Accept Draw, Reflect Later?

Unfortunately, useful statistics on draw offers are hard to find, but my guess is that on people believe draw offers are too common, on average. I am inclined to believe this myself, if nothing else because I have noticed a lot of players (at lower levels) accepting draws in clearly better positions. Of course, when we’re at the board ourselves, our perspectives are likely to change as our natural (for many of us) human risk-averseness kicks in. While I was stuck around 2000 USCF, I couldn’t even hold my winning positions against higher-rated players, so it was hard to imagine I could be upset with a draw against anyone 2200+ or so.

That attitude has changed dramatically in the 3 years since. Nowadays, I play more open sections where I’m the underdog, and thus more opponents that are not inclined to draw without a good reason. This occasionally presents some interesting dilemmas.

Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 10.02.53 AM
Li (2159) – Velikanov (2403)

In this game (March 2018, Chicago), I managed to surprise my much higher-rated opponent in the opening, and he offered a draw in a very difficult position. Against most players, this wouldn’t be much of a decision, but a rare easy draw on move 12 against a 2400 seemed pretty welcoming. Objectively though, White has a huge advantage, and I concluded that if I couldn’t at least draw this position, I didn’t deserve the draw anyway. So I played on, and there were no regrets over that decision, although I royally messed up a 3-pawn-up rook ending later on and had to settle for a perpetual.

However, my fear of messing up such an advantageous position did not come out of nowhere. It’s quite possible that I simply had bad memories of declining a draw only to lose the game later. For example:

Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 2.52.27 PM
Linde (2096) – Li (2093)

In the deciding game of this team match from the 2017 Pan-Ams, my opponent offered a draw after playing 19. Rd1. Black has avoided serious weaknesses and is getting close to a freeing …d6-d5 break, although that loosens up his pawn structure a bit and requires care. Probably the position is about equal. It came up in our post-mortem that my opponent wasn’t feeling well at the time, which explains the draw offer. Not knowing that, I decided to play on, as I felt pretty comfortable positionally, and I wanted to play a good game after playing mostly way up or way down the whole tournament. Unfortunately, despite taking the advantage late in the game, I blundered a piece in time trouble and lost.

The same scenario would play out twice more during an otherwise stellar 2018. At the Philadelphia Open in March, I decided to press on in a very symmetrical ending against a 2100, only to hang an Exchange and lose. And a month later in a rapid tournament, I declined a draw – and clear first – against a slightly lower rated opponent in a somewhat better position. This backfired yet again when I went on to reverse a winning position by hanging a piece in time trouble!

So by the time summer rolled around, I was feeling pretty cautious about the whole draw offer concept. Especially true at critical moments of the Chicago Open and National Open, which I talked about in my last two posts.

Although I escaped the humiliation of losing after turning down the draw offers, it started to dawn on me that I might have veered too much in the other direction. In the first game, my opponent took a long think before playing 18…Ne5 and offering me a draw, which I accepted despite a better position where he had only 40 minutes left. The second was in someways more questionable. I thought my only option was to repeat with 15…Qa5+ 16. Bb4 Qc7 17. Bd6 and take a draw in a position where my opponent only had 18 minutes. In reality, after 15…Qa5+ 16. Bb4, 16…Qf5 was completely fine (I was worried about my queen being vulnerable on the kingside, but White is not developed enough to exploit this). Unlike the Chicago game, this created some tournament difficulties as I had 2.5/4 and had little room for winning money.

However, in spite of my excessive caution in both games, they exhibit the point that there is often no right answer in these draw offer dilemmas. Giving up a half point, after all, is much less disastrous than giving up a full point, and I ended up surviving both of my decisions, as in Chicago, I was primarily playing for improvement, and in the National Open, I ended up winning the rest of my games to tie for 4th in my section.

For most ambitious and alert players, premature draws clearly should not be too regular an occurrence. But it is always important to keep one’s ambitions in check (as I learned early on!) and realize as I did later, that thinking about draw offers does not have to be agonizing, merely a learning experience. This is, of course, important not only to offering and accepting draws, but to all of chess.

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