by GM Maurice Ashley
To all chess fans:
Recently I have been thinking about a practice in chess that I believe needs to be discussed by all of us who love the game, and that is, the draw offer. This topic started to occupy my mind mainly because of two events: the 2003 US Championships and the Kasparov-Deep Junior match at which I was a commentator. In the former, with 8 players tied for the lead going into the last round and a $25,000 first-place prize up for grabs, draw offers were made and quickly accepted on three of the top four boards. In the latter, after having captured the imagination of millions of chess playing fans and the general public, the players stunned everyone by agreeing to a draw in a position where the tension was just reaching its peak.
I guess I might not have given the issue much thought if it had not been for the bitter reaction that ensued in both cases. In Seattle, the chief organizer, Erik Anderson, was shocked, angered and deeply disappointed. He felt that with all the sponsorship money that had been raised, it was terribly insulting to the benefactors and the fans that the leaders (with the notable exception of Shabalov and Akobian) had snuffed out most of the drama from the event. He also pointed out that this was a lost opportunity for our nation’s top players to show what our game was all about. His anger propelled him to be even more generous (!) by rewarding the two gladiators with a $5,000 bonus for their fighting spirit. In the end, he said what really hurt him the most was that one of his children interpreted the draw offers as cheating because this fixed the result before the real contest had occurred.
In the case of the Man vs. Machine match, the reaction was even worse. This match received a mountain of hype and arguably, in our internet age, it was the most covered chess event ever with over 45,000 papers reporting on the first game alone. Even more amazing, the prominent sports network ESPN2 sent a crew to broadcast the event live across America. It was a fantastic moment for chess as approximately 400,000 households were tuned in. Needless to say, the finish was disappointing. The in-house audience booed raucously while my usually eloquent co-commentator, Yasser Seirawan, and I struggled to make sense of it for the TV viewers. Even my mother-in-law and her sister, who have never touched a pawn in their lives but who watched the entire three hours (imagine that), expressed their opinion that there must have been some prior arrangement agreed upon by the two competitors. While I quickly let them know that neither side would be a party to such nonsense, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other viewers across America were thinking the same thing.
As someone who has devoted my life to not only playing but also popularizing chess, it hurt me to hear the game talked about so negatively. Kasparov explained afterwards with astonishing frankness that he just “didn’t want to lose.” After having thoroughly outplayed Deep Junior in virtually every game and having the match still be tied due to the tactical wizardry of the machine, he was concerned that even his own amazing powers might falter in the last game. Those of us who have lost important games know the feeling well. Still, if chess is to ever get the popularity that Kasparov has made his admirable mission from the beginning of his career, I think the issue of draw offers will have to be addressed.
When I put in a phone call to Tom Brownscombe at the USCF he read me rule 14.b.6 out of the USCF rulebook which states: “It is unethical and unsporting to agree to a draw before a serious contest has begun.” Frankly, I didn’t even know this rule existed, but the way it is worded means it has no bite whatsoever. On top of that, it doesn’t address an even more fundamental question: why are we allowed to offer a draw in chess? At what point did this become allowed? Tom did not know the answer to this question, but referred me to USCF President and chess historian John McCrary. When I asked him, he was instantly able to tell me the origin of the fifty-move rule and the three move repetition, but could not think of where the draw offer had originated. He promised to look into it, and it wasn’t long before I received this e-mail:
Your question turned into quite a research topic! I could find nothing in my standard sources, so I did some quick original research in my old books, and found the following: In Medieval chess (Shatranj) the draw was recognized, but apparently only in simplified endgames in which it was clearly impossible for either side to force a win. There is no apparent reference to draws earlier than the late stages of the endgame in Shatranj literature. Even until the 18th century, there seems to have been no draws by agreement other than in very simplified endgames. In the Oxford Encyclopedia of Chess Games, the earliest draw of any kind was a perpetual check in 1750, although that book has recorded games all the way back to the 1400’s. Staunton’s Handbook (1848) refers to draws by agreement only if the forces are greatly simplified, such as K+Q vs K+Q. The earliest reference to draw by agreement I could find was in the American Chess Code of 1897, which allowed draw by agreement at any time.
Certainly a draw can be a natural result of a well-played game. Few would complain when two players slug it out, throwing caution to the wind only for the fireworks to fizzle to a lifeless position (check out Tate-Ashley, New York 1993 for an extreme example of this). But the draw offer, especially one that is made after ten or twelve perfunctory moves, seems just bizarre. Imagine a basketball game being played for a few minutes before both sides decide to stop and call it a day. “You know, we had long flight in, our players played last night and are a little tired. Would you like a draw so that we can all go out and have a beer?” Not only does that sound completely ridiculous, in some places the fans might start a riot! Even sports where ties are allowed (soccer, hockey, and, surprisingly, American Football) attempts are made to avoid this somewhat unsatisfying result. Most other sports resolve the problem in a clear way: basketball can go into three or four overtimes, baseball has extra innings, tennis has the tie-break, and golf has some kind of playoff. Of course, chess is different since a drawn result is sometimes unavoidable. If only two kings are left on the board, adding a few extra minutes won’t make difference. It would be pointless to play out many rook endings as well as many bishop of opposite color endings. Draws are a natural part of our game, and to play for a win in many positions is stupid if not suicidal. However, the draw offer in a position full of life with mysteries yet to be revealed has got to be the most abused rule in all of chess. I am not even sure you can call this a rule: it is more like a practice that has been regulated, or, in this case, not regulated enough.
Now don’t get me wrong: as much as I detest draws, I have also been guilty of abusing this practice. Both times that I tied for first in Foxwoods were due to early last round draw offers (one year my opponent extended the courtesy while the next time I was the one who suggested peace). My tie for first in the Bermuda Open was due to a quick draw offer I made. In all three cases, against very strong GMs, I had come into the round unsure if my opponents were as worried as I was about losing out on a decent prize. However, at King’s Island in 2002 where I was in sole first by half a point going into the last round, I expected and steeled myself for a heavy struggle. Imagine my surprise when my opponent, a GM known for his fighting spirit, offered me an early draw even though he had White! He said that he had been out the night before and was too tired to play. The story got even more curious when boards two and three, with some of America’s strongest players now with a legitimate shot of tying me for first, also saw quick draws, one because of “fatigue” and the other because of friendship. I know this “friendship” excuse because my great buddy Josh Waitzkin and I routinely drew our games before his Dad suggested that organizers might stop inviting us to the same tournament. We talked it through and decided that, as painful as it was, our friendship could withstand the competition. Curiously, out of our six or seven games I think only two were decisive.
I say all this because it took me over twenty years to realize how much of a spell we are all under. I can’t remember when I first learned that a draw could be offered at any time, and I certainly don’t remember questioning it. ‘Bishops move diagonally, the object of the game is to checkmate the king, and you can offer a draw whenever you like.’ In the lower rated sections of many youth championships, you’ll invariably see one kid who has just learned the rule use it to virtually harass the other kid with draw offers on almost every move!
Unfortunately, the draw offer has been used in more devious ways. Recently, it has come out that Bobby Fischer had been right all along when he said that the Soviets ganged up on him in Curacao by agreeing beforehand to draw each other quickly (Korchnoi has added that the he too was a victim of this at the same event). The names of the conspiring players are among the greatest to have ever touched a chess piece. Some might argue that this is just good tournament strategy. If they had truly tried to defeat each other the result may have ended in the same way. Why not save some energy for later on, and to use against players who may be a bit more tired from playing out long games? All this rationalizing aside, we all know that this specious argument smacks up against every element that makes sports so grand. And while today’s professionals are not in the business of fixing games, we still see an epidemic of early draws even at the highest levels.
Imagine for a moment that it was the last round of a major tournament and Player X is leading the field by a half-point. His opponent, Player Y has had a horrible tournament and really couldn’t care less about playing. They sit at the board, punch clocks, make a few moves and then Player Y resigns! Of course, there would be an uproar that would probably result in the player being banned from future events. Now let’s change the scenario and say the players agreed to a draw. That would most likely elicit only modest grumbles even though Player X had just been handed at least a tie for first for doing nothing at all. Yes, Player X got into that situation by playing well in previous rounds, but that does not change anything. Teams are constantly playing well to get to the finals of major competitions without being handed the title on a silver platter once they get there. In chess, the attitude is, “We can do it so why not?”
If we were to agree that this is a serious problem that needs addressing, the next question has to be “What can be done about it?” When I brought up this subject with former Women’s World Champion Susan Polgar, she said that she remembers that in the old Soviet and Hungarian championships players were not allowed to offer draws before move thirty. She also reminded me that Rentero, the organizer of Linares, used to have it in the players’ contracts that they were not allowed to draw before the first time control. I agree that this is a great place to start, but why not after fifty moves instead? We already have a fifty-move rule so this already creates some harmony. The reason I am not jumping to eliminate the draw offer entirely is to deal with the reality of those endgame situations where there really is nothing to play for. Fifty moves seem like a reasonable compromise although I would not be against someone saying sixty or seventy. The key is for a real game to be played.
Paul Truong, who also shared in this discussion with Susan and me, suggested that if players wish to draw then it’s impossible to stop them. They could always create a game that ends in perpetual check or three move repetition. This is true, but I think the vast majority of players are more honorable than that. Almost all early draws are not due to prior agreement, but more out of convenience or fear of losing. If players were not allowed to have quick draws, they would simply erase this option from their minds and just play chess. Naturally, the older you are the harder it will be to adjust to the rule change. The ten-year-olds who will be our stars in the next decade will have no problem because they will not have known any other situation. Take adjournments: today no one cares that you can’t adjourn your games after the first time-control (although Kramnik managed to resurrect this dead practice in his match against Deep Fritz). Today’s teenage chess players would think you insane if you told them that Botvinnik used to be able to stop a game in progress, go have his assistants analyze the position for several hours, and come back with analysis that had been polished and spit-shined for him. Of course, computers really precipitated the demise of this ridiculous exercise, but it didn’t seem so ridiculous back then. It was just accepted as the way things are.
Even for players who are less than honorable, it is possible for organizers to send the message. If a game ends in a quick perpetual check between two players most everyone knows to be friends, any number of things can be done, from warning to fining the players. It’s highly unlikely to have games end in quick perpetuals in the first place so if this were to happen again, then collusion would be clear. I think that ninety-nine percent of all players are honorable and would not even think of doing something like that, but some strong measures can nevertheless be agreed on by FIDE and the national federations.
I do not pretend to know the exact solution to this as I have not thought through every possible situation. I hope FIDE will seriously take up this issue at one of its future meetings. I know Mr. Ilyumzhinov has been trying various methods of making the game more accessible to a wider audience, some of which have met with limited success. Possibly the idea of regulating draw offers will be one of the easier changes to enact. No doubt, the world’s top players can expedite this change if they can come to some agreement. For the good of chess, we can only hope that they do.