The Chessmill

Ramblings and ruminations on chess in Milwaukee,

SE Wisconsin, theUSA and the World.

Don't look at chess this way because it is romantic. It is, but look at chess this way because it is the way to win. Contrary to the general notion, a positional advantage -- that is, a better disposition of your forces generally -- is always easier to exploit than an equivalent advantage in material, even for the weakest player.

 — C. J. S. Purdy

The Draw Problem

Since I’m now retired, I think I should probably dump some of my experiences here. Perhaps some of you can learn from my mistakes and improve on my results as an organizer. I’d like to think I did a pretty good job, but I made mistakes and failed to solve some problems at all.

So let me talk a bit about the problems draws cause an organizer. Not the hard-fought earned draws; they’re no problem at all. But I mean the “tactical draws,” the short ones players make because of tournament standings, when they take a draw with their main competition for the event in a dozen moves or so. They’re part of the game, like playing “safe” in billiards they keep a player from damaging their own chances while at the same time blocking an opponent’s advance. I’ve said before that from a player’s perspective, these draws absolutely make sense.

But from an organizer’s perspective, they’re trouble. For two reasons.

The first is reputation. A tournament gains stature from the great games played in it. And that stature attracts more players. It’s not the only attraction, but it’s a definite factor. High rated players draw players from the next lower rank to your event. (That’s one reason I always cut breaks to ranked players, ranging from conditionally free entries — 2200+ only paid an entry if they won more than twice the entry fee in prizes — up to paying for hotel expenses and more when  a titled player committed to playing and letting me use their name in advertising.) But when the top players sit down to quick draws so they can beat up on the class players and split the prize money among themselves, this attraction becomes a disincentive, because the lower players learn they won’t get to see a “clash of the titans” nor will they have a reasonable expectation of getting a piece of the pie after the dust settles. I mean, who really cares how many IM’s or GM’s are in the room if all you’re going to get to see is 15 moves from main theory?

The second problem those draws cause an organizer is more subtle. One of the things I’d always wanted to organize is a round-robin to go with the Western Open, creating a European-style festival with the open winner moving into next year’s round robin. I had everything laid out, the plan was in place, the budget was solid. I’d talked to players I hoped to be able to invite, and the terms (free hotel plus per diem for meals, plus prize money for the top 50% of the players) were attractive enough (two rounds per day were a bit of a downer, but with enough budget I could work around that as well). All I needed was a sponsor to make it happen.

I came close, but the last straw for me came a couple of years ago, when I had a consulting firm and a high-tech company (whom I decline to name, mainly because they did nothing wrong and so shouldn’t be mentioned in a negative context) interested in going ahead. Money wasn’t the issue that made the deal fall apart. We’d talked about the titled players that had been coming to the Western (4 IM’s were semi-regulars, and there were a couple of GM’s that could be attracted by the round robin under discussion) and they were excited about the opportunity.

Then they asked what had happened in those previous encounters. They were expecting tales of a struggle, subtle moves and plans. All I could show were 13-move draws.

“Where’s the rest of the game?”

“That’s it. The players called it a draw at this point.”

“You mean, they quit?” I tried to explain about tournament tactics, preserving energy, all the very real reasons for playing such a short game. But I knew I was an exchange down in this endgame, and while the end might take a while to arrive, the result would be inevitable. Three months later the deal died, quietly, with phone calls no longer being returned.

These were businessmen. While we all know the phrase “past performance is no guarantee of future results,” we also know this phrase is only used to downplay past excellent performance. If the performance has never been there, there needs to be a reason to expect it to change, and they didn’t see one. I couldn’t convince them that if they plopped their money on the table for a 5-9 round event, players wouldn’t decide to take 60% of the games off, so to speak, and really only play 1-2 games over the course of the event. That wasn’t value enough for them. They wanted their names linked with intelligent plans carried out with boldness, overcoming all opposition. 13-move draws need not apply.

And I can’t blame them for that attitude.

So while short draws make sense in the context of a single event, they’re a deal-killer for any attempts to grow tournaments. That’s one of the big issues you’ll face as an organizer; I hope you find a better solution than I could.

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