In praise of draws

ArnieChipmunk
CM ArnieChipmunk
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0 | Chess Event Coverage

What’s the best and most unique thing about chess? Of course it’s the fact that we have long lasting world championship matches. The immense tension is not restricted to one or two hours (football, tennis), or a few days at most (cricket, snooker), but lasts several weeks or even months. This is something we should praise, not condemn.

Boris Gelfand and Vishy Anand shaking hands at the opening ceremony of their 2012 World Championship match

Only two games have been played in Moscow so far and already Vishy Anand and Boris Gelfand are heavily condemned on this and other chess forums for playing ‘boring chess’ and 'not putting up a fight’. People demand the Sofia rule and prefer the ‘fighting chess’ of Aronian and Carlsen.

This criticism shows not only lack of historical awareness but also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of world championship matches in general, because they are and have always been about slowly strangling your opponent instead of swiftly overcoming him with flashy aggression.

First, it should be noted that starting a world championship match with a couple of draws is absolutely nothing unusual in the history of chess. In 1910, Lasker and Schlechter started their match with four draws. Eleven years later, Lasker and Capablanca’s first two games were drawn. Of the first five games in Botvinnik-Tal, 1960, and Botvinnik-Petrosian, 1963, four were drawn. Karpov-Korchnoi, 1978, started with seven draws and Kasparov-Karpov, 1986, with three. Most of these draws were short and uneventful from an individual game perspective. Yet these were all extremely exciting and tense matches throughout.

Korchnoi vs Karpov in Baguio City, Philippines (1978) started with seven draws

But it’s not even necessary to look back in history. Just consider: how did you fall in love with chess yourself? Most chess players I know became interested in chess because they started following a world championship match. For many people the matches Spassky-Fischer, 1972 and Karpov-Kasparov, 1984 formed the turning point in their chess lives as they became utterly absorbed by these epic fights, those outstanding clashes of personalities and playing styles.

For me, Seville 1987 was the match that changed my life, hooking me to chess every since. I remember buying several newspapers every day, cutting out the game reports and pasting them into a notebook with my own comments written in the margins.

Draws, be they long or short, form an essential part of chess, and especially in matches. They are inevitable because the players need to save their energy, because it’s more efficient to look at a surprising new idea in your hotel room than behind the board with the clock ticking, and because offering and accepting draws is always a psychologically significant part of a chess game. In short, draws form the basic ingredients of long chess matches. We, the spectators, instead of complaining, should be patiently analyzing every nuance, every detail, every little hint of physical or psychological weakness.

For me, two world championship matches stand out in this respect: Capablanca-Alekhine, 1927 and Karpov-Kasparov, 1984. Yet if you go by the comments on the web, these would now be regarded as the most boring matches ever. Capablanca and Alekhine repeated the same opening again and again (the Queen’s Gambit Declined!), with both Black and White, trying to improve play with the subtlest of novelties and improvements. Kasparov sat desperately in his hotel room for months, together with his mother, drawing game after game, many of them extremely short, in order not to lose the match 6-0.

Many QGD's in Alekhine-Capablanca, Buenos Aires 1927  this photo however is known to be fake

Yet these were classic duels, infinitely more rich and complex than Muhammad Ali’s best boxing fights and Björn Borg’s epic Wimbledon clashes with Jimmy Connors. And they became classic not only because of the victories that we all know, but because of tension caused by less obvious psychological methods. By repeating opening lines, by sometimes making quick draws, by patiently awaiting the right moment to strike - in short, by not conceding an inch, mentally and physically, over weeks or months.

If you don’t like this – if you only like fast, aggressive action - then you don’t really like chess. Don’t spoil it for the rest of us. Go watch wrestle mania or something.

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