The Great Draw Debates summarized: definitions, causes, effects

5/20/2008 – Over the past weeks we have received well over 300 letters from readers about the draw issues in chess, and more continue to arrive. Ironically, as the letters have accumulated it has become increasingly unclear exactly what the potential draw problems are in the first place, if any. In today's article we categorize and interrelate the best new and old letters we have received. Is there consensus?

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Many of the letters shown in the following article have been abbreviated, excerpted, paraphrased, or briefly quoted to reduce the length of this article. In a few cases an individual letter that covered multiple topics was divided into two letters. Where possible, the newsid number for the source has been given, in brackets, for each article – for readers who want to review the entire letter as it was first published. New letters have no prior newsid.

An upcoming related article will categorize and summarize the best letters to outline those draw solution ideas that have received the most vocal and reasoned support during recent months and over the past few years.

– Gene Milener, editor for this article.

The draw debates summarized: definitions, causes, effects

  1. Short draws are not a problem
  2. Short draws are too infrequent to be a big problem
  3. Only unfought draws are a significant problem
  4. Premature draw: between unfought and hard fought
  5. High draw rate is a problem
  6. Are there good reasons for unfought draws?
  7. Other thoughts
  8. The importance of context

Short draws are not a problem

Several readers rejected the premise stated in the introductions to ChessBase.com articles about the draw issues in chess:

  • "Short, unfought draws are the bane of chess fans. That at least is the public perception."
  • "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."

Here we sample some of the best letters that reject the premise, and which say there are no draw problems in chess. Occasionally a related tangent is explored.

Kerem Yunus Camsari, Lafayette, IN, USA (4535)
Given the absolute symmetry of the black and white structure (with the slightest skew of White's initiative in the beginning) it is quite logical to observe draws in classical chess. I think that the ultimate chess game (where no players make a mistake) is a draw. If both players independently came up with the idea that drawing is their best option, we have to accept it and learn to live with it. It's their job and profession. It is even a kind of art for those who live at the top.

Tim Turner, Reston Virgina, USA (4522)
Chess is a theoretically drawn game from the beginning. Other sports cannot claim this, just as they cannot claim that they are a board game, and therefore cannot be compared to this. This focus on draws is futile.

[Editor's comment: Several writers noted that chess is a theoretical draw, and that a chess game perfectly played by both White and Black ends in a draw. This fact is used to argue against scoring systems such as Bilbao (3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, 0 for a loss).

Does the theoretical draw observation indicate that the dislike that some fans feel for non-decisive chess games is somewhat misguided? Some writers doubt we should be so confident that chess is a theoretical draw (such as in the next letter). On page 232 of his book "Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy" John Watson wrote:

"... what is the result of a perfectly played chess game? As you probably already know, it is a draw. There is no need to wait for computers to solve chess in order to understand this; it is crystal clear from a study of theory. Of course, I can't prove this, but I doubt that you can find a single strong player who would disagree."]

Carl Lumma, Los Gatos, California, United States
Thanks again for patiently hosting the lengthy dialog on the subject of unfought draws. One reader suggested it deserves a discussion forum, and perhaps he is right. Several readers have commented that if chess is naturally drawn, then efforts to eliminate unfought draws must not go too far. However, even though it seems likely that chess is a draw, the evidence for this is entirely circumstantial. There were many draws in the 1970s, but the drawish players of today would score mostly wins against the players of the 1970s.

Kevin Spiteri, Marsaxlokk, Malta (4522)
Short draws might not be spectacular, and may be hard to justify to sponsors, but short draws are part of chess. I consider restricting draws as sacrificing a part of the beauty of chess to economics.

That short draws make chess more beautiful may not be intuitive. If during a tournament both players would stand to gain from a quiet draw, they should be allowed to have their quiet draw. It is only logical. Satisfying the audience or sponsors should not be the primary motivation.

[Editor's comment: Which grandmaster game is more interesting to the mass of chess fans, (a) a draw played at an average level of quality or (b) a decisive game played at an average level of quality?

Next we interject a contrasting opinion about the potential beauty of draws. Clearly beauty is in the eye of the beholder.]

Edward Labate, Atlanta, GA USA
It has been asked: "If chess is so perfect the way it is now, why are there so many draws on the highest level?" Because most of today's top players wouldn't know what an athletic supporter is for. You need to find chess players with a 'steel pair'. You need players who want to win, and consider a draw as losing half a point. I want my opponent to get up after the game knowing he was in a war. You want to avoid grandmaster draws? 200 move minimum or bare kings. You make chess a sport again, and anybody who thinks it isn't a sport, just watch your older players fade in the 3rd and 4th hour!

[Editor's comment: Labate raises the question of whether chess competitions should be designed to minimize any effects of physical and mental fatigue.. Are fatigue factors to be embraced as part of sporting competition?]

John Nunn, London (2729)
To complain about short, peaceful draws is in many cases valid. [However], in the case of participants in Open tournaments who have not been paid an appearance fee, I don’t think there is any real reason to criticise short draws.

Jonathan Estey, Providence, Rhode Island (4535)
The vast majority of tournament games are not played by professionals but by amateurs like myself. When I run, play in, or work at tournaments, there are very few draws and almost no short draws.

Rod Hill, Darlings Island, New Brunswick, Canada
The 'draw problem' is, for the world of chess as a whole, not a problem at all. After all, most chess games played between amateurs in chess clubs or in tournaments or on the internet. I'll wager that the percentage of draws in such games is low. In my own practice as a club player, it's 20-25%, all of them hard fights.

Dave Groves, Manchester, England
There is a purity about the game of chess that is one of its main attractions. It seems to me that there is nothing wrong with offering or accepting a draw and it is completely logical that it should be half a point. If you are leading the tournament by say a clear point or more you have already played pretty good chess to get there and should be entitled to offer or take a draw.

Albert Frank, International Arbiter, Brussels, Belgium (4535)
I don't understand all this discussion about short draws and GM draws. In high level chess tournaments there was always been about 50% of draws, absolutely nothing has changed. There should not be anything done about the draws.

Jordan Stevens, Chicago, Illinois (4522)
I believe there isn't a problem with draws. In fact, draws have been a part of chess since it was created essentially. Instead, I believe chess is being "Americanized". Compare sports in America with the ones played internationally. In soccer, the least popular sport in America, people tend to find a tie bland and pointless. However, a tie in Europe is still a good game.

[Editor's comment: To pursue a tangent, I am not well-informed about professional soccer. As an American I never felt there was a problem in soccer from occasional ties. Rather I felt soccer suffered from an excessive imbalance between offense and defense. It seems very hard to generate a scoring threat, and rather easy to boot the ball back to mid-field as a successful defense. I am bored by 0-0 and 1-1 ties not because they are ties, but because they are excessively defensive games lacking a balance with offense.

To me the high draw rate in chess feels loosely analogous to a low scoring tie in soccer. I could quite enjoy a 4-4 tie in soccer. And I believe most chess fans find stalemates exceptionally interesting, even though stalemates are draws.

Not knowing soccer well, in my ignorance I wonder why Europe chose an artificial 3/1/0 point system instead of simply making the goal a bit bigger. End of tangent.]

Rod Hill, Darlings Island, New Brunswick, Canada
The professionals have contributed, and will contribute further, an enormous number of interesting, imaginatative and enjoyable games. So many games, in fact, that I could spend the rest of my life browsing among them with pleasure. If 50 or 60% of games in a tournament end in a draw... what do I care?

[Editor's comment: Perhaps some fans feel that a chess tournament is like the innings in a baseball game (or quarters in a basketball game); while other fans feel that a chess tournament is like a season. As enthusiasts who replay published chess competitions, do we replay games or tournaments?]

Mark Vogan, Houston, TX, USA (4522)
When will the chess community learn to accept that GM (peaceful) draws are part of tournament play? This is not unique to chess: In American football, sometimes you take a knee; in basketball you dribble and run out the clock; in baseball pitchers throw an intentional walk; in poker you fold some hands.

In every example, you are either removing some risk, conserving your limited resources or both. Why shouldn't chess players be able to agree to do the same in order to win a tournament?

You will not see GM draws in match play; they only occur in tournaments.

[Editor's comment: Among the first two Karpov-Kasparov title matches there were fourteen agreed draws of 20 move pairs or less. When Karpov was White, the median number of move pairs was 33, and when Kasparov was White the median was 22. Next, writer Wallace Hannum elaborates on these draws.]

Wallace Hannum, Menlo Park, CA (4522)
Kasparov talked about how hard he worked to earn those short draws against Karpov in the 1984 match. No one challenges Kasparov's fighting spirit and yet there was a huge amount of short draws. A lot of work can go into finding an improvement in theory which equalizes for black. the 1984 match itself was a great lesson in why draws should count. High-class, professional chess should remain as untouched as possible. The enemy is not draws but boring chess; and I cringe to think who gets to decide what's boring or what's not.

Mirik Suleymanian, Richmond VA, USA (4522) It is wrong to think that chess players have an obligation to entertain the spectators, even at the expense of their interests. The players and spectators have completely different interests.

Alexander Aguilar, Los Angeles, CA (4347) Are draws really all that bad or do they just have a bad reputation? Here are some positive things about playing for a draw:

  • It takes skill to achieve a draw especially when your opponent is desperate to win and you are playing black.
  • Getting a draw is like a way to retreat during a battle so that you can recuperate. That can be a good tournament strategy.

The Sofia rule might be a little over-restrictive when players are forced to play out games that they already know to be theoretically drawn.

K. Srinath, united states
I apologize for not having read much of the ideas that you've published. The sheer volume is repugnant to me*. But I do admire the effort (apparently) being put in to solve the problem. I can't understand if we're creating a problem unnecessarily or if we're, in fact, solving one. The players are doing what they're doing. They're kind enough to play good games often and we should be grateful for what we have.

[*Editor's comment: Due to the ongoing high volume of draw letters, we are trying to streamline our presentation format.]

Kajani Kaunda, Blantyre, Malawi (4522)
Most if not all authors who bash draws make them themselves.

Jacob Woge, CPH, Denmark (4535) I think short draws are not a problem in chess today. You have events where nobody seems to be able to win, but in general people fight.


Short draws are too infrequent to be a big problem

Of every 100 draws at the major grandmaster tournaments, how many are unfought? Is there any non-zero correlation between 'short' and 'unfought' draws? Even though unfought draws might be relatively rare, when they occur in the final round they may do disproportionately large harm to the event.

Vugar Fatali, Strasbourg (4535)
As for short GM draws, I understand that people (including me) don't like to see them because they are unspectacular and "uncompetitive". But they constitute only a relatively small number of all chess games played. So we all love the game of chess as it is in its entirety, but we happen not to like only a very minor part of it (which is short draws).

[Editor's comment: Pretend there is a typical web article that reports on yesterday's round at the major grandmaster tournament. The article gives the outcome for all seven games, say three wins for White and four draws. The article gives the moves of one of the three decisive games, with annotations. Now, will the average fan who browses the web article know which or how many of the four draws were unfought versus hard fought? If he does not know, then is the distinction important to him?]

Frank Dixon, Kingston, Canada (4232)
This disease of 'Grandmaster draws' has become so pervasive that drastic measures must be taken, on the lines of the shot clock in basketball. We simply have to do something dramatic, and must eliminate this evil phenomenon.

[Editor's comment: Frank Dixon is a Candidate Master player, arbiter, organizer, patron, coach and writer, past Governor of the Chess Federation of Canada, coordinator of post-secondary chess. Next is the perspective from another chess arbiter who sees the situation very differently.]

Richard Evans, Shrewsbury, Shropshire (4362)
(quoting famed arbiter Geurt Gijssen from February 2004, in Ask the Arbitor) I believe the majority of draw offers are correct, and I base this on more than thirty years of experience as an arbiter. There is presently a lot of fuss about grandmaster draws, but in modern chess there are relatively few draws like this. The only events with a greater than usual amount of short draws are team competitions. -- Geurt Gijssen

Gene Milener, Renton, WA, USA (4553)
The popular Sofia rule of banning draw offers has resulted in a draw rate of 56% (see M-Tel tournaments 2005-2007). That is barely any lower than the whopping 60% rate from the five latest world or FIDE championship events (Kramnik vs. Kasparov, Leko, Topalov; San Luis 2005 and Mexico 2007).

[Editor's comment: Under Sofia, these statistics mean that out of 100 games, 56 will be drawn instead of 60. If Sofia prevents all unfought draws, then the effort to fight on in unfought games affects the crosstable outcome only 4% of the time.]

John Nunn, London (2729)
Given that short draws are often discussed, it is reasonable to ask how serious a problem they are, and whether they are becoming more or less frequent. In the following discussion, I will take a 'short' draw to be one in 25 moves or less and for each event I will quote two figures: the percentage of games in the tournament ending in draws and the percentage ending in 'short' draws. The Linares 2004 event has become notorious for its high draw percentage (79% draws and 33% short draws), but is this typical? Here are the figures for some other recent super-tournaments:

Event draws   short draws
Linares 2004
79%
33%
Wijk aan Zee 2005
63%
19%
Linares 2005
65%
19%
Dortmund 2005
54%
13%
San Luis 2005 World Championship 
58%
18%

As can be seen, the Linares 2004 event was exceptional both for its draw percentage and for the number of short draws. The San Luis 2005 tournament, which has been generally viewed as a fine example of fighting chess, has percentages which are in line with those of other recent super-tournaments.

In many ways the problem of short draws has been much reduced over the past 20 years. If you want to see some high draw percentages, just take a look at the super-tournaments from the mid-1980s. Reggio Emilia 1986/7 is a fine example, with 78% draws and an amazing 42% short draws.

Accordingly, I don’t think there is the huge problem with short draws that some people imagine.

Ignatius Leong and Leung Weiwen (2719)
A renowned Russian trainer also notes:

In the December 2000 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


Only unfought draws are a significant problem

Relatively few writers explicitly said anything like "unfought draws are a problem, but the high draw rate is not a problem". The majority of letters proposed solutions to "the" draw problem. When a writer favors the Bilbao scoring system, or making a stalemate a win, is he attempting to reduce the frequency of draws or just of short draws? The intention is unclear.

Yet a few writers did specifically distinguish between unfought and hard fought draws. Overall it seems that many feel only unfought draws are a problem, and that many feel draws in general occur too frequently. Does that mean chess fans like it when Black fights hard for a safe draw from the very beginning?

A question of definition: Suppose that before their game against each other tomorrow, two players spend hours planning opening surprises for attack and defense. The next day White springs his hard earned novelty on move 15, and Black plays the nice defensive reply that he foresaw the prior evening. Neither play has yet used much time. By move 20 the game is symmetric and balanced, so the players agree to a draw. Is that an unfought or a hard fought draw?

Hanro Viljoen, Sandton, South Africa (4535)
"Match fixing or game fixing in organized sports occurs when a match is played to a completely or partially pre-determined result" – Answers.com. GM Chess tournaments often contain games that are as fixed as a Zimbabwe election.

Daniel Brandao, Florianopolis, Brazil (4362)
The problem is not the draws, but unfought draws. So, the problem is not the system or the rules, but the players.

[Editor's comment: Many letters call for invitations to be withheld from high rated players who too often accept early draw offers. Does blame belong to these players, or to the Tournament Organizers who opt against adopting the Sofia rule?]

Frederic Friedel of ChessBase.com (4232)
The draw problem is tied to a certain group of players who are more willing than others to play quick, unfought draws. Mechanisms that address the problem as though all players are susceptible to this kind of behavior do not address the problem correctly.


Premature draw: between unfought and hard fought

Perhaps our casual labeling of bad draws as being "GM draws" or "short" or "unfought" has obscured the existence of another type of questionable draw: the 'premature' draw agreement.

One writer used the term 'cowardice'. Two players could fight hard for 29 moves and then agree to a draw in a complicated or unresolved position (such as when White is up the exchange but down in pawns or positional factors). They both fear losing. Some letters writers seem to have this concept in mind. They seem to say that the draw problems in chess go beyond short or unfought draws. The following game might be one example.

Leko,Peter (2740) - Karjakin,Sergey (2660) [B90]
Corus Wijk aan Zee (2), 15.01.2006
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.f3 e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.Be3 Be7 9.Qd2 0-0 10.0-0-0 Nbd7 11.g4 b5 12.g5 b4 13.Ne2 Ne8 14.h4 a5 15.Kb1 a4 16.Nbc1 Nb6 17.Ng3 d5 18.Bxb6 Qxb6 19.exd5 Rd8 20.Bc4 Nc7 21.dxe6 Rxd2 22.exf7+ Kh8 23.Rxd2 Qc6 24.b3 Nb5 25.Bxb5 Qxb5 26.bxa4 Qxa4 27.Rhd1 Rxf7 28.Rd7 Kg8 29.Ne4 ½-½

Draw agreed prematurely? Fritz11 evaluates that Black's best reply would have been Qc6 (–0.6/22).

Jens Christensen, Copenhagen (4347)
Dragan Solak uses a couple of examples where in 'normal chess' the game would end by repetition, whereas in 'Bilbao chess' black would choose to go into a slightly inferior position with winning chances. He speaks as if this is a bad thing, but from my perspective (the Average Joe spectator) this sounds like a stunningly good result. If the Bilbao scoring system stops players from taking early (or even late) draws and continuing to play I say we implement it yesterday.

[Editor's comment: "(or even late) draws": that sounds like the 'premature' draw that is somewhere in between an unfought draw and a hard fought draw. Perhaps a hard fight should continue until a drawn outcome becomes 'inevitable' (Mihael Ankerst's term)?]

Mihael Ankerst, Munich, Germany (4347)
My suggestion is to prevent draw offers which come up in positions which are not inevitable draws.

Eric Duker, Columbia, Missouri, United States (4347)
Length of draws are meaningless, especially when the Sophia Rule is in effect. The length of the draw is not proportional to competitiveness of the draw. I can play a B+P vs. B ending for hundreds of moves and the ending will always be a draw, but it will never be competitive. Statistics only show length and not competitiveness (if such a thing is even objectively measurable).

Paschal Gay, Dallas, United States (4232)
I'm writing in response to Mr. Dorfmans' hypothetical critique of the Bilbao scoring system as the best method of dealing with cowardice and dry play at the grandmaster level.

Tobias Nordquist, Sandviken, Sweden (4232)
If it's a draw the audience wants to see it played out.

IM Julio Kaplan, El Cerrito, CA, USA (4347)
The Sofia rules force players to play out positions that, while clearly drawn for any competent grandmaster, are still full of fight as far as the public can see. I think it is important for games to be continued until the public at large can see that the fight has been exhausted. For this purpose (and for this purpose only), I think requiring permission before a draw is agreed is a good thing.

Juan Rodrigo Fernandez, Madrid
Give more power to arbiters and let them decide if the game is a fair draw, or there is still plenty of fight ahead. That is the main issue, people want real fight and not prearranged draws. The problem then would be to judge correctly the positions in which a draw would be premature and those in which a draw is correct.

Chris, Boys, from Tiruvannamalai, India
As I see the challenge, it is this: to encourage fighting chess and to discourage easy draws. When the players agree to a draw, the players are immediately given feedback from the master database. If the game as ended deviated from a known game by at least 40 ply from the last equal position, then the draw stands. However, if the game ended before it deviated from a known game by that amount, the game must continue.

[Editor's comment: Other writers have also mentioned Boys' idea of forbidding draws until after the game has become unique to a database of known games. Does this suggestion prevent games from ending as premature draws?]


High draw rate is a problem

Brian Theismann, Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota USA (4535)
I believe that the problem is with the game, not with the players.

Definition. I define the problem as "the excessive number of draws in high-level chess." I choose not to define the problem as "short, pre-arranged draws" because I am not convinced that they are that big a problem.

Effects. The biggest problem with draws pertains to what I call the "ceiling effect." This refers to the tendency of strategy games to be subject to mastery by dedicated players. After the draw-infested Kasparov vs. Deep Blue match of 1997 I remember a commentator in the press drawing the conclusion that the sport had been "solved".

Cause. It is illogical to think that the efforts of players could be exactly equal in as many as 87 percent (2000 Kasparov-Kramnik match) of games without the stronger player running up against the limits of possibility.

Solution. Make the game more challenging for the best players. 1. Faster time control. 2. Make the strongest should be forced to play against weaker players

[Editor's comment: There is no contradiction between (a) the fact that chess has more possible positions than there are grains of sand on the beach and (b) that the complexity of chess is largely manageable by elite grandmasters. So Mr. Theismann's "ceiling effect" is plausible.

In this case, is the "ceiling" (a) the limitation of how much opening theory grandmasters can research and memorize, or is it (b) the huge yet manageable complexity of chess itself, or something else?

After thinking about Mr. Theismann's letter, I realize now that in my article I was essentially claiming that more piece power is needed to avoid the ceiling effect.

I strongly agree with Theismann's view that the players are not to blame. If there are draw problems, they are the fault of the rules and the people who control the rules.

Regarding Theismann's second solution idea of increasing the Elo difference between players (other letters echoed that idea), I do not see that as flowing from his theme of the ceiling effect. Nor does it flow from his general solution that we should "make the game more challenging for the best players". Not that I have any better idea for this stubborn draw problem. Great letter.]

Nathan Solon, Montana, United States
I would argue that (1) the draw problem owes to the culture, not the rules, of chess, and (2) the draw problem is closely related to the problem of marketing. In trying to bring chess to a wider audience, there is a chicken and egg problem: the high rate of draws makes the game even more boring than it already is to outsiders, and the lack of commercial interest means there is little pressure on players to produce entertaining contests. I think the best chance to solve the draw problem lies in changing the culture of chess so that participating in a sham draw would result in overwhelming disapproval from organizers, fans, and fellow players.

Julian Wan, Ann Arbor, USA (4362)
Thank you for a great article on an important concern. Too many draws in general make Chess less popular with the general populace.

Gene Milener, Renton, WA, USA (4553)
Some people say the high draw rate in elite professional chess is a problem, while others say it is not. Neither group can speak for the other. I feel the high draw rate is a big problem. I believe the example of shogi confirms that the related problem of unfought draws is an artifact of the high draw rate among hard-fought games.

Mussie Mengesha, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (4232)
The [Bilbao] idea suggested is really help to minimize the grandmaster draw. But in my opinion any sort of draw must be seen as unaccomplishement because the purpose of chess game must be to win.

Lawrence Gier, Grand Island, Nebraska USA
I favor a Blitz playoff game, where Black in the regular game gets white in the playoff game.

Frank Chassey, Chicago, USA Draws are killing the ability of chess to grow into a big money sport. [Suppose there was] only one way to avoid a loss and that will be to win the game. This would make every game exciting. The ancient Romans understood a sporting contest. You fight to the death.

Josu Fernandez, Spain (4237)
When competing in order not to lose instead of winning it means that regrettably, something goes wrong. The consequences of this practise can be very harmful to the sport itself, but also to ... sponsors and fans. FIFA was aware of this danger and of the fact that football matches were reaching a stalemate.

[Editor's comment: Football games were ending in ties too often, but not because the players were unwilling to hustle and play hard. In adopting Bilbao, FIFA decided that the old point system rules were causing frequent ties, not player fatigue or laziness.

So, excessive ties were deemed intolerable by FIFA even though the players were playing hard. In contrast, the dominant opinion in the chess world is that a high draw rate is tolerable, as long as the players are playing hard. Are chess fans satisfied when Black plays hard for a safe draw from the very beginning? In the same spirit with chess fans, FIFA preferred an off-the-field rule change (points per win) instead of an on-the-field change (make the goal a bit bigger).]


Are there good reasons for unfought draws?

The letters in this section relate to each other.

Rauan Sagit, Stockholm, Sweden (4535)
Why do two powerful minds agree on a short draw? What is the reason? It is fear, fear of losing a game because of being in bad shape? Is it respect, respect of the opponent having equal chances, being equally strong? Is it always the same reason? Talk to the grandmasters that play or have played unfought draws. Prompt them to explain the mechanism that drove them to make the choice. Ask them to explain the reason. Because without knowing the reason, how can the chess community speculate about possible solutions?

[Editor's comment: Next, Solak answers Sagit's questions.]

Dragan Solak, Yugoslavia (4253)
Chess fans don't enjoy quick, unfought draws. Neither do sponsors. If we want to solve the problem (which obviously exists), we must first try to understand how chess players think and why they make short draws.

Now let's try to understand why chess players act as they do. What are the main objectives of chess players? From my perspective, some of the most common ones are:

  1. High rating
  2. Financial gain
  3. Tournament successes
  4. Having a good and easy time while striving for 1, 2 and 3

And while points 1, 2 and 3 are closely connected, point 4 is totally opposite of them. And why do chess players make draws? In my opinion these are the main reasons:

  1. Relief from stress
  2. Lack of motivation to play
  3. Financial gain, norms, tournament success
  4. Important sport events

The most important factor by far is number one. I know many beginners who make quick draws for this reason. I know many strong grandmasters who do it. There are grandmasters who will almost always try to draw their white games with players who are rated slightly or even much below them, just to avoid the stress. And most of these players are aware that these draws are senseless.

Before the tournament most players are brave, they want to beat everyone, become the champions. But as soon as the game begins, many start to ask themselves: what if I lose? Is this a good moment to offer a draw? My position doesn't look that good anyway. And my opponent has had some very good results recently. And so on.*

It is enough that for 30 seconds the 'difficult' part prevails and a draw may be agreed. Other reasons for making quick draws appear less often, but still exist. For example, in team competitions.

The solution is very simple: draw offers should be completely banned. And that's it. And it works. The Sofia Rules are a good example of it.

[*Editor's comment: Would these feelings also occur in most other sports, where they play onward anyway?]


Other thoughts

Frank Dixon, Kingston, Canada (4243)
I get constantly annoyed when I see international norms scored by players who have played one or more non-contested 'games' in order to achieve the magical norm threshold. This disease of 'Grandmaster draws' has become so pervasive that drastic measures must be taken.

[Editor's comment: How "pervasive"? Can you put a number on it?]

Nate Plapp, Lemon Grove, Ca, USA (4232)
Another [issue] is that few players actually try to win with black. They spend lots of time analyzing at home looking for lines they can draw with as black.

[Editor's comment: Does White's advantage make chess more prone or less prone to draws?]

Kung-Ming Tiong, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Great books in chess history: "My 60 Memorable Short Draws".

Duif Calvin, San Rafael, California, USA
The draw problem is only one symptom of the much larger issue of professional chess. Once the national politics have been largely removed, why should the casual fan care whether Player A wins, loses, or draws? Answer that question, and the draw "problem" will resolve itself.

[Editor's comment: Jamie Duif Calvin received much praise for her May 2005 article titled "The Dark Secret to Promoting Chess".]

Peter Cafolla, Dublin, Ireland (2729)
I do not agree with the comments of Mr Weiwen and Mr Leong [about a post-draw Blitz playoff]. In Open tournaments many lesser lights take great pleasure in achieving draws with higher rated players. If this possibility was denied them then a lot less players would enter Opens.

Jonathan Estey, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania (4347)
The true enemy of exciting chess: not good defensive technique, but cowardice.

[Editor's comment: Is the typical grandmaster afraid of making aggressive moves that he judges are at least as good for his own winning chances as for his opponent's chances?]

Tim Turner, Reston Virgina, USA (4522)
The problem with chess is that it's not a spectator sport.

[Editor's comment: Nobody rewatches entire old football games from twenty years ago. But every day thousands of chess fans around the globe replay old chess games. It could be argued that in this limited yet non-trivial sense, chess the greatest spectator sport yet created. Now if only tournament organizers could permanently attach sponsor advertisements to the front of each PGN game...]

Frederic Friedel of ChessBase.com (4232)
The real problem is often not short draws but cheating, which is very real in the many open tournaments that are staged all over the world. It is often to be observed that a group of strong players will take part in an open as a team. One player elected to score maximum points and take the biggest possible slice of the prize fund, which is then presumably shared according to a pre-arranged system with the other "team members", who lose all their games to him.

The importance of context

In this excerpt from an exceptional letter, IM Julio Kaplan demonstrates that there are more shades to the draw problem than are apparent from our usual discussions. Two chess games with the same moves might differ in how hard fought they are. Kaplan believes the repeatibility of chess games is an underlying force in its draw issues. In contrast a soccer game is "not repeatable". For this same distinction I have described soccer as an 'analog' sport, whereas as chess is a 'digital' sport.

IM Julio Kaplan, El Cerrito, CA, USA (4347)
The analogy with soccer misses an important point that make chess unique: soccer games are not repeatable. Chess games are. This has immediate, important consequences.

The interest of a chess game, and the sense in which it was a real fight, corresponds to its history. For example, take many of the Ruy Lopez, Marshall Variation games played today. If we were seeing this for the first timer, we might say that Black "daringly" sacrifices a pawn in the opening*. A few moves later White sacrifices an exchange on e4, offering to remain behind in material but take over the offensive – what an exciting concept! Black refuses the offer, angling instead for an endgame in which he hopes that his activity and two bishops will be enough to draw. Finally, the game is drawn in the endgame – what a marvelous struggle!

By the twentieth time we see a game that meets this description, with minor variations late in the game, this is totally boring, and even suggests that the players, Black especially, are aiming for a draw. Exact same game, totally different interpretation.

[Editor's comment: Then I would say the context affects the narrative. By giving White an inherent advantage, do the rules of chess motivate Black to "aim for a draw"? If yes, does that motivation contribute to the draw problems?

* Ruy Lopez, Marshall variation. Position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5

Next can come 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 Nf6, and Black is down a pawn.]


ChessBase articles on unfought draws

Reactions to Milener's draw diagnosis
07.05.2008 – In his recent chess-3 essay Gene Milener claimed that chess variants like shogi indicate that the high draw rate in chess is due to insufficient piece power in the game. He then described a variant that would add piece power while being as close to chess as possible. Reactions to the essay ranged from interest to disdain. Here is a selection of feedback from our readers.

A new angle on understanding the draw problem
08.04.2008 – Some people say it is a serious danger, others say it is not. Gene Milener, who works for Microsoft by day, believes that the problem of unfought draws is an artifact of the high draw rate among hard-fought games. In a remarkable essay he examines other games and explains a different perspective on how the high draw rate problem could be addressed. Must read.

Reader feedback: the great draw debate continues
27.03.2008 – "I propose," writes one reader, "that a draw proposal should reduce the time at your disposal to 30 minutes, so you receive a great penalty at the beginning of the game, decreasing to no penalty when you have only 30 minutes or less (at the end of the game)." These and many other imaginative proposals have reached us in the past weeks on a problem that is occupying the thoughts of our readers.

Unfought draws – reader feedback
20.03.2008 – Last week we published an article of the perceived problem of unfought "grandmaster draws" in professional chess. Kung-Ming Tiong, a mathematician and logician at School of Science and Technology, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia, put together the arguments presented so far, and his analysis of their conclusions. Today we present further imaginative proposals from our readers.
 

Unfought draws – mathematical, logical and practical considerations
14.03.2008 – The problem of short "grandmaster" draws is one that has occupied our readers for some time. A number of proposals have been made, some quite ingenious, to force tournament and match players to be more aggressive, risk more and go for wins. Today we bring you a comprehensive analysis of the current state of the debate, by a mathematician and logician in Malaysia. Long interesting read.
 

The problem of draws – feedback from our readers
04.01.2008 – The perceived problem of too many unfought draws in chess has led to a number of imaginative cures being proposed, involving the modification of the rules of the games, the scoring system and the prize distribution. Over Christmas we presented a particularly clever one: let the draw offer stand for the rest of the game. Here are reactions to this proposal and new ideas. Long interesting read.

The problem of draws – a Christmas solution
29.12.2007 – It is perhaps not appropriate to take up the subject while a tournament in Moscow is registering the lowest drawing rate in recent memory. But the question of quick, unfought draws still occupies the attention of our readers, and many have sent in new and imaginative proposals. One is so clever that we advocate trying it out immediately. The first organiser to do so gets to name it after his city.

Chess, football and the Bilbao Rule – Part II
15.11.2007 – The debate on the perceived problem of too many – unfought – draws in chess, and what to do about it, continues. The letters pour in and we keep receiving extensive, well thought through proposals that attempt to create incentives for playing to win. Josu Fernández presents closing arguments for the Bilbao System, while Serbian GM Dragan Solak tells us why he thinks it cannot work.

Chess, football and the Bilbao Rule
08.11.2007 – The discussion and the search for remedies for the perceived problem of short draws in chess continues. Josu Fernández, a Spanish organiser, sent us a report on the effects of the Bilbao 3-1-0 system on the football league in his country, and on what this means for chess. Other readers too have submitted thoughful papers on the subject. Again, it is a long interesting read.

The 'Bilbao Draw' – how it doesn't solve the problem
28.10.2007 – 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.

ACP Survey: what the players think about draw offers
22.03.2007 – In February the Association of Chess Professionals asked its members what should be done to combat short, unfought draws, which are often perceived to be the bane of chess. The ACP published a questionnaire, 171 members replied.

ACP Survey: What do you think about draws?
11.02.2007 – Short, unfought draws are the bane of chess fans. That at least is the public perception. The Association of Chess Professionals (ACP), which has 227 members, has launched a questionnaire to find a remedy.

Embracing Risk in Tournaments
14.12.2006 – The issue of playing style is not normally given much consideration in chess. In an interesting article computer scientist Darse Billings maintains that it is an important factor in the probability of winning. A player who tends to win or lose games has a significantly better chance of success in a tournament than a player who draws a lot of games. Read and consider.

The draw problem – a simple solution
10.11.2005 – Recently Ignatius Leong and Leung Weiwen made a very radical solution to the problem of too many draws in chess. This led to a vigorous debate amongst our readers – we bring you a selection of their often very interesting letters. But we start off with the voice of reason: John Nunn analyses the problem and proposes a much simpler solution.

A Cure for SAD (Severe Acute Drawitis)?
03.11.2005 – 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?

Draws forbidden in Super-GM tournaments
01.04.2005 – When a bunch of world class players get together for a tournament the danger is that there will be a lot of draws. A new organiser who is staging a Super GM event in Sofia, Bulgaria, has come up with a new idea: ban draw offers. The participants have to play on until the arbiter says they can stop. Will this become a fixed feature in chess events?

Short on draws
18.03.2004 – "I know that with perfect play, God versus God, Fritz versus Fritz, chess is a draw," writes Nigel Short, who describes a deadly disease called Severe Acute Drawitis. "Those afflicted with SAD display an uncontrollable urge to offer or accept premature peace proposals." Read about it in Nigel's highly entertaining Sunday Telegraph column.

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