The 'Bilbao Draw' – how it doesn't solve the problem

10/28/2007 – Chess fans and organisers all over the world are worried about the problem of too many draws in chess. Actually: about pre-arranged or unfought draws. Many remedies have been tried, including threats, prohibition and, most recently, the Bilbao system of awarding three points for a win and one for a draw. Is that the solution? No, says one astute reader and points to a possibly fatal flaw.

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The "Bilbao Draw"

By Ron Dorfman

The term "grandmaster draw" applies to a game in which the players agree to draw without either attempting to win. The grandmaster draw is not restricted to grandmasters. Lesser players can and do produce their own grandmaster draws. The conduct of lesser players generally only has an impact upon themselves. The grandmaster draw is significant when it affects the perceptions of the paying spectator and, most significantly, the tournament sponsor, who provides the prize fund and covers the overhead. Like Caesar at the circus, the sponsor comes to see bloody battle. The grandmaster draw frustrates this expectation.

When people complain about the high percentage of draws in a tournament, they really refer to the number of non-competitive grandmaster draws that appear in a competition. Nobody objects to fiercely fought games that fall exhausted into a draw.

How can the organizer encourage competitive behaviors and discourage the noncompetitive? The wise parent and the seasoned manager equally understand the following truth: you will receive behaviors that you reward and you will not receive behaviors which you have quickly punished. It is not what you say, it is what you do.

At the double round robin tournament in Bilbao the organizers tried to limit the percentage of draws. They modified the scoring system, awarding wins with three points, a draw with one, and a loss with none. This is a rather simple, straightforward approach. If this system only rewarded an intense effort to win it would be ideal. But what behaviors are actually rewarded and what behaviors are actually punished?

In a double round robin tournament two players fight their two game mini-match as the organizer desires. Each cries "Havoc" and lays on the other with all of their might. The more common result of this bloody two game mini-match is two draws. Under the Bilbao scoring system each player would walk away from the two game mini-match with two points, one point for each draw. But if they did not draw and each won one game they would both leave their match with three points rather than two.

One need not be a professor to grasp an underpinning truth: the Bilbao scoring system rewards those who swap wins and works to the severe disadvantage of players who fight it out in true gladiatorial style. The organizers at Bilbao made a subtle error in definition. They defined the problem as drawn games. The problem is not the draw. The problem is a lack of competitive effort, which results in draws. Transforming the scoring system transforms the system itself, and when we look at the consequences of the new system we reach new conclusions. The Bilbao scoring system will, indeed, reduce the number of draws. But the Bilbao scoring system will strongly encourage the "Bilbao Draw" (an agreed swap of wins), rewarding non-competitive behavior far more strongly than the common scoring system.

In summation: the Bilbao scoring system actually rewards and encourages non-competitive behavior at the chessboard and, most importantly, the Bilbao scoring system actually inflicts significant competitive disadvantages on those who chose to truly compete. Surely, the organizer will receive what the organizer rewards. Be careful what you ask for – because in the end you may actually get it.

Ron Dorfman is a retired lawyer-banker living in Virginia, USA.


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