Feedback: Badminton vs grandmaster draws in chess

8/11/2012 – Yesterday Kung-Ming Tiong drew a comparison between no-contest badminton matches at the Olympics in London, which led to the disqualification of eight players, and short, uncontested draws in grandmaster tournament. Our readers reacted vigorously, mainly pointing to the rather obvious fact that there are no draws in badminton. But many have other valid objections.

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Badminton’s  “Grandmaster Draw” vs Chess

Feedback from our readers

Julian, Kuan, Sydney, Australia
Regardless of the views towards the badminton players, ultimately we're here to talk about chess. Lets not forget that a draw is a positive result for both players, and can't in any way be compared to losing on purpose. It is a perfectly legitimate outcome of the game, and short of changing the game completely (make it still 0-1 if it's a draw?) it will always be so. I understand the issue with Grandmaster draws, but there are ways around it. Both the Sofia rule (no draws under 30), and the 3-1-0 scoring system have done their bit to reduce the number of quick draws, but they cannot be eliminated completely save by changing the tournament format.

The traditional round-robin tournament, long a staple of chess tournaments, has serious drawbacks for the anti-draw enthusiast. In a knockout tournament, for example Wimbledon, the World cup, or the vast majority of Olympic sports, a competitor plays one opponent at a time, with only one of the 2 players advancing. In such a format, taking draws does nothing but prolong the match, as only one can advance eventually.

With this in mind, why doesn't chess have more knockout tournaments? The cost of running such tournaments, due to having to accommodate more competitors, is higher, and so is less attractive to sponsors. We do, however, have a Chess world cup, which is every bit as much as a knockout tournament as Wimbledon. However, this tournament has been much maligned for having results that are too random, with top players often getting upset.

The lesson we should learn from this is that Chess is different to other sports, and shouldn't compare itself to others. Chess fans don't look for crushing upsets and random results (greatly celebrated in other sports), but it seeks to crown the best player winner. At the end of the day, if Chess wants to appeal to a larger, more bloodthirsty audience, it should switch formats (perhaps knockout blitz matches, tennis style scoring?), but then it wouldn't be the same game we love and know now, would it?

Zak Smith, Houston, Texas
I totally agree with this article. The biggest difference between chess and badminton is the "perfect result" (in theory) IS a draw, which means that there is no stigma in NOT winning a game of chess. However, the spirit of the game is a contest, where both sides strive to outplay the other, and if in the end the "perfect game" is played, the result will naturally be that draw. "Grandmaster Draws" are another beast entirely, wherein both players violate the spirit of competition by failing to engage in the combat that is chess, instead giving a halfhearted attempt to assuage the rules while sidestepping the issue of combat on the whole. I agree that such lack of effort damages the game, and should not be coddled nor accepted from this point forward.

Vasilis Kokkalis
Okay guys, enough with this obsession of yours against draws please. At least publish something vaguely relevant if you feel like coming back to the issue! Losing deliberately is nothing like drawing in chess, which can happen after a full seven-hour fight as well. Please respect your readers more in the future.

GM Igor Stohl
The analogy of the badminton scandal in chess are contrived decisive games, not grandmaster draws. Please stop comparing chess with sports, in which a draw is simply impossible!

Paul Lillebo, Asheville, NC, USA
Kung-Ming Tiong misses the point with his comparison of chess draws with the attempted intentional losses in Olympic badminton games. The comparison should of course be with intentionally losing games in chess, a scandalous practice that would be dealt with harshly where it could be proved. But that's not a significant problem in chess. There are cases where a high-rated player may take a draw in a first round of an Open tournament run on the Swiss system, in order to get easier opponents, but even there he wouldn't take an intentional loss.

I do agree that intentional draws have a downside. In a tournament, early opponents of the top player may fight against his strongest efforts, while near the end of the tournament he may coast and not try hard to win. This affects the scores of other players, and therefore seems unfair. But it can't be compared to trying to lose. No one (not even Kung-Ming Tiong, we see) has come up with a method to ensure that a player exert an equal effort in each game. I'm afraid that remains an impossible dream, unless all players have the will-to-win of a Fischer.

I do think the managed draw is especially objectionable in team events, where the team captain often determines the result of a game for strategic reasons. We ought to put an end to that practice by banning the captain from the playing hall, and if possible having team members play their individual games without access to each other, so that each game is played to win.

Perhaps if the badminton players were trying to arrange a draw (!) that would have been less scandalous, though it would certainly have been newsworthy.

Kevin Spiteri, Marsaxlokk, Malta
Trying to lose is different than not trying to win. In real grandmaster draws, the players decide to stop playing when they have no clear advantage. In the badminton case, players were trying to lose to get favourable pairings in the following rounds. Trying to lose is absolutely not the same as not trying to squeeze a win out of a drawish position.

The pairing rules in badminton should be changed since they are partly at fault. The rules should not promote unsporting behaviour; the conflicts between sporting behaviour and tournament performance should be avoided as much as possible. Football takes measures against such behaviour by having last round games played simultaneously. Something similar should be done in badminton.

Grandmaster draws and actively trying to lose are not equivalent, however much the article tries to paint them as such. A possible chess case equivalent to the badminton loss attempts would be if a player intentionally loses a game to improve the opponent's rating, thus causing the opponent to be included in a world championship cycle instead of a third player. The scenario where there is an incentive for unsporting behaviour is possible, but very unlikely. And so it should be in badminton.

In defense of grandmaster draws, different circumstances warrant different behaviour. A player playing the last game in a match when 6-5 behind would risk losing to improve the probability of winning. We cannot accuse players not taking that risk in the first game of the match as unsporting. In a tournament, a player may decide that the effort to go on playing when the probability of winning is say 10% would undermine the expected score in the rounds to come by a larger margin. We cannot accuse the player as unsporting.

Vishwa Krishnamurthy, Boston USA
There is big difference in the comparison of grandmaster draw and the farcical games of Badminton that were on display in the Olympics. It lies in the title itself. "The Draw" . In chess, there is an extra possible result of a draw, where no one is trying to lose on purpose. If at all there should be a comparison, it should be with a chess game where a player resigns on the third move to deliberately lose.

Ludo Tolhuizen, Waalre, The Netherlands
Drawing quickly is different from loosing intentionally (which is a part of tournament tactics in the badminton case).
The badminton players should learn how to loose intentionally in a non-obvious way.

Alexei Kovalczuk, Curitiba, Brazil
I think this text says a lot about what is really going on. It also reminds me of a certain Norwegian player who lost a tournament due a dubious scoring system...

D. Pleo, Connecticut, USA
I don't think what happened with badminton at the Olympics can be compared to grandmaster draws. The badminton players did not agree to a tie. One team was trying to lose to gain a better position in the tournament ladder. In a sense, they were fighting to put themselves in the best position to win the tournament. When GM's agree to a draw early on in a tournament it does not position them any better to win the tournament. Draws in chess are usually detrimental towards eventually winning an event. The situation in badminton can be easily remedied by having the ladder fixed in advance through some kind of pre-determined ranking system based on past records and/or random selection if needed. The problem with GM draws is completely different as the problem and solution has nothing to do with the tournament ladder. The remedy, as history is proving, is not so easy to find.

Charlie Linford, London, England
"How does this incident relate to chess?", asks Kung-Ming Tiong. The short answer is that it does not, as a draw is not an available option in badminton. Whilst GM draws may be unsatisfactory, they are clearly not to be compared to deliberately losing, which is deplorable and, if occuring and proven, would instill the same feelings in the chess world as it did in the badminton world.

Jean-Michel, Montreal, Canada
The comparison doesn't stand at all. The badminton players were trying to lose, not draw. A relevant comparison would have been rumored Soviet-era match fixing to favor certain players. A good comparison to a grandmaster draw would have been a football match where a 0-0 draw qualifies both teams, which happens from time to time and invariably ends up with the expected result.

David Levens, Nottingham, England
While the comments are interesting, comparing chess GM draws to Badminton non-triers is completely missing the point. In the Olympics the badminton players were deliberately trying to get a better draw, or easier opposition, next round! GMs and others who agree early draws (I don't approve of this either) are mostly trying to conserve energy for the several rounds yet to play, but are not trying to avoid any opposition. It is quite, quite different.

Gregor, Slovenia
What utter nonsense!! Comparing a draw to a willingful forfeit of a game. Trying to lose is just not the same as trying not to. I do not see grandmaster draws as a method to ditch stronger opposition but rather a strategical manner to bring your tournament result on a favourable level. I do not approve of grandmaster draws, but comparing them with the London discrace is just silly...

Christian Sasse, Vancouver
Can you blame Badminton players for using their intelligence? If the rules reward losing, then it will happen! At least in chess there is no scandal when you use your brains.

Eric C. Johnson, Allentown, PA
The analogy between the badminton scandal in the Olympics and GM draws in chess is wrong-headed. In a GM draw, the players make a DRAW. In the badminton scandal, the teams were playing to LOSE. A game where both players actually score points (GM draw), while not very sporting, is not necessarily embarrassing. Now if those GMs had played to LOSE, making queen-dropping moves and generally playing like weak players -- as the badminton folks did in the Olympics -- they would be accused of cheating and receive the same scorn and penalties (e.g. eviction from a tournament, prize penalties, etc.). The spectacle of the badminton scandal was that the teams had to LOSE – not draw – and they played to LOSE in the most absurd, obvious way. They were not very good actors at all.

Iman Khandaker, Watford
I do not believe that there is ANY comparison. All sports have situations where tactical considerations merit underplaying. Did Usain bolt get disqualified for slowing down at the end of his heats? No – he was saving energy. Did the entire field of the women's 1500m final get disqualified for the slowest first lap (75s) in living memory? No – they ALL thought that they had strong finishing kicks.

If unplayed draws are undesirable then appropriate tiebreak rules – or rules determining appearance fees – should be devised. I think that players in such draws should not be paid a proportion of their appearance fee – given that they failed to make an appearance in that game! Though this begs the question of what should happen to players like van Wely who drop rooks on move eight – should they be further punished for being AWOL at the board? Short losses can be just as 'unplayed' as short draws – are we just after blood?

I have every sympathy for the badminton players. The organizers were incompetent enough to devise rules that actually made the draw for the knockout stage easier for losers. They should be the ones to apologise – and they should be summararily sacked. Who ever heard of a seeding system that favoured losers? I'm still shaking my head in disbelief. I could as well argue that any competitor who tried to win an early match, should be disqualified – as they were clearly not trying their best to win the tournament.

Thiamhee, Lai, Ipoh, Malaysia
I would like to point out a major difference in chess versus badminton, in which the author had confuse himself and thus making his original argument rather invalid in the first place!! The GMs, as guilty as they are, do not play to lose(!), while that was the purpose in the examples given in the badminton. Playing to lose, in any sports IS a disgrace. I don't recall any GM ever purposely play to lose even during the Fischer era, in which the ever suspicious Fischer had openly accused the Russians of ganging-up on him by drawing (not LOSING) among comrades and reserved full energy facing him.

Philip Feeley, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
There was no explanation in the article for the badminton players behaviour. At least in chess we often know the reason for a draw.

Ashwin Sewambar, Kaohsiung, TAiwan
Mr. Kung-Ming Tiong should realize that in chess, no one plays with the sole purpose of losing. On the contrary, if any chance would arise people would take them. In our scoring system, we don't have incentives that makes us want to lose or draw in chess (and deliberately throwing away 0.5 or a full point). In London 2012's badminton tournament things surely were very different.

Andrey Stepin
Badminton situation is by no means equivalent to the chess. Nobody is trying to lose in chess, actually. Any loss lowers your so precious rating, you will not get invited to the top (for you) tournament and so on...(name your ten horrors of suddenly low Elo). So 'GM draw' has its roots in rating system.

Imagine a system where number of points in particular tournament is not important to rating, as overall result – let's place in this tournament and, for example, 50% percentile of competitors' rating. Obviously this system has good measure in round robins and it will be much easier to play for the win, but certainly not in Swiss because it doesn't value the points which were won by your blood and sweat against much higher rating.

There is nothing in Olympic badminton compared to rating and Swiss system. But round-robins before elimination stages are prone to such kind of fixing. See 'Scandinavian draw', for example. However, should we have such a system in chess tournament, I doubt that highest ranking player would choose such a way to fix – he has rating to care of. And his #n spot is much valuable than even Olympic medal. To lose a nearly tied match with #(n + 1) opponent (what badminton players wanted to avoid at all) is less costly to rating than this 'fixed' single loss to #(n + 20).


Comments of the author

The feedbacks are welcomed and appreciated. However, I have to point out the inaccuracies in the objections.

The premise of the article was to compare two types of contests and what happens when it didn't turn out to be a contest at all. This was why the term "grandmaster draw" for badminton was used. It is obvious that in badminton there is no draw, but the crux of the matter is the spirit of the contest. In a chess grandmaster draw, players don't put up a fight and simply draws after making perfunctory 10-15 moves for example. It is very different from the case when a game was fought and drawn after both sides cannot see progress in the game. The thing is question is not the draw result, but how it was achieved.

Also, the reasons behind the badminton players' decision to try to lose or not try to win to get weaker opposition sidesteps the crucial issue, which is trying to settle/fix a result, and this is a valid comparison to grandmaster draw in chess where results are agreed upon. The badminton players practically had "no choice", as there is no way for them to simply agree and shake hands to a result, unlike in chess.

The motivations in chess are different of course, as pointed by some readers, but again the issue is not the motivations but the fact that results can be agreed on instead of the result being played out. No spectator, organizer or player can complain if players play out to a result (whether it is a win/lose/draw in any sporting event) much like the comparison with Usain Bolt's easing up after already clearly won the race, or in football, when a team that has already qualified for the next round, still plays competitively and not just make it like a practice game or quit playing (if ever there was this option) as they have already qualified.

Well, as pointed out in the article, there are always people in chess who view a deliberate non-contest (the grandmaster draw) is a non-issue and therein lies the problem of making chess a bonafide sport.

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