Yesterday on my Twitter and Facebook feeds there was a massive celebration, and if you’re a serious chess player and were online from 4-10PM on August 23rd, you probably saw it too. It seemed like every chess player I knew was tweeting the same thing, as though something incredible had just occurred. What was it that everyone was so excited about?
They were excited that in the first round of a major chess tournament, none of the games finished in draws.
In the first round of the Sinquefield Cup, all five games produced a winner. Not only that, but the games were remarkably exciting as well.
My immediate reaction was unease. Is this really what it’s come to in chess? When our games don’t end in draws, everyone starts patting each other on the back, opening up the champagne bottles and bragging to the rest of the world?
Whenever I have an emotional reaction to that seems to be in the opposite direction of everyone else, I know there’s something to talk about. How big of a deal is the draw “problem” in chess today?
I think that there is still a problem with draws in chess, but that this problem does not exist at the top level today.
The top ten players in the world have seemingly no interest in short and listless draws. Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura are leading examples, but I’d say that the entire top 10 comes into every chess game, especially when they have the white pieces, trying to win the game.
One could argue that this could change at any time depending on the future crop of top players, but the good news is that I think the culture of chess has changed where players who give too many quick draws, will definitely get fewer invitations and will also have a tough time succeeding at the top levels.
If we go back twenty to thirty years ago, short draws in top tournaments and matches were definitely a problem. What has changed to curb the problem?
- The adoption of Sofia anti-draw rules
Not every tournament uses Sofia anti-draw rules, which state that you cannot agree to a draw unless the arbiter gives you approval, but this is definitely one of the key reasons why we have seen lifeless draws slowly disappearing.
The emergence of rules like this, and Maurice Ashley’s anti draw rules (no draw offers before move 40), didn’t get implemented in every single tournament. However they did send a message and that message was that the chess organizers are not going to sit by idly, and continue to pay players appearance fees, only to see them not play the game.
These rules not only affected the tournaments in which they were implemented, but every subsequent tournament as well. Sure there may not have been anti-draw rules in every major tournament, but if you tried to get away with lots of lifeless draws, then people would not react well. You would be subtly mocked on ChessBase and you would be less likely to get invited to glamorous events. It has simply become really uncool to take short draws.
Every young player now knows that someone who takes lots of short draws, is not a chess player to look up to, and this is not the reputation that they themselves want to earn.
2. The growing diversity of the top players
When the draw problem was at it’s worst state, most of the top players in the world came from the Soviet Union. It’s said that before each tournament, discussions were made among the top Soviet officials, and that some Soviet players were instructed to take short draws against each other to conserve their energy against their foreign opponents. In some cases it was thought that players were even asked to intentionally lose games to the more important Soviet chess figures.
Because the Soviet Union dominated the world of chess, their culture shaped the entire world of chess players, and part of their culture was a history of prearranged or short draws. When the major chess superpower is doing something, it’s normal for the rest of the world to imitate it.
Today the top players are from a much more diverse set of countries. If you look at the top ten, here is the makeup of nationalities:
Norway, India, Italy, The United States, Russia, China, The Netherlands, Bulgaria, Armenia, The Philippines
All ten players spent the majority of their youth in ten different countries! They have no special ties or any reason to take it easy on each other.
3. The rise of the computer age
Sure a position may seem drawish, but then why is it so hard to draw the top computers in these positions?
I think that playing around with computers and experiencing first hand how hard it is to hold a “drawish” position, has helped to shape the mindset of today’s top players. If they can’t hold a position in a rapid game against Stockfish, then clearly there is room to win such positions against other top Grandmasters.
I still think that in local open events and in other smaller cash based tournaments, there may still be an issue. And please everyone, it doesn’t make chess look good to gloat when the games don’t end in draws. Your non chess playing friends are not going to be impressed. But I think that for once we can all sit back, relax, and comfortably say that there really is no major draw problem at the highest level of chess. The chess fans have won the battle at last!
It was not a sudden change, but it was a gradual wave of pressure from key figures that has helped to slowly shape the attitudes of today’s players.
Carlsen is going to play every game until the bitter end. Nakamura is going to play his energetic and combative style of chess. Caruana is going to occasionally win seven games in a row against the top players in the world. And 16 year old Wei Yi will be coming soon to a major chess tournament near you, to sacrifice all of his pieces. And throughout all of this, there will be professional level commentary that is both entertaining and informative, so that fans throughout the world can tune in and enjoy.
It may not be the wall to wall ESPN coverage that everyone had been fantasizing about, but I truly believe that chess is experiencing a renaissance right now, and I expect it to last for quite some time. But I still hate short draws.