In de last round of Norway chess the leader, Veselin Topalov only needed a draw against runner up Vishy Anand to secure the first place.
Well that was exactly what he got. He played a very solid line in a Queens Gambit and went at some moment for a well known repetition. It was a great result for him.
But it was a bummer for all the chess fans. I was watching this game live through Playchess and was hoping, like all the other chess fans, for a fantastic last round fight for the first place. But as I can remember the whole thing was over within an hour. After this let down I had a brief discussion through the chat with grandmaster Daniel King. He was very clear and said something to the extend of:
‘These guys are playing for themselves and not for the public, so it is their right to act in this way’.
I disagreed and called it quits. Not because of these remarks, but because the tension was gone. Fast foward a couple of months in time. Karjakin is playing the final of the World Cup in Baku. He lost the first game in this final and I am watching the second game on Playchess. With the same commentator: Daniel King.
Somebody asked through the chat a question about the playing styles of Karjakin and Svidler. I joked ‘you can describe Karjakin with one word ‘draw’ or ‘Mr. Draw’. I admit those are two words, but it is not without reason that I made these remarks. Karjakin played several very short draws on his way to the final. Basically Karjakin is a highly technical player, but also a bit boring.* Once he was a prodigy, just like Magnus Carlsen, and he became a strong grandmaster, but never really delivered on his early promise.
With these remarks I provoked Daniel and he couldn’t stop himself of making a similar statement:
‘They are not there to entertain us at all’.
Of course Daniel has a point. Chess is an individual game and a player is free to offer or accept a draw at any moment he or she likes. Not quite of course. For a long time the game suffered because of the so called ‘grandmaster draw’. I don’t need to explain how that works.
It became a real problem at some moment and enough was enough: the Sofia rules were invented. I am not completely happy with these rules either, but they make sense to some extent. We, chess enthusiasts, prefer interesting games over boring pre cooked draws. The problem with the Sofia rules is that they still don’t prevent lifeless draws, as was clearly demonstrated in the last round of Norway chess.
Back to the question: Is it the right of a player to draw a game (in a boring fashion)? The answer is of course ‘yes’ if he and his opponent act according to the rules. There are no Sofia rules in the World Cup. It is not necessary because the matches all come to a decision at some moment in time. A draw doesn’t harm the chances of the other players in the tournament. That can be the case in a round robin or an open tournament for instance.
The answer is of course an adamant ‘no’ if you look to the broader picture. (Super) Grandmasters are professionals. Just like football players and other professional sportsmen. Would football fans accept lifeless draws? I don’t think so! These players get paid loads of money, not only for hanging around on the pitch, but also to entertain the crowd.
I don’t see much difference between football players and professional (super) grandmasters. They too have a duty to entertain the chess fans. If they fail to do so, sponsors will be reluctant to spent their money on chess events. Who wants to pay for dull draws?
Also the chess fans will be disappointed. They will turn their back on the game. And commentators like Daniel King will be forced to look for another job. In fact the super grandmasters serve as an example for all of us. It is their duty to play interesting games and please the crowds. And it is their right of course to have a less exciting day now and then. But only now and than and certainly not when it matters most: in the final of a tournament or a championship.
Postscirpt: Karjakin lost two games in a row (in the final). He blundered in the second game. Maybe he wasn’t sharp enough after his lackluster performances in the classical games? Who knows. Sometimes there is justice… (nope: in the end he won!)
*This doesn’t mean that I do not enjoy a great endgame, for instance like the one Giri played in the same Norway chess tournament against Topalev.