About five years ago, one of my most favorite and one of my most difficult student asked me a casual question over a cup of coffee in Starbucks. “Why is it Ok for people to agree on draws in chess before the start of a game, isn't that match fixing?”, I casually turned his way and started explaining to him that chess is very different from the other sports and also made it clear to him that throwing away your game with some sort of money deal is what you call match fixing and just agreeing to a draw cannot be. Players agree to a draw for different reasons and the result is mutually beneficial, so it cannot be wrong, right? As I was explaining to him why he was wrong, I could feel that my whole argument was baseless. His question was simple, “Did you finalize the result of the game before it started?” and my answer should have been pretty simple as well, “Yes”.
If you are a chess player who has participated in some professional tournaments, you would have noticed that offering draws before the start of a game is quite a common scenario in the chess world. If you have no idea what I am talking about and you have never done such a thing, good for you, but I know this for sure because I grew up with such practices. I remember offering a draw to my opponent before a game during the under-18 national championship in India to clinch the tittle in a safe manner. My opponent gladly accepted this and I have proudly confessed this to many of my friends since I have never felt this was a wrong thing to do. However, after being in a field for more than 20 years, opinions are bound to change. My take on draw offers, particularly the ones offered before the actual game have changed drastically.
Even today, being a Grandmaster, it is very common to face a situation where I am up against a young kid who is 'this' close to making an International or Grandmaster norm and I receive a draw offer from either the parent or the player themselves in order to guarantee their result. In fact, it goes to an extent where some people even get mad at you if you are not willing to accept such offers since that is 'supposedly' a courteous thing to do. When I was that young kid, I felt the same way! What these people or the young me did not understand is that I am not refusing a draw offer before hand because I have become a Grandmaster and I would like that elite pool of geniuses to be small and I make sure anyone who tries to share that glory with me has to go through hell to pay their dues (Well! partly this reason too :D). Rather it is because I have grown as a chess player and I feel there are some do's and dont's that need to be distinguished very clearly in the chess world.
Chess is one of the most beautiful sport/art that I have ever learned and I love my fate for leading me into such a game. Having been based on war and battle field, it is natural that this game, right from the beginning has had this optional truce signing process, where both parties can agree not to waste their resources and just agree upon a peaceful result. In modern day, things have gotten so competitive that agreeing on a draw result cannot even be dreamt about in any other sport. Imagine Nadal being up 2 sets to 1 against Federer, but feels some slight pain in his legs and decides to offer a draw which Federer accepts and they both happily share the cup! Before you even think about it, I can tell you, I am comparing apples with apples here, Tennis is a sport and so is Chess. Peace, can be a wonderful thing in a real war, but unfortunately it cannot be celebrated as much in a sport.
People only want to watch a competitive game where the players are out for each others blood. A game which produces a result no matter how equally two teams or individuals are matched, excites the viewers. Draws are of course a part of several other sports and it is easy to argue that Chess is played mainly in the Swiss League format where a result in each game is not an absolute necessity. But if we carefully notice, in no other sport can you mutually agree for a draw thereby avoiding an intense battle for whatever reason. A draw can eventually happen at the end of play, but two soccer teams do not agree on a draw at the end of half time because they do not feel like playing anymore! Chess may not be a spectator sport, but by having such practices we are just pushing away the few who respect and enjoy the game. In any case, agreeing to a draw during play is just a whole different ball game, let us get back on track about the technically illegal draw practices.
I am not aware of why other people follow such pregame draw practices, but I can talk about the reasons why I agreed to draws and they have been for the following reasons,
One of the main reason was fitness, if there were two rounds in a day and I was facing a strong opposition particularly from the black side, I am not in a mood to fight and I tell myself, a draw should be good here and I can come back and play fighting chess the next day.
The second reason is what I had pointed out earlier. In order to achieve a tittle or a norm result without risking the actual play of a game where one might lose and not achieve their desired result.
The third reason, also a very popular reason, monetary benefit. Let us say if you win the last round you get paid 2000 dollars, a draw will fetch you 1200 dollars and a loss will get you only 200 dollars. It is natural for professional chess players, who are inherently poor (not much money involved in professional chess) to safely pocket their 1200 dollar prize money without taking a chance against a fellow Grandmaster and lose it all.
I have given these three reasons at several different occasions in my chess career and I know several of my chess playing friends have given such reasons as well to agree to a draw before hand. Now, let us consider each of these reasons and see if they really are valuable reasons that should be appreciated in the future?
The first reason clearly shows that I am not fit for the level of competition. If I cannot play 8 hours a day and deliver good results that just shows that I have not trained myself to face the right tournament conditions. If a player gets heat stroke in the Australian Open then the equation would be simple, either the player has not trained himself well or he is just not fit to play there. In any case the player does not have any other excuse.
The second reason is just too tempting as a player. You have played eight rounds of hard fought chess to achieve what would be one of the best tournament results in your life, but you are a tad bit scared about what would happen if things did not work well in the last round and you lose? This is just fear. If you do not wrap up a good position and give up a good lead in your game or get scared in between a tournament, you are the only one to be blamed. The chances are that you are going to definitely complete that norm or the tittle if you continue to play the same way you did through out the tournament without giving room for fear.
The third reason in my opinion is the most practical defense to such draw offers. It is very hard to be a chess professional and there is no secret about that. Playing cannot fetch you enough unless you are in the top 10 in the world. If you are married and have children, then you can forget about making a good living out of professional chess as a normal Grandmaster. This situation makes it even harder to follow principles such as avoiding draw offers. This just draws the debate into a bigger social problem of breaking the law when one is pushed to a corner (legally wrong, but practically necessary). I am not sure we have enough time or space in this blog to cover that.
As always, my blogs are not intended to create a change (maybe nice), but just to invoke a thought. It is important to know why we do certain things and how we justify them. Sometimes I continue to do things that would be wrong in a perfect world, but unfortunately we do not live in the perfect world and we need to be practical to lead a good life. Nevertheless knowing where we stand just helps.