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Not All Draws are Boring…In Retrospect

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Among elite chess players, most games end in draws. Whether these outcomes are the result of a tense struggle that ends in a dynamic equilibrium neither player dares disturb or a “grandmaster draw” where the competitors tacitly agree to take a day off, the outcome is neither a win nor a loss.

When a player is awarded one point for a win and zero points for a loss, “splitting the point” (earning half a point each) for a draw can seem like an unsatisfying result. Of the major American sport leagues, only Major League Soccer and the National Football League allow ties—the NFL doing so only after a full period of overtime. Some chess tournaments encourage risk by awarding three points for a win, one point for a draw, and zero points for a loss, but they are the exception.

The advent of computer analysis that goes well beyond human capability adds to chess’s drawish nature. As John Gapper notes in his November 25, 2021, column in the Financial Times, “[p]layers always arrived for tournaments well prepared, but they now use software as well as human analysis to predict lines long past the opening.” While it’s true that I, a moderately-skilled amateur player, can see better moves using an app on my phone than the world champion sees over the board, there is still significant room for invention.

The first two games of the current World Championship match ended in draws, but neither was boring. What’s more, in Game 2 world champion Magnus Carlsen deviated on move 8, which is quite early in the game. While the move he played was known, it is uncommon and offered chances for an advantage. Rather than searching for an innovation on move 25, well within the preparation in deeply analyzed openings, Carlsen and his team found an opportunity to sidestep popular lines in pursuit of a meaningful imbalance.

After mutual inaccuracies—suboptimal moves identified by the computer but invisible to the likes of me—the game ended in a draw that was anything but peaceful. The struggle was compelling and the potential for any of the three possible results for each player added excitement.

Is chess the sort of game that can be presented successfully to broad audiences? Perhaps not. I agree with Gapper’s additional point that chess lacks the broader visual appeal of soccer, video games, or even poker now that players are required to expose their hole cards to cameras for the benefit of viewers at home. (Years ago, before hole-card cameras were implemented, a friend said he would rather watch a tournament on the Paint Drying Channel than a televised poker game.) The drama of the Cold War-era Fischer-Spassky battles or the bitter conflict between old-guard Soviet stalwart Anatoly Karpov and upstart Garry Kasparov in the 1980s are missing, but the intellectual and agonizingly human struggle to find the best moves over the board remains.

As a chess player I understand that a draw is not always a bad result, just as splitting a pot is better than losing at poker. Even if chess isn’t destined to be a popular sport for real-time viewing, I hope players and commentators find ways to bring the joy and excitement of the game to the public after the fact. They’ve made good progress so far and I have high hopes for what’s next.

Written by curtisfrye

November 28, 2021 at 1:58 pm