Look; we need to talk about short draws. Recent elite chess tournaments are witnessing a rise in games either similar – or identical – to these examples. The games will be familiar to anyone following the action over at chess24.com.
Why Play for Short Draws?
What exactly is going on here? Why do the players not want to fight, even though their moves are being followed by an enormous online audience?
Comments on social media make the thoughts of the public known. How dare players agree to such short draws, especially when they are playing for substantial prizes? Why not changer the scoring system, and replace the standard values with three points for a win and one point for a draw? That will teach them! Except, of course, such a change will have no effect whatsoever in a one-to-one match situation. Additionally, it is a moot point as to whether Black is as much to ‘blame’ as White.
Do the players have a moral obligation to fight in a game of chess? Well; do you, when you play? You may have noticed, ‘down at the local club,’ that short, painless draws on the higher boards of a team match are somehow much more palatable than draws on the lower boards. The difference is: ‘Well done; you stopped their best player from winning!’ and ‘Why didn’t you play on? We need to win on the lower boards!’ Armchair morality, just as with every type, should be a two-way principle.
There are may reasons why chess players steer their way to an early draw. These include:
Not wanting to lose.
Not feeling well or in the mood for a tough game.
Needing just a draw for the tournament or match situation.
Wanting to draw against a higher-rated player.
Making some sort of protest.
Having a prior engagement.
The latter is rarer than other reasons, but it does happen. Many years ago, a friend of mine offered his (much lower-rated) opponent a draw in a team match as soon as he saw his date arrive. The unsuspecitng opponent accepted. My friend said he would have resigned immediately if the offer had been declined. That’s how the Queen’s Gambit was played, back in the old days.
‘You Lot Didn’t Invent Short Draws, You Know…’
José Raúl Capablanca, the third World Champion (holding the title from 1921-1927), already wanted to make changes to chess due to his concerns over ‘draw death.’ The worry was that players would be so strong – and the theory of the openings so well worked out – that draws would replace decisive results. He was incorrect, of course. However, he may have nodded in agreement with himself if he could have witnessed the 2018 World Championship between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana end with 12 draws from 12 games. We could then speculate about what his reaction would have been to see the ultimate title decided by Rapidplay games…
Incidentally, Bobby Fischer, one of the most uncompromising of all players, also wanted to change the rules of chess. His ‘Fischerandom’ variation – also know as Chess96o – uses a regular board and set but the starting position is randomly selected before start of play. We even have World Championships for Chess960 (the number refers to the number of possible starting positions). Fischer claimed the ‘old chess’ was dead, but in reality this is not the case. The troubled champion, who could never quite step away from the 64-squared world, would have struggled to keep up to date with the ultra-deep computer-assisted opening preparation which developed in the years he spent hiding away from the world.
Players who habitually continue draw quickly, in bloodless fashion, run the risk of not being invited to future events. Yet all events welcome top players, for reasons of prestige. A perpetually unused ‘punishment’ always runs the risk of falling far short of acting as a deterrent.
Casting the First Stone
Yes, the appearance of short draws can be frustrating when one logs on to follow the big game action, in hope of finding some substantial chess entertainment. Yet the players are not breaking any rules when they only manage to squeeze out little more than 10 moves in a dull Berlin Defense. Which players have never been guilty of playing a game without a fight?
Choose your hero, but it will be a very difficult task to find anyone who will be able to cast the first stone. Just look at the fighters in the following examples.
Bread and Circuses
The Roman poet Juvenal wrote: ‘Two things only the people anxiously desire — bread and circuses.’ It is still the case; deprive people of one of those and they will be unhappy and unafraid to air their displeasure. Armchair analysts make everything sound so easy, of course. Yet now, more than ever, people need distractions and entertainment. Despite the short draws some of the players resort to there are still plenty of other fighting games, usually going on at exactly the same time. Just forget the draws and click on another game. The circus never left town; you just need to bring your own bread.