A Morbid Aversion to Draws

The Lindores Abbey Stars tournament at the end of May was a small but high class rapid event with four players, Carlsen, Anand, Ding Liren and Karjakin. It was held at an old abbey near the Scottish village Lindores, now renovated as a whiskey distillery. The new owners called it the Spiritual Home of Scotch Whiskey and when at the end of the tournament the winner Magnus Carlsen was presented with a barrel that, after three more years of maturing, will be good for 150 bottles of the fluid gold, one of the chief distillers said: “With a barrel of whiskey, you’ll always have friends.”

At the time, people were discussing the main contributions of Scotland to chess. I knew of course about the Scotch opening and the Isle of Lewis chessmen, but I hadn’t been aware of the importance of the tournament of Dundee 1867. It was a strong tournament, in which Steinitz had to concede first place to Gustav Neumann, but its main importance for chess history was that apparently it was the first tournament of this stature where draws counted as a half-point. Before Dundee, drawn games had to be replayed. After Dundee, a draw gained its rightful place. Not a sin that should be atoned for, but a legitimate result of a chess game.

Yet there would always be people who felt that a draw was wrong.

In 1990 I was in New York at the world championship match between Kasparov and Karpov, not only as a newspaper reporter, but also for some daily soundbites in a Dutch radio broadcast. When the first match game had ended as a draw, the radio man immediately put the finger on the sore spot: “So it was a draw. What has gone wrong there today?” It was the immediate end of my career as a radio contributor. But that guy was one of the deplorables who know nothing about chess. What should we care about their ignorance?

But then in June of this year came the Altibox Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger, where a new chapter in the fight against draws was written. After a draw in classical chess, the players had to play a quick armageddon game where a draw was counted as a win for Black.

To me it seemed a regrettable relapse to pre-Dundee times, but Magnus Carlsen called the idea “super exciting” and Alexander Grischuk held a long speech in praise of armageddons and said he wanted to play as many of them as possible.

Be careful what you wish for... In his first round armageddon against Levon Aronian Grishchuk was winning as Black with more time on the clock, but in haste the pieces flew up in the air. He wasn’t quick enough to put his king and rook back on the squares they had occupied and lost on time. In the second round as White against Wesley So, he conceded a draw in the classical game after less than ten minutes play, and then in his beloved armageddon he lost without chance. In the third round against Carlsen he didn’t make it to the armageddon.

The weird Stavanger rules were quite favorable to Carlsen, who won all his armageddons. It seemed to me that all was fine between Carlsen and the organizers in Stavanger, but apparently this is not the case.

During the early rounds of the tournament in the Croatian capital Zagreb, a part of the Grand Chess Tour, Stavanger retracted its bid to organize the world championship match of 2020. What had happened? I do not feel qualified to judge, and refer to websites such as chess.com and chessbase.com.

Apparently there is a Malta-based gambling syndicate involved that offered a lucrative sponsor deal to the Norway chess federation, but on conditions that were not generally found acceptable. There is a new chessclub, founded by Magnus, which gained a thousand members in a few days and is said to exist only to influence the federation to accept the deal. And there was a declaration on behalf of Carlsen which said that he didn’t want to play the match in Norway.

Confused? Go to one of the chess news websites and like me, you may remain so.

Carlsen started the Zagreb tournament impressively by devastating, as Black, Anish Giri in 23 moves. How could it it happen so quickly? As in a flash, suddenly Carlsen’s kingside pawns shot forward, g7-g5 and h5-h4-h3, and then Giri had to resign. Afterwards Giri was quite upset and higly critical of his own play. About Carlsen he said: “I think lately he’s a little bit of a mirror. He’s showing you your stupidity, to all his opponents.”

The Grand Chess Tour is the brainchild of Garry Kasparov, who became a Croatian citizen in 2014 and lives not only in New York, but also part of the year in his summer residence on the Adriatic coast where in 2009 he worked together with young Magnus Carlsen.

He was prominently present at the tournament and had the highest praise for Carlsen, whose dominance he compared to that of Robert Fischer or himself in the years of their greatest supremacy, with the difference that Carlsen may not yet be on top of his game. About the game against Giri he said: “Magnus sees the whole board, while even players of Giri’s caliber can see just a fragment of the board…”

I write this after five rounds, when Ian Nepomniachtchi was leading with four points, followed by Wesley So and Magnus Carlsen with three points. It was reassuring to find that especially the fourth round was a joy to watch. That day all six games ended as draws, but what draws!

Click here to view Giri-Carlsen, Zagreb 2019