In Defense of Draws

I would ask you for your understanding that this is a long match, and there aren’t going to be fireworks every game. Magnus Carlsen

Although fans may be a little more satisfied after Sergey Karjakin’s unexpected victory against Magnus Carlsen with the Black pieces in Game 8 of the World Championship, it’s hard to ignore the groans over the 7 draws before that.

But Carlsen summarized a world-class match situation just about as well as anyone could. Most of the chess public is radically out of touch with the professional and practical factors behind the many draws at the top of the game (if we weren’t, we’d all be a lot better at chess!). Much of chess is about avoiding positional, tactical, and other mistakes, and since anyone worth their salt at the elite level does that for the most part, risks are less enticing up there.

Still, the public’s frustrations were understandable. Draws at the elite level have a tendency to seem more boring, partially because the games are often balanced throughout. The more “exciting” draws are caused by imbalances, which often means mistakes (for example, Game 3, which ended in a draw after Carlsen and Karjakin missed multiple winning and drawing chances, respectively). However, an odd fear of draws has found its way into the heads of many amateur players, for example, through their opening choices. I frequently hear other players dismiss the Caro-Kann as too drawish, but that’s a story for another time. (for what it’s worth, I’ve played the Caro-Kann in almost every serious game over the last two years with three draws, all of which rank among the scariest or most exciting games I’ve ever played).

From an improvement perspective, this is hardly fatal, but it does demonstrate that many players underestimate the prevalence and importance of mistakes in their play, especially compared to the elite level. Obviously, something like the below isn’t the most interesting position in the world, and would be assuredly drawn for players of Carlsen and Karjakin’s caliber. But even at the expert and master level (hint: personal experience), I’ve seen players make egregious mistakes in positions much simpler than the one below. So if you’re looking to avoid draws, simply avoiding the Queen’s Gambit, etc. should not be the highest priority.


But my perception of draws is a little biased, as I dislike losing a lot, especially for “bad” reasons (of course, it’s important to take responsibility for those reasons, and doing so has made me a much better player). Nevertheless, I remember that while it’s never good to rely on opponents’ mistakes, we still make many of them. Since I’m not someone with a great feel for deep positional nuances or thinking many moves deep, I try to remember that in many positions, there may be multiple reasonable moves.

For the most part, this balances a small but consistent fear of blundering on my part, especially with regards to time management. There’s a certain excitement that comes with the feeling that I’m missing something while checking possible tactics, even in the most boring positions. But I’ve never had a lot of patience for studying other peoples’ games in general, so I decided to try to study one of the Carlsen-Karjakin draws from that perspective.

If you’re ever bored with grandmaster draws, I’d suggest trying a similar exercise if you can!

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