Stop with the silly Sofia rules

peace_doveAs we all know chess games have 3 natural outcomes: a win, a loss or a draw. For obvious reasons organizers and chess fans don’t like draws. We demand a fight to the death. Unless we are involved by ourselves of course. In that case we prefer half living over death.

For instance a draw is perfectly okay if we play a (much) stronger opponent or if it brings some other gain, like winning a match or chess tournament. But when other players settle for a draw we hate it.  

Of course there is a problem. It happens frequently that players agree on a draw when there are still enough possibilities to prolong the fight. In other cases they don’t even bother to try to play for a win. Their goal is from the outset to finish as soon as possible in peaceful manner.

I think it was Boris Spassky who, in the later stage of his career, preferred a tennis game over a chess game. And he is not the only player who had some different thoughts about a struggle on the chess board. How do you prevent this from happening?

Who is to blame for this?
The player who tries to secure some prize money in order to make a living? Or the organizers who are responsible for the line up? Feel free to disagree with me, but the organizers themselves are largely to blame for this situation. When you always aim for the best line up you’re asking for draws.

The best players in the world make less mistakes. So draws are more likely outcomes of their games. Really beautiful combinations between top players are quite rare. Simply, because one of the players has to screw up. And if you are strong…? Well you get it.

And how would you feel to meet the same players over and over again? Bored? You might think ‘oh no, not him again!’ Maybe tournaments become more interesting if the organizers would invite a mix of strong and somewhat lesser players?!

Introduction of the Sofia rules
To prevent this peaceful attitude organizers came up with an idea. Simply to restrict the possibilities of a draw. They try to ban draws from the game. One of the more drastic measures are the so called Sofia rules. First introduced in, you got it, a strong tournament organized in Sofia (2005).

If you think this is a new idea, you’re wrong. In 1929 the first edition of the FIDE laws of chess required thirty moves to be played before a draw by agreement. This rule was discarded when the rules were revised in 1952 and later reinstated in 1963 and dropped again in 1964. The players simply ignored the rule or forced a draw by repetition. See the article ‘Draw by agreement’.

I found the original Sofia rules on the Chessbase website:

  1. It is not allowed to agree on a draw.
  2. The players are not permitted to speak with each other and not allowed to offer a draw
  3. Draws can only be claimed by perpetual checks, threefold repetition and if the position is a theoretical draw.
  4. Draw offers should be made to the arbiter. The arbiter is the only person who can decide the outcome of the game.
  5. The arbiter will be advised by a strong Grandmaster.

Let’s have a closer look at these rules.

1. It is not allowed to agree on a draw
This goes against the nature of the chess game. As stated before a draw is one of the three natural outcomes of a chess game. Nothing wrong with that. The draw (outcome) is not the problem, but a lack of fighting spirit. We don’t like it when a draw is agreed upon too early in the game.

Chess is an individual game. The chess player as an individual has all the right in the world to say at some moment, be it early or late, in the game: ‘You now what, I prefer to end this game and a draw is fine with me!’ This is valid for weak and strong players alike, so there shouldn’t be a different treatment.

All civilized nations have a constitution that states ‘everybody is equal and should be treated equal’. So why should a super grandmaster be less equal then a mediocre or a weak player? Nobody really knows. Accept for organizers, who by the way, are usually lousy chess players.

Note: this strange rule also takes something else away  from the game. Sometimes you can offer a draw for tactical reasons. For instance you are quite happy with a draw, but you know your opponent is an aggressive type. Let’s say the position is more or less equal. You offer him a draw for psychological reasons. You know there is a reasonable chance he won’t accept your draw offer and will try to prove that he has winning chances.

He tries to attack and might make mistakes. It happened several times in my games. I offered a draw and was almost certain my opponent would refuse this draw offer. Very soon after the draw offer they made a mistake. Like it or not, but psychological warfare is simply part of the game. And by the way: in practice it delivers quite funny and sometimes spectacular results. So a draw offer can even lead to the so much wanted fighting games and decisions!

2. Not speaking, no draw offers
Isn’t it a bit crazy to disallow people to speak with each other in order to prevent draw offers?  Strong players don’t need to talk with each other to say ‘let’s draw’. They simply play a variation that leads almost certain to a draw. Think for instance about the Berlin Wall or even the poisoned pawn variation of the Najdorf.

There are perfectly good rules in place to prevent players bothering each other, so this rule is completely superfluous. And once again: it goes against the spirit of the game. The arbiter will only be involved when there are problems. And as we all know, a draw offer is not a problem.

3. Draw claims
This rule doesn’t add anything to the rule ‘a draw offer is not permitted’. Under the existing FIDE rules any player can claim a draw under these circumstances. So again: who made this rule up? Probably somebody who doesn’t know much by himself about the chess rules and regulations,

4. Draw offer should be made to the arbiter
This of course is the silly consequence of rule number two. Don’t you think that there is something strange about this rule? Rule number one says draw offers are not permitted. And this rule says that a draw offer is permitted if you involve the arbiter?

To be clear: this rule contradicts the first rule. Seemingly it is possible to offer a draw, but only by means of the arbiter. Who, shouldn’t be part of the game at all. The role of the arbiter is to see to it that everything is happening in a decent way and to solve any problems.

5. The arbiter will be advised by a strong Grandmaster
This is a very stupid rule. Imagine you are in time trouble. You claim a draw through the arbiter and the arbiter consults the strong grandmaster. It is a very difficult position. So it takes a while before a decision is made. Are you going to lose on time? And again: this rule goes against the nature of the game. A game is decided between the two players and not through third parties. And what if the strong grandmaster misjudges the position?

Nowadays these Sofia rules are a bit mitigated. The rules usually are restricted to the first thirty or forty moves of the game. But what’s the result? Some very boring and uninteresting games which are unnecessary prolonged. You know the drill: pieces are swapped from the board and even the biggest amateur can predict a draw.

Another question is: did these rules have any effect? I doubt it.

What would be a better solution?
There are some other possibilities. Again we can point the finger to the organizers themselves. Don’t just simply invite the highest rated players. Go for an interesting mix of players. Or invite the strong players and say something like:

‘We expect you to make a fight out of it. That doesn’t mean that a peaceful mind set in a couple of games is not permitted, but if you are too eager the play for short draws, we will not invite you anymore!’

That’s one solution. Another solution would be the so called ‘Bilbao rules’. It is a slight change in the scoring system ‘you get three points for a win, one for a draw and zero for a loss’. Will this solve the problem?

It’s doubtful. This rule was applied in the recent Biel chess festival. Were there less draws than usual? I don’t think so. If I calculate correctly 30 games were played. Only 12 games ended in a decisive result. Moreover it resulted in a strange outcome. According to the traditional rules Étienne Bacrot would have been the sole winner of tournament. According to the new rules the win was split between four players. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave won the tiebreak.

But is this the way we want to force the outcome of a tournament? I mean through blitz games and rapid games? Isn’t that a bit strange. Players fight for more than a week in serious games and than the outcome is decided by some kind of lottery?

No solution needed
In my opinion there is no solution needed. As stated before, the outcome (draw) is not the problem. Some draws occur after very tough fighting. What we see in elite tournaments round after round is a couple of wins and a couple of draws. The Sofia rules didn’t stop boring games.

Aren’t we all entitled to play sometimes boring chess? And who decides what is boring anyway. Some grandmasters are considered to be boring. Not much seems to happen, until they get some kind of advantage in what seems to be a drawn position and suddenly they play very subtle chess and actually win brilliant games. I rest my case.

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