London Chess Classic 150 an end to grandmaster draws

By Peter Henner

The London Chess Classic, an eight-day event held in December, has set a new standard for international chess competition and for chess festivals for the chess-playing public. For the second year in a row, 20-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, who has been ranked number one or two in the world for the last year and a half, won the eight-player round robin-tournament, and the €50,000 first prize (up from €25,000 in 2009).

The tournament features four of the strongest players in the world, this year including world champion Vishy Anand; former world champion Vladimir Kramnik (ranked number four); and the young American grandmaster, Hikaru Nakamura (ranked number 15); and four British players. Although the British players were ranked 22, 58, 100, and 178 and only one, Michael Adams, is rated over 2700, they include former world champion Nigel Short, and Luke McShane, a rising star, who defeated Carlsen in their individual game.

In addition to the premier event, the sponsors also held a strong open tournament in which 188 players competed for the first prize of £2,500, a women’s invitational tournament, blitz events, and a simultaneous chess exhibition by former world champion contender Victor Korchnoi.

One of the banes of top-level chess is the so-called “grandmaster draw,” whereby two strong players affectively agree to a draw in advance by playing 10 to 20 safe moves without challenging each other, and then agreeing to call the game a draw. In a tournament that has significant prize money, especially a long tournament being played over several days, players can gain strategic advantages by getting a half point for a draw, and a rest day, rather than playing aggressively for a win and possibly losing.

Grandmaster draws are a great disappointment to chess spectators who want to see active fighting chess. Chess theory is developed by strong players actively competing.

They also can taint the results of tournaments. For example, in the 1960s, Bobby Fischer famously accused the Russians of  “cheating” at chess, most notably by agreeing to draws among themselves (or even throwing games to each other) to provide assistance to the Russian player who was considered to have the best chance of winning a tournament (or who was most in political favor with the Kremlin).

The London Chess Classic made remarkable innovations, which effectively eliminated grandmaster draws in the tournament. First and most important, it adopted a “soccer style” scoring, by which players receive three points for a win and one point for a draw, instead of one point for a win and a half point for a draw. Second, a €1000 prize was given for the best game in every round, which encouraged players to play their best in every game.

As a result, there were many fewer draws in the tournament. Those games that were drawn were hard-fought affairs, typically lasting over four hours, including one marathon that lasted seven hours and 47 minutes between Kramnik and McShane (a rook and bishop vs. rook endgame, a theoretical draw, but a very difficult endgame where a player does have a chance of getting a win). All of the players besides Kramnik won money for best game in at least one of the rounds (Nakamura won three such prizes), including two games where the prize was split because the result was drawn.

Carlsen recovered from two losses (to Anand and McShane) and a game where he had to work very hard to draw against Kramnik, to finish with 13 points (winning his remaining four games), beating out McShane and Anand with 11. However, if conventional scoring had been used, all three players would have tied with a score of 4 1⁄2 - 2 1⁄2, a good example of how draws were discouraged. Nakamura and Kramnik tied with 10, the English grandmasters Adams, Howell, and Short scored 8, 4, and 2 respectively.

Although Short had a very poor result, he was an exceptionally good sport. He played the Marshall counterattack in the Ruy Lopez, where Black sacrifices a pawn for a strong attack against the White king. After losing, he entertained the grandmasters and public in the analysis room by singing “What do you get when you sac a pawn?” to the tune of the Bobbie Gentry song “I’ll never fall in love again.”

Albany Chess Championship update

In Section 1, Gordon Magat won a tough game, which was in doubt until the very end against Bill Little, and Tim Wright defeated Tim McCarthy. Both players are now 3 1⁄2 - 1⁄2 with one game left against the lower rated players in the section.

In Section 2, Glen Perry, who last week lost to Jason Denham, underrated at 1268, bounced back by beating top-rated Dean Howard.  This section is up for grabs: John Lack (1 ½ - ½) has yet to play Howard (1-1) or me (2-1), while Perry (2 ½ - 1 ½) still has a game against me. Denham beat Chuck Eson (0-3) to improve to 2-2, and still has a game against Howard.

In this week’s problem, a relatively unknown player misses a forced win against the World Champion. 

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