Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Draws and Chess

I'm not completely ignorant of chess, but to say I've got any more than a passing knowledge of it would be a bit misleading. (I know for a fact that one reader of this blog knows a good deal about chess, so I'm curious as to their take on this post. We'll call him T., Tom J.) I enjoyed playing it sporadically when I was younger, and would still enjoy playing it now, but there seem to be matching problems and, of course, a limit on the hours in the day. Oddly enough, if I were to play ten games of chess right now, I think I'd perform better in the first game than the tenth...though that's another discussion for another time.

Anyway-- there seems to be a widespread problem with the chess world of too many draws in high level chess. Of course, this isn't a structural problem with chess per se, just people's preferences for the outcomes they'd like to see. Nonetheless, part of sport is spectator, so that aspect does need to be taken into consideration.

Hockey had this same problem a few years ago; people thought overtime was boring and resulted in too many ties. Back then, teams would play, and the winner got 2 points, if the two teams tied they each got 1 point, and the loser got zero points. At the end of regulation time, if the game were tied, teams became extremely risk averse. Settling for one point in most scenarios was better than risking for two and possibly coming up with none. Thus, overtime play became extremely defensive and fans were none too pleased.

How did the NHL deal with this? Modify the payoffs. (They also changed the number of players on the ice to enhance the openness, but I believe the rule changes to have had a far larger impact.) Instead of coming up with zero points for an overtime loss, teams instead retained their one point. Winners in overtime still get their two points. Basically, you've now got nothing to lose by going for a win in overtime. To think-- incentives matter! Ties went down, offensive play went up in overtime, and fans on the whole were pleased with the result. Changing the structure of the payoffs changes the outcome.

Why can't something similar to be done with chess? If people want to see more wins, why not make wins more valuable? At some point, I presume you could make wins so valuable such that no one would want to offer a draw. If it's really that big of a problem-- and maybe it isn't-- this seems like an obvious solution that maintains the integrity of the game. Though perhaps there would be a large resistance to a change even on this margin...

Could it also be that since a number of these draws occur when there are a lot of pieces on the board-- the only time I'd draw with my brother is when we each had a king and a king only left-- well established players are saving their mental acuity for a time when it is most valuable to expend a lot of it? Athletes oftentimes speak about giving 110% on every play, but that's pretty clearly not the case. Running backs could fight for every inch on every play, but sometimes it is best to accept the play for what it is (or isn't) and retain your energy for another opportunity. Pitchers don't put everything they have into each pitch-- starting pitchers, especially. Ultimate fighters aren't going all out at every second of the match either-- they wait for the right time to make the large expenditure of energy. Why should chess be any different?


TJ said...

There are a couple of subtleties here. First, at the highest levels chess is not a symmetrical game. The white player is regarded as having somewhat higher chances. So generally, the person who is playing with white is playing for a win, whereas the person playing with black is playing for a draw.

Second, chess isn't a spectator sport in the way that hockey is. I would think that exciting games generate fans and hence revenue for most sports, but in chess only tournament wins and titles (Grandmaster, etc) count--and even then it's hard to make a living as a chess player. In order to earn these titles, it's important to sometimes play conservatively to preserve your chance of scoring (e.g., 0.5 for a draw vs 0 for a win) against highly rated players.

Finally, revamping the chess competition system would be a monumental task. In the USA, the ELO rating system that is used to rank most players has a strong statistical foundation that would be disrupted by changing the incentives for draws. I'm guessing a similar situation exists in the international world with the FIDE system. People who had spent decades building up their rating would rebel en masse (which for chess, means like 20 people...but still).

KipEsquire said...

The chessboard in the pic is wrong. Judging from the position of the black queen & king, the board appears to be violating the "white on the right rule."

Just saying...

KipEsquire said...

(I also hope it's black's move -- not that it would help much.)

The Chosen Rob said...

The guy who continually questions golf as a sport is now comparing energy exertion in chess to ultimate fighting?


Lee Westwood