Nakamura On Quick Draw With So: 'There Was Little Incentive'
Hikaru Nakamura. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Nakamura On Quick Draw With So: 'There Was Little Incentive'

| 46 | Chess Event Coverage

"At the end of the day there was little incentive," GM Hikaru Nakamura said about his quick draw against GM Wesley So in the final of the third leg of the FIDE Grand Prix. Both players commented on it in an interview after the tournament, and Nakamura also posted his point of view on Reddit, providing a rare insight into the mind of top GMs regarding quick draws and incentives.

The second classical game of that Grand Prix final between Nakamura and So, played last Sunday, featured one of the well-known opening variations that can lead to a peaceful result right from the start. In this case, it was the Berlin variation of the Ruy Lopez, named after the city where the players were playing their game.

The position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.dxe5 Nxb5 7.a4 Nbd4 8.Nxd4 Nxd4 9.Qxd4 d5 10.exd6 Qxd6 after which the game quickly ended in a draw by move repetition: 11.Qe4+ Qe6 12.Qd4 Qd6 13.Qe4+ Qe6 14.Qd4 Qd6.

This line has been used a lot at the top level recently, especially in online play. If you look into the database starting from 2020, there are 87 games where this line was played with at least one player rated 2700 or higher. In 82 of these games, the draw was agreed right away by move repetition. Only in five games, the white player avoided the repetition which led to four decisive games. Overall, it is safe to say that top players may use this line to force a draw right from the start.

Nakamura himself was involved in almost half of these 87 games. He played it 20 times from the black side and 23 times from the white side. So was involved in 32 games, using it 12 times to draw as white, while with the black pieces he drew 19 times and even won one game.

Before the Berlin final last weekend, Nakamura and So drew 11 games, all online, between themselves using this variation. Nakamura was playing the white pieces six times; So had white five times.

It should be noted that from this sample of games since early 2020, 80 were played online. Two over-the-board games were rapid or blitz. The five classical games that saw this line were:

  • Vitiugov-Matlakov, Russian Championship Superfinal 2020
  • Aronian-Radjabov, Superbet Classic 2021
  • Mamedov-Mamedyarov, European Club Cup 2021
  • Kantans-Anand, Bundesliga 2021
  • Nakamura-So, Berlin Grand Prix 2022

Seeing this quick draw in a classical game was quite rare, and prompted a journalist working for the Austrian chess magazine Schack-Aktiv to ask Nakamura if he doesn't think a player has a "responsibility" for spectators in Berlin who "paid money and sometimes came from far away."

In his direct response on camera, Nakamura said that the tournament format gave him little reason to play for more, especially since he had already qualified for the FIDE Candidates Tournament by reaching the semifinals:

"I'll just answer it very simply. I think it's on World Chess and FIDE to have a better format. I think it's that simple. The fact is, if you look at the first event for example [also in Berlin, in February - PD], where I played with Levon [Aronian], there was a lot of tension, there were no quick draws. It's up to the organizers to come up with a format that makes sense. By the semifinals even, to be honest, I wasn't even studying chess because there was nothing really to do. I just show up and try to make some draws and that's that. Because, already, the main thing everybody is playing for is to qualify. I think you can say that it's on the players, but I could also say the other way. The first game, Wesley played something that objectively can lead to a draw instantly as well. I think it's on the organizers, not the players."

So, who was standing right next to Nakamura, gave his two cents as well:

"I must also add that that's the nature of the game; the majority of chess games really end in draws. If there is a way to eliminate draws and just have decisive results every single game, I must say I am all for that, but you must understand that as a professional chess player we see one tournament as a whole. It's our 13th day. We don't take it one game, one event, so basically we have another game the next day so you got to think of the tournament as a whole, you gotta preserve your energy, also you gotta prepare, sleep well. Also, I was thinking about yesterday: we're paid not for playing, we're paid based on our performance, so if I had lost yesterday then I wouldn't have been here and vice versa."

The interview with Nakamura and So. Video: World Chess.

The journalist then suggested that Nakamura (as White) chose to play the quick draw because he was also playing in the Rapid Chess Championship later that day, but Nakamura denied that that was the reason:

"I would have made a quick draw anyway, even if there wasn't a tournament in the evening. I think some people will probably start talking about ratings again as well. The simple fact is that at the end of the day there is one rating that matters the most and that is the classical chess rating, not the rapid or the blitz rating. At this point, with nothing to play for, what are you gonna do? I was already very tired at that point."

In a post on Reddit, Nakamura clarified things a bit more. Here it is in full:

I will leave a comment here on this thread with some basic truths. Applicable to most top-level events.


1. Main goal of the Grand Prix/Tournament (qualify for candidates/win). Obviously decided a week ago.

2. Conserve classical rating if possible/no risk without anything on the line. Invitations are generally based off of rating so this is NOT insignificant.

3. We both played for something like 14 days in a row without a break. Being tired with little incentive is also what led to this.

I will end by stating that at the end of the day there was little incentive and if I'm being honest, nothing is going to change for anyone based on rapid/blitz ratings. However, you could miss out on invites if you lose points in classical on a random non-essential game. End of the day, the incentives for events/games as opposed to maintaining the classical rating isn't there. Unless prizes are 2xed or 3xed for otb tournaments, this is never going to change. There will always be situations with quick draws.

Also, most people don't seem to understand how rare/valuable new ideas are and to use it in such a situation makes zero sense for me with the candidates coming up, and Wesley would much rather use it in the America's Cup.

The variation in the Berlin Ruy Lopez is not the only line used by top grandmasters if they are happy with a draw playing white. Generally speaking, it happens from time to time that games end in a draw without a real fight. Many top tournaments have introduced rules where draw offers are not allowed before move 30 or 40, but these opening variations can side-step that because of the three-fold repetition rule.

Especially for events that are part of the world championship cycle, FIDE tends to be conservative with changing rules, and indeed, as So pointed out, draws are part of the game. Whether it's a big problem that top players draw games at a classical time control using a known variation, is something the chess community has to decide and up to organizers to deal with. A full ban on such variations is not expected to be implemented, if only because players will find other ways to draw the game if both are happy with that result. If draws should be banned altogether is another story.

Peter Doggers

Peter Doggers joined a chess club a month before turning 15 and still plays for it. He used to be an active tournament player and holds two IM norms.

Peter has a Master of Arts degree in Dutch Language & Literature. He briefly worked at New in Chess, then as a Dutch teacher and then in a project for improving safety and security in Amsterdam schools.

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