The European Championship has long had a bad reputation for draws, with most of the players treating getting into the coveted 23 World Cup qualifying places as the overriding goal. This year, in the absence of Sofia Rules, the players haven’t even been required to go through the motions, resulting in a number of draws in a dozen moves or less. Sports psychologist Carlos Martínez has decided to take a look at the question of draws – and especially quick draws – and is inclined to defend the players. What do you think?
by Carlos Martínez
You often read or hear opinions about how negative and disappointing draws are for the image of chess. The issue is mainly quick draws i.e. those made after only a few moves. Fans and chess experts debate the harm they supposedly do to the promotion and spread of chess. But is that fair? Do such results really harm chess to such a degree?
In the current article I’d like to reflect on this phenomenon which is both widespread in the chess world and, one way or another, always generates controversy and heated debate. I make no claims to be able to give a final verdict on the theme – my only aim is to open up a space for debate and reflexion, focussing on some of the main factors that motivate the players.
Claiming to be pro or contra draws in themselves strikes me as revealing a total ignorance of competitive chess. A draw is a result rather than an intrinsic part of the sport. Although that might seem obvious, it’s a fact that often seems to be neglected. A game of chess is extremely complex and involves a multitude of factors, both internal (the mood of the player, how he’s feeling about a tournament, his preparation etc.) and external (the tournament position, his goals, the opponent etc.). Those elements, and many more, influence each game. But what can lead a player to sign a draw? Let’s take first things first.
try not to stretch out this preamble, but a distinction needs to be made
between competitive draws and quick draws, even if it’s not always
easy to separate the two clearly. For example, if we think in terms of a fight
then it could be argued that a competitive
draw is one agreed after the players have fought for a good part of the
game in order to unbalance play. In contrast, quick draws would be ones with no such struggle, where the players simply
make some moves in order to agree a quick draw. However, that approach has some
significant shortcomings. For example, a game that lasted 40 moves and a couple
of hours or more would lead us to think that the players had battled to score a
full point. It might be the case, though, that both players ended up in a line
they’d already analysed (in recent years preparation has become very precise
and requires, as we noted in a
previous article, significant rote-learning skills) and where they just
spent their time remembering what the correct moves were in order not to end up
worse. A draw was finally reached after correct play by both players. You can
find many examples of that. The opposite can also happen: two opponents agree a
draw relatively quickly – let’s say after 15 moves and only an hour on the
clock – but they’ve been surprised in the opening and, although they tried to
unbalance the position, they felt uncomfortable. Those are just two situations
that occur in practice and force you to ask yourself, who fought “more”? The
same could happen if we used time in order to differentiate the terms. Either
way, we’ve lost an important part of the essence of the game.
Despite these serious and even insurmountable limitations I’ve decided, in order to continue with the article, that when I refer to competitive draws I mean draws in which after winning attempts neither player manages to unbalance the game and a draw is agreed. Quick draws are those in which a draw is agreed with barely any real effort to unbalance play. After clearing up that nuance let’s take a look at some possible causes for draws in each of the cases.
I can’t imagine how anyone can be against such draws. The players have tried, as far as they’re able, to fight for a full point. However, they failed to find what they were looking for and, at some point, they decided to bring an end to hostilities. These games usually feature a lot of tension and both players try to unbalance the position in their favour. It’s not so easy, however, to win a game of chess, especially when opponents are evenly matched. To cite just one example of such draws, we could reach a position in which for either of the players to keep playing would involve excessive risk and, moreover, it’s unclear if taking those risks would bring a win any closer.
These draws are the ones that draw most criticism. At times we see two players agree to a draw on move 10 or 12, after only just sitting down at the board. Why agree to a draw so quickly? Is it because the players don’t want to win the game? They prefer not to compete? In all the years I’ve dedicated to preparing players mentally I haven’t found a single case of someone who doesn’t want to win. In fact, they’ve spent many hours on preparation, both technical and psychological (although the latter still isn’t so widespread). It’s worth pointing out that a chess event usually lasts a week or more, with the players needing to play seven or more games. Again, in order not to linger too long, I’m going to take an example from elite players. Before a tournament you know in advance on which day you’re going to play which opponent, and after which opponent you’ll have a day off. Such information is fundamental, since when the players compete then need to take such details into consideration in order to establish the goals they want to achieve. To put it another way, they think in which rounds and against which opponents it makes most sense to “go all out”. Obviously that’s not a script you can follow to the letter. On some occasions a game can go your way, and although initially it wasn’t a round where you were going to go for it the player might sense that it’s a good opportunity to fight for a full point. On other occasions the game might follow the established script and a player prefers to preserve his energy for another round. Or it might happen, although not so often at the elite level, that two players have trained and prepared together for some time and prefer not to show their cards in a direct encounter. It can also be the case that two players simply see that agreeing a draw brings them closer to their sporting goal.
Will quick draws kill chess? Do they damage the image of our sport? Do they discourage potential sponsors? Are they an insurmountable obstacle to the spread and promotion of chess? Do they reveal a sport without strong competition? Are chess players not the best of fighters? In my view, and from observing the statistics for the last few years, the reply is negative to all those questions. Below I’ve included various tables and graphs on the number of games that end in a win (either for Black or White) and in a draw. However, I’ve decided to add another category: quick draws, which are arbitrarily defined as those games that ended in a draw before move 20. Again, this strikes me as very vague and imprecise, but I believe it can give us an idea of the percentage of such draws. I also wanted to see the percentages and number of games that end in a draw or quick draw at the elite level, so to see the trend among the world’s best players I decided to filter for all those players who have an Elo of 2700 or more. I used the 2013 Megabase as a reference, supplemented up to 2015 with the TWIC databases – in total 6,213,744 games – including 24,749 games by elite players. Given that, we can observe various interesting facts:
1. Only 30% of the games ended in a draw, meaning that 70% of the games ended in victory for one of the players. Moreover, if we consider the quick draw category those only represent 6.8%.
2. Among the elite draws are pretty common and 52.1% of games end in that result. However, if we again look at quick draws then we see the percentage is only 12.4%, or roughly 1 in every 10 games.
we take the results among the elite year by year then there’s more variation,
although draws are still the most common result (percentages range from 46.5%
in 2012 to 55% in 2011), the percentage of quick draws is still very low (from
9.4% in 2011 to 4.3% in 2012).
4. In 2010 only 38 games from a total of 1000 ended in quick draws.
5. In 2011 only 45 games from a total of 884 ended in quick draws.
6. In 2012 only 23 games from a total of 1131 ended in quick draws.
7. In 2013 only 28 games from a total of 944 ended in quick draws.
8. In 2014 only 36 games from a total of 1537 ended in quick draws.
The fact that the majority of elite games end in draws seems normal: they’re extremely strong players with good knowledge who work hard and it’s usually very tricky to get an unbalanced game. However, the fact that a game ends in a draw doesn’t mean, as we mentioned before, that it was a boring encounter into which the players failed to put any effort. Chess is much more complex than it seems at a superficial glance. And if we look at quick draws we can see that the number of such games is very low and hardly represents an alarming percentage ending without a fight (that “without a fight” involves a lot of nuances, as I mentioned before).
am I trying to say with all this? Would I like the players to make more quick
draws? Am I in favour of players agreeing to such draws? No, I wouldn't like that and I'm not in favour. It’s just that I understand and respect why such things happen and I don’t
want to reproach the players, since they want to compete and come out on
top in each tournament. They’re the ones who spend many hours on tough
training. They’re the ones who travel thousands of kilometres and need to acclimatise
and quickly get used to the food and
timetables. They’re the ones who often find themselves far from their families.
And they’re the ones who enable us to enjoy and get excited about beautiful games.
I hope you enjoyed this article and we can discuss and debate this interesting and extremely complex topic.
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