My column this week takes a look at the scourge of chess: the draw. After looking at some examples of the kinds of draws we all hate (at least most of the time), and a pair of amusing examples, it's easy to forget that it is possible for a draw to be not only (at least) as well-played as a won game, but every bit as hard fought and exciting, too. To remind us that such games are possible, the column concludes with a look at one of the famous draws of all time (at least in the pre-internet era), the so-called Immortal Draw between Alexander Alekhine and Richard Reti. Draws like that are worth more to chess history than many a tournament's worth of wins.
Entries in draws (6)
Leonid Verkhovsky, Draw! The Art of the Half-Point in Chess (Russell Enterprises, 2014). 132 pp. $14.95.
We'll get to the content of this book shortly, but first I must note a few oddities. Mikhail Tal wrote a foreword to the book that is dated to 1972, and the book's back jacket also suggests that the book was written in the early '70s. No problem. Russell Enterprises (RE) often releases new printings of older works, which frankly is a very good thing, as there are some treasures of chess literature that deserve a second lease on life.
So I start to work my way through the book: Capablanca-Fine, Amsterdam 1938; Capablanca-Nimzovitsch [sic], Kissingen [sic] 1928; O'Kelly-Penrose, Varna 1962; Kramnik-Kasparov, World Championship London (6) 2000...wait, what?
I started to look around for an explanation. The author's introduction is dated 2014, but there's nothing in there that indicates any modernization. (There's a brief reference to Profile of a Prodigy, dated 1973, but that's the only thing that suggests anything later than Tal's foreword.) There's nothing on the back jacket, no publisher's introduction, nothing. The majority of the book looks like it was written when it was said to be written, but there are a lot of post-1972 examples, some even from the 2000s. Is this a translation of a revised edition, or is this itself the revised edition? It's a surprisingly ahistorical presentation from RE, especially given their usual care about and love for chess history.
Anyway, let's turn to the book. There are 291 games and game fragments in the ten chapters (plus the introduction), and then the book concludes with 32 exercises and their solutions. The chapters investigate all sorts of draws both actual and merely possible: those achieved with a material disadvantage, draws that could have been had if a player hadn't resigned, draws that were taken when a win was available, counterattacking draws, traps, draws arising from mutual errors, paradoxical drawing ideas, draws (actual or missed) involving zwischenzugs, stalemates, and grandmaster draws in the real, full-blooded sense.
This slim volume is primarily a pleasure book, though of course one can benefit by trying to solve the positions beforehand. (Sometimes this is impossible, however, as the critical moment often arises after the diagrammed position.) The analysis is generally pretty light, and at least the parts I examined seemed to have been computer-checked, albeit imperfectly.
I enjoyed books like this a lot when I was a kid, and they were great for growing my enthusiasm for the game. I would recommend the book as a gift for kids whose ratings are north of 1000 or as a semi-gag, semi-serious gift for friends with an inordinate disdain for draws.
One of the most famous draws in chess history occurred in Vienna in 1870, between Carl Hamppe and Philipp Meitner. The opponents' play was remarkably accurate, too, though improvements have been found in the computer age. It would not be easy to find these improvements OTB though, especially in a rapid (15' + 10") game. So when Rauf Mamedov and Aleksej Alexandrov repeated the game on their way to a draw in round 6 of the World Rapid Championship last month, were they just taking a round off, or was one player or the other trying to outfox his opponent? The two aren't countrymen, they're of different generations (Alexandrov is 15 years older) and tiredness was unlikely to be a factor as it was the first game of the second day. So one would expect a normal game from them, but repeating the Hamppe-Meitner game smacks of pre-arranged draw. Does anyone know?
In case you're curious, you can replay their game here.
In Poikovsky, the players were up to their usual miserable tricks: four draws in five games, three of them very short. (23, 23 and 26 moves.) Only Bacrot decided to play a real game, and he was rewarded, grinding out a tough win against Caruana in 78 moves. After five rounds there have been five decisive games, and Bacrot, Karjakin and Efimenko lead with +1 scores. Twenty draws four rounds remain. Hopefully none of these guys gets invited back next year.
Yesterday, I had expressed hope that the Governor's Cup in Saratov, Russia would prove more exciting. How could it not with players like Morozevich, Shirov and Ponomariov? Sure, Leko's playing, but he has been a pretty feisty player so far this year. So what happened in round 1? Six games, six draws. It's not as bad as it sounds, though. One game was a little short (30 moves), one a little long (57), and most went to around the time control on move 40. So there was an effort, just no wins.
In Swiss events it tends to be different, and in Oslo the increasingly unretired Matthew Sadler continues to shine. He won in round 8 with Black against Elsness, the only player within half a point of him going into the round. Ironically, the four players in the next score group...you guessed it - drew - and now Sadler leads the next group (of 9 players!) by a whopping 1.5 points with one round to go. His TPR so far has been 2819, which bodes pretty well for his continued return.
Have a look here, where ChessBase's favorite statistician Jeff Sonas claims that at the top the percentage of draws has only risen very slightly since the 1960s and has held even steadier for master chess in general. Further, the percentage of short draws (ones agreed to before move 25) has declined considerably since the 1980s, and that pre-dates the Sofia/Corsica rules.
As I've said a million times, don't exaggerate draws aren't a problem.
I'm not a big fan of the topic of the so-called "problem" of draws in chess, primarily because I don't think that it really is a problem. (Perhaps the real problem is that so many fans think it's a problem!) What is a problem, occasionally, is the specter of short, bloodless draws in non-world championship super-tournaments. My preferred solution is simple: organizers and sponsors make it clear that persistent offenders won't be invited back for a year or two, and if the Grand Prix organizers engage in a little solidarity those who like short draws will feel a powerful motive to play some real chess. Draws per se are fine, however, especially as it's almost surely the correct result of a chess game.
Anyway, a large number of solutions to the alleged problem have been proposed, many of them high in quackery. One of the more interesting suggestions has been recently offered by Sergey Shipov, a sort of hybrid of 3-1-0 scoring and Rustam Kasimdzhanov's recent proposal to have drawn games played off in games with increasingly shorter time controls. Shipov suggests the following:
1. In case of a win in the normal game, the winner gets 3 points, the loser none.
2. After a draw in the normal game, there will be a pair of blitz games, and if they don't produce a winner, an Armageddon game. The winner at this point will get 2 points, the loser 1.
It's an improvement on both Kasimdzhanov's proposal and 3-1-0 scoring, and it would certainly be entertaining for chess fans. I for one would like to see it tried as an experiment in an elite event.