reason, "I gotta get paid," I, too, have no other answer than "well hey, that's the way it is."

The other two arguments I have against un-played draws are a bit more normative, but actually, I think that first reason is the most important, because I believe in always trying to live your life in the best way. It's an aesthetic probably worthy of an "ought."

Agreed draws, and draws tacitly agreed upon based upon an understanding of standings, falsify tournament results. Imagine the final round of a tournament. One player leads by a full point, and is not paired with the player trailing him (they've already played, whether it's a swiss or round robin). Now if the leading player is paired with a friend, he has already clinched the tournament. His friend agrees the draw, they shake agreeably, congratulations and smiles [that make me sick] all around. Or he is paired with a friend of the trailing player. Now he has to fight and earn his title, maybe he won't get it. Thus we can see that results may be strongly influenced by friendships, enmities, luck of pairing-- elements whose impact would ideally be minimal. The results of a tournament should be decided by the number of games of chess specified before the start of the event, not by whether you get paired with a friend or foe, or top rival's friend or foe.
Or consider a FIDE title norm**, rather than a tournament title (with attendant prize money). The FIDE handbook says: "1.41a The player must play at least 9 games." But it is a pretty common practice that if someone has played well enough for 8 rounds, such that a half point in the ninth game would suffice for a norm, their opponent will offer a draw. The legalistic defense of such a practice would be to say, the rules of the game allow for the two players to make a draw by agreement at any point, therefore, this is indeed a game and the player has played 9 games. However, would you really consider 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Ne5 d6 4.Nf3 Ne4 5.Qe2 Qe7 6.d3 draw agreed a game? I believe that in spirit, this is definitely not a game, and if you agree with me, then you'd agree that someone who has "played" that as one of their 9 games, has in fact only played 8 games. This practice is accepted because we have become accustomed to it, and because as far as international titles are concerned, there are much greater frauds to worry about. However, I believe chess players should be reminded that most people would still consider this practice to be fraud.

The last problem with unfought draws is their negative effect upon chess as a spectator sport. Such a draw is nothing to watch for spectators. Depending on the type of competition, short draws may often leave the organizers of the event with nothing to show the fans on a given day. This is at its worst in a match, like the recent Leko - Ivanchuk rapid match. When there is a 15 move draw, there is nothing at all to watch. Anyone who came to spectate or report live will wonder why they got out of bed at all. In a small round robin, where there are between three and seven games in a day, a couple short draws can really dullen things significantly. Finally in a large swiss, the games, which have the drama potential to get people more excited, are those on the top boards, and those are the ones most likely to be quickly drawn by players afraid of losing large sums of money if they lose. There is unfortunately a downward spiral here which is hard to get out of. So long as the prizes that professional players are fighting for are insufficient to give them a comfortable life, they will have to hedge themselves by making such quick draws. But so long as games are not fought out to a final position intelligible to a club-level player, we will constantly lose sponsors, who are disappointed by what appears to be a lack of effort on the part of the players. This means that players will continue to have to scrap for small prize funds. On any given day, for a professional player to ignore the financial imperative of securing a prize, and play with their heart, so that in five years the game might have better sponsorship, is either a luxury or a fantasy. It also happens to be one of the principal things they could do to improve their situation in the long-run.

I'm not providing any solutions to a "problem" here, nor seeking to insult those players who have made 1, 2, 10, or 100 short draws. I'm just giving some of my thoughts on an issue which professional chess faces.

* Note: this piece leaves out any discussion of a third important motivation for short draws: not wanting to play against a dear friend or a training/study partner.

** FIDE title norm: in order to receive a title from the international chess federation, a player usually must have 1) a certain qualifying rating, e.g. 2200, 2300, 2400. and 2) 3 norms -- results in 3 different tournaments meeting criteria for a) an outstanding performance b) competition against sufficient title-holders c) competition against players from sufficient different countries and d) various other format-related criteria.