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Draw Offers Outlawed!

by GM Mark Dvoretsky

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. For example, tie-breaks and a modern rating system were introduced in tennis. Recently the point-scoring system was altered in volleyball and table-tennis.

This problem is also real in chess, as our game is not as popular as it deserves to be. How can we improve the situation? The chess world saw several attempts in recent years. One was implementing the knockout system, which I believe is a very good idea. It could be improved upon by allowing more games at the later stages of the tournament, but the idea itself is progressive. An opposite example is speeding up the game. Yes, games now take less time, but chess has not received more attention from the press and TV. Meanwhile the quality of the games suffered – not only because blunders became more frequent, but also because now it is almost impossible (no time!) to find deep ideas over the board. Chess fans suffer as a result, as most are following chess in books and magazines, not live.

Other problems include divisiveness in the chess world, the need for proper anti-doping and anti-computer controls, and the over-development of opening theory. There are many problems in modern chess, however I would like to concentrate on just one of them – the problem of quick draws.

It often happens that, after a day at work, chess fans come to the tournament only to find an empty stage. This is particularly painful during matches. For example, 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. Similar, if not more, unpleasant situations occur at tournaments too. For example, the last round of the USA Championship in 2003 drew many spectators, including children and TV crews. And what did they see? A few minutes after the round started, their pair of leaders drew their games! Needless to say the kind of impression this made on spectators, including the sponsors.

There have been attempts to fight quick draws in chess. For example, some suggested that a stalemate or draw, when one side does not have winning material left, should yield more (or less) than half a point. It is not clear whether such changes would make chess more dynamic, but they would surely change the theory (particularly endgame theory) very much. Is it worth the effort?

Another, less radical, measure is to prohibit draws before move 30. Usually such attempts did not bring the desired effect. For example, Linares organiser Luis Rentero had a special clause in the contracts saying that players could not agree to a draw before move 30, in exchange for an extra honorarium. Yet, some still did make quick draws and even got offended when the outraged Luis Rentero demanded the extra honorarium back. I think Arthur Yusupov did the best thing – he just went to the organiser and handed over the money. Of course, Mr Rentero did not accept the money – that was not the point he wanted to make.

Certainly, in chess, a draw is a legitimate result. That’s why I don’t like the idea of giving three points for a win and just one point for a draw – we should not punish draw as such – it could be a logical outcome of a well played (and well fought!) game. Besides, such a system does not change anything in knockouts and matches. And this is leaving aside the fact that such system could be open to manipulation.

However, I believe that there is a way to solve the problem of quick draws in chess radically and without altering the nature of chess. I came to it after a recent conversation with GM Genna Sosonko. He asked “Why are chess players allowed to agree a draw at any moment? This does not exist in any other sport.” Indeed, can you imagine a football match where teams agree a draw after the first-half? Or imagine wrestlers, seeing that their chances are about equal, who shake hands and go home!

So, is the rule which allows chess players to offer a draw untouchable? Why not require players to play out every game to its logical conclusion, whatever that will be? Players should not be allowed to talk to each other during the game. The game could still end in a draw – by stalemate, three-times repetition, lack of winning material or according to the 50-move rule. But not by mutual agreement!

When do quick draws occur? I am not talking here about pre-arranged draws, by the way. Sometimes quick draws happen in dead-equal positions, when there is no chance to outplay the opponent. But these are rare. Usually, there are different scenarios. For example, a player failed to get any opening advantage, so he is disappointed and offers a draw. Sometimes both players don’t like their position, overestimate the dangers and thus happily settle for a draw. Weaker players sometimes offer draws to stronger (or just higher rated) opponents when they have a good position. Sometimes one or both players are tired and want a break. Or a player has lost all his chances in the tournament... It is pointless to blame chess players for such draws – they act according to their interest, accepted rules and ethics. We should not blame them, but simply change the rules!

I suppose that a necessary condition for implementing such a change of rules is a time control with added increment. Otherwise we will encourage pointless ‘wood-pushing’ in drawn positions, when one side tries to win purely on the clock. That would do even more damage to chess than the quick draws themselves! Thus, a new system should be first tested in tournaments with appropriate electronic clocks and qualified arbiters. Such an experiment will surely find some weaknesses in the proposed change, but they could be fixed. And only after that would the new rules be widely used.

I understand that my proposal is pretty radical and goes against the centuries-old tradition. In such cases new ideas are often rejected. But it would be good to have a rational discussion on its merits. And if the proposed change will get some acceptance, then we should work out details of its implementation.

Will this change erase prearranged draws? Surely, not! But I am sure that it will make them less frequent. Often players get into negotiations not before the game, but during it. This will not be allowed. And technically making a draw will be more difficult. ‘Prearranged’ draws, while formally not allowed, nowadays cause no shame among professional players. They are accepted as a norm, as they differ little from quick draws, which are currently accepted by the rules. What attracts shame is ‘game throwing’. Of course, there are people who do it, and some of them are well-known to their colleagues. Disqualifications are very rare in such cases (it is hard to prove this kind of fraud), but a certain reputation sticks to such ‘dealers’. If all games are played to the bitter end, then prearranged draws will be also seen as unethical, much as ‘game throwing’ is today. Most chess players are honest people – they will start avoiding prearranged draws too.

This article was received (in Russian) by Chess Today newspaper (www.chesstoday.net) via Chess Week (Russia) and translated by GM Alexander Baburin with minor omissions. It first appeared in English in Chess Today No. 939 (4 June 2003).

All text Copyright Alexander Baburin unless otherwise noted