A Cure for SAD (Severe Acute Drawitis)?

11/3/2005 – Draws, draws, draws – the problem has always faced chess, and it seems that there is no clear way to solve it. However, Ignatius Leong and Leung Weiwen, both of Singapore, offer a radical new proposal that would decide every game of chess in a sporting fashion. Will it catch on?

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A Cure for Severe Acute Drawitis?

By Ignatius Leong and Leung Weiwen

Remember this tournament report last year?

Vladimir Kramnik took clear first in Linares for the first time. He got a short draw and then watched as Vallejo defended against Kasparov for over five hours in an interesting game. 79% of the games were drawn in Linares this year, many of them in under 25 moves, including seven by the tournament winner.


Vladimir Kramnik starts his 20-mover against Topalov in Linares 2004

To which Nigel Short satirically wrote:

The World Health Organisation has given notice of a disease that is of potentially far greater virulence and destructiveness than the recent avian flu epidemic. The source of this latest deadly outbreak has been identified as the small Andalucian town of Linares where seven people have been diagnosed as suffering from Severe Acute Drawitis (SAD). Those afflicted with SAD display an uncontrollable urge to offer or accept premature peace proposals. Specialists warn that the latest strain of the virus is particularly contagious.

Previous outbreaks were largely confined to those with marked genetic susceptibility to the early handshake, but this one also affects those with no prior history of pacifism. It is a tragedy that the world’s greatest SAD expert, Senor Luis Rentero, suffered a near fatal car crash a few years ago and has been invalided ever since. The bluff doctor’s patent carrot and stick cures (bonuses and fines) were frequently criticised in their day as being primitive and excessive, but there was no denying their effectiveness in eradicating the scourge.

In the latest New In Chess Judit Polgar said of Kramnik: “I like Vladimir very much, a nice guy, but ... although he is the World Champion, he is not a real champion. He has hardly won a game since he beat Kasparov. He barely plays.”

As Short noted, Judit’s views were perhaps exaggerated, but, unfortunately, not by much.

It is clear that something has to be done about the problem of excessive draws, which make chess less than sportive. Linares 2004 may be an extreme example (with 79% draws), but many other top-level tournaments and matches have seen an exceedingly high percentage of draws, or at least have a significant enough percentage of short draws that they impact the flavour of the tournament. The draw percentage is high enough for sponsors and spectators to be put off. As Grandmaster Maurice Ashley noted, the chief organiser of the US Championships, Erik Anderson, was shocked, angered, and deeply disappointed after seeing three of the top four boards agreeing to quick draws in the last round, when tension was at its peak. He felt that the sponsors, who had coughed up much of the tournament’s US $25,000 prize fund, were terribly insulted by the actions of the players, who had snuffed out most of the drama of the event.

Geurt Gijssen also recalls an incident in the World Cup tournament in 1989 when two top grandmasters agreed a draw after 1.h4 (!). Acting as the tournament’s organiser, he refused to accept this game because the image of the tournament would be marred and the sponsors unsatisfied. He had the players play another game, which, “unsurprisingly, was also a draw”.

A renowned Russian trainer also notes:

In the December 2001 match between Kasparov and Kramnik in Moscow, 3 out of 4 games played with classical time controls ended in quick draws. Of course, those were not pre-arranged draws – they were rather the results of over-developed opening preparation, but nevertheless spectators often felt cheated. – Mark Dvoretsky

How, then, should organisers and arbiters deal with the problem? So far, the approaches have mostly been of a conservative nature. Many argue that draws are an integral part of chess, and perhaps even the natural result of the game. Hence, there is no reason to disallow draws. Moreover, as some in favour of this approach argue, it is little within the powers of the organisers and the arbiters to prevent players from agreeing quick draws in the short run. In the long term, however, organisers may choose not to invite players who frequently end games prematurely.

I know that with perfect play, God versus God, Fritz versus Fritz, chess is a draw and yet – unreasonably, I know – I keep hoping to see a few more decisive games. Can I be cured? Of course, I do not really want to be cured. ... Nevertheless, I would argue that there is distinction between those for whom the quick handshake is the norm and those for whom it is an aberration. It is incumbent upon organisers to recognise this. – Nigel Short, March 2004

While this point of view has its merits, and is indeed a step forward in resolving the situation, it is far from an ideal solution. Besides the fact that it is difficult to draw a line right down the centre between those who regard it as an “aberration” and a “norm”, it is also hard for sponsors to hold top-level tournaments when many grandmasters currently have the habit of agreeing quick draws. Most importantly, it is limited in scope: organisers can choose not invite players to round-robin tournaments, but what about open events and championships (as was the case for the US Championships)? And what about the “results of over-developed opening preparation”?

In such cases, organisers may choose to implement new rules, the most common of which has been to disallow draws before the game has reached a certain length. Luis Rentero often organised tournaments where agreed draws in the early stages of the game were forbidden. In a similar vein, the United States Chess Federation once prohibited agreed draws before move 30.

This slightly less conservative approach, again, provides a partial remedy to the problem. However, it is clearly no panacea to the problem. Recent versions of the USCF handbook note that the rule was abolished because players found ways to circumvent it; either by shaking hands after move 30 or arranging draws by threefold repetition. If players wanted to agree draws, they could always do so. The percentage of decisive games would remain essentially unchanged; the only impact such rules have when implemented are to lengthen games.

Even if a drastic approach is taken, as was during the Sofia tournament this year where draw offers were outlawed at any stage of the game, Paul Truong noted that players could always have a draw if they wanted to. Furthermore, the problem of games which end legitimately after the opening (due to lack of play) has not been addressed. It is clear that a radical solution to the problem is needed.

Our Solution

Our proposed solution does not change the rules about draws by mutual agreement, which still can be offered and accepted at any stage of the game. Instead, we believe that draws should not be accepted as a final chess result. Automatically, whenever a game ends in a draw, the two players shall immediately draw colours for a blitz playoff.

Depending on the time control and other constraints of the tournament, one of several possible styles could be used. For instance asudden death game will be played where White has 6 minutes and Black, 5. In the case of a draw, Black will be declared the winner.

It will be up to FIDE to decide whether the rating system should still recognize draws or simply take the result of the playoff.

Even if these measures are implemented, there are still bound to be problems. For instance, in a tournament involving standard time controls, two players could agree to a short draw and then only fight it out in the blitz or sudden death games. This would enable them to save energy for later rounds. In knockout tournaments such as the World Championships, it is frequently reported that competitors engage in such practices, especially when they were even matches occur early in the tournament. Similar practices have also been alleged in other sports, especially those involving rackets. Whenever a match is played between two players of the same federation, suspicions that the two players have agreed prior to the game that the match will be decided in the first set often fly around. (In such cases, it is presumed that the players have agreed that the loser of the first set would throw all subsequent sets, again in order to save energy.)

An additional feature of our system would prevent this. We propose deducting a percentage of the prize money, say, 10%, after dividing the number of rounds. For instance, if the second prize of a 10-round tournament is $20,000, and a player had two draws (with a score of nine points), then he receives $16,000 ($2,000 x 8 wins) plus $3,600 for the two draws. A portion of the prize fund deducted may be used to give additional prizes which were unannounced (perhaps even unconventional ones like Best Fighting Spirit?). This may be slightly complicated but players are discouraged from taking short draws in the initial matches.

A legitimate concern about this is that players who have fought hard, but only to achieve peace on the chessboard, would be disadvantaged. However, it is important to note that the percentage of the prize fund here deducted would be small, although significant enough to cause those who wish to agree to quick draws to think twice. Moreover, in the long run, if we presume that the percentage of truly drawn games is the same among all players, then no player would be more heavily penalized than the other.

Some may question the assumption that the percentage of truly drawn games will not differ amongst players. Indeed, if our proposal is adopted, a specialist of the Sicilian Defence will find that his prize money is often higher than one who uses the drawish Berlin Defence. However, the point is, exciting play ought to be rewarded by organisers – spectators simply do not want to see a repeat of Kasparov-Kramnik, 2001. To draw a parallel with soccer, was it not a common rant in the press by sponsors and spectators that the Greek ultra-defensive style of play in Euro 2004 championship sucked the fun out of the game, legitimate as it may be? The point is that a protective method of playing chess will be allowed – it will just not be encouraged because it does not help chess.

To quote Mark Dvoretsky again, “many sports have, at some point in their history, reached a stage when people had to find ways to make those sports more popular and attractive for spectators.” Indeed, with increasing recognition as a sport at the international stage (Southeast Asian Games, Asian Games, and potentially others), and more and more National Federations becoming affiliated to their respective Olympic committees, and their measures to popularize chess in the developing world, the number of chess players has hardly ever been higher. However, these can only help so much – chess must become more sporting. No matter which teams are playing in a football match, the fans would rather see some goals than no goals at all. No matter how interesting a football match may have been played, a goalless match is uninteresting. Similarly for us, if we want to retain our chess fans, we have to make the game for exciting. After all, like it or not, chess will survive not because of just great chessplayers, but more importantly, how many followers of the game there are and henceforth, the media and the sponsorship.

We thus hope that the chess world will consider this proposal seriously.

Ignatius Leong is FIDE Secretary-General and President of the ASEAN Chess Confederation. He is also Chairman of the FIDE Development Commission. He was Asia’s first International Organiser and among the first to receive the title of FIDE Senior Trainer. At 23, he became one of the world’s youngest International Arbiters. Leong is also Director of the ASEAN Chess Academy, which has produced many promising local talents and now attracts talent from around the region. He had played in three Olympiads.
Leung Weiwen is the current Rating Officer of the Singapore Chess Federation. Only 17, he is already an experienced arbiter locally. He was Deputy Chief Arbiter for the Singapore-Malaysia match in 2003 & 2004 and also for the National Championships this year, and also Arbiter and Webmaster of the 6th ASEAN Age-Group Championships. He has also represented Singapore several times with a team bronze at the ASEAN U14 Championships and has been thrice Captain of the team which won the National Schools Championships.


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