29 June 2020

No draws

One of the chess books I read during my early scholastic career - it might have been GM Larry Evans' Chess Catechism - had a short anecdote about Bobby Fischer being offered a draw at a major tournament, in a very equal position; his opponent got the response "no draws!" At the time, I was rather enthusiastic about draws, to be honest, although intellectually I understood the idea of "no draws" even as I rejected it. As my chess understanding has matured, however, I've come around to more of a "no draws" mentality - although not as an outright refusal to take a draw under any circumstances, which is what I originally thought it meant.

Rather than a principle to be upheld unto death, I believe it is better to think of "no draws" as a mindset. The purpose of a competitive chess game is to win; failing that, to draw; failing that, to lose. There can be social aspects to chess, along with other factors that may come into consideration, but in the end we all normally want to win. The problem comes when our desire to avoid losing becomes stronger. At that point, I believe it will become very hard to make further progress along the path to chess mastery, unless the fear of losing can be accepted and in turn mastered.

In order to win more games, it is an unavoidable fact that more games will have to be played, meaning more losses as well. It also means that games that are balanced or draw(ish) should still be played out, as a rule. This builds positional understanding over time, going significantly beyond simply looking for winning tactics in every position. At the professional level, Magnus Carlsen is the latest and greatest professional to be able to squeeze wins from apparently dead equal positions, but this is actually a common phenomenon when stronger players when face weaker ones. Some players deliberately aim for this type of style (as IM Jay Bonin describes in Active Pieces), but in many cases it reflects a stronger player being able to implement their better understanding of the game, or them deliberately playing on long enough for their opponent to make a significant mistake. Hard to accomplish that if you regularly take an early draw.

So what does the practice of "no draws" look like at a practical level? Here is my scheme for it:
  • I will not ask for a draw unless the position is actually dead drawn. This means there is either a draw by repetition coming, or it is a theoretical draw in the endgame.
  • If my opponent asks for a draw, I will not accept it unless I think a draw is the best (and most likely) result for me.
The first point takes care of the majority of the angst usually involved in thinking about draws. If you enter a game with the mindset of playing it out, then there is never the need for a decision - and the added stress that comes along with it - about when to request a draw yourself. This has some other positive effects on your ability to improve as a chessplayer, such as deeper experience with positions reached and a better ability to play endgames. One of my persistent weaknesses has been the endgame, in part because early on I happily took draws to avoid going into them. This is a self-defeating practice in the long run.

The second point, concerning what to do when a draw offer is received, is that it should be treated as a welcome admission from your opponent that they no longer think they can win the game. Following some old tournament advice, you now have the opportunity to take as much time as you like (that is still on your clock) to consider the offer, since it cannot be withdrawn.
  • If you assess you can play on without risk and have at least a slight advantage, then the decision is easy to reject the offer.
  • If there are other factors in play, such as lack of clock time, then you may have to be practical about it and take a draw if you honestly assess that you could not win (or could very easily blunder) before making the next time control. This is where "no draws" becomes a guideline rather than an iron rule. 
  • In longer games, fatigue and declining calculating ability at the board may also be a consideration, even if enough time remains on the clock. Your own objective self-assessment as a player is what you must rely on for your decision.
  • In the end, the burden of proof should be on the reason to take a draw; the default should be to reject the offer.
Following the "no draws" mindset is one of the things that has measurably boosted my strength over the last several years, including my best game ever. Once you start seeing practical results from this approach, it's easier to put aside the loss avoidance reflex and concentrate more on the progress you can make over time. Plus, I've honestly found it more fun to have the appetite to play a full game, rather than worrying about making or accepting draw offers.


  1. Good post.

    While I agree in principle with the "no draws" attitude, and would want to think that I have that in mind during most games, there are practical considerations for me on occasion.

    My last OTB draw ( in fact my last OTB match, as this was pre-COVID ) was a combination of the position being drawish, but if I am honest an edge to my opponent, plus the fact that it was close to 11pm and I had a journey of almost an hour home, with work in the morning.

    I offered, my opponent considered for some time and agreed. I think he probably did not have the inclination to play for the win at this point in the evening, and had also squandered his better chances,due to my (dogged) defence.

    Prior to that game I was offered a draw by a young opponent, which I refused. It was plain to me that he had a winning position, and perhaps I did not want to be seen to take advantage of him. However, when he offered again, I just took it. He demonstrated what he thought was the 'solution' afterwards, but it was plainly wrong, as he only considered one line, which was a repetition, and he wasn't inclined to see anything else. Since this was a tournament I was happy to take half a point rather than zero.

    I do think a draw offer can also be a psychological "move" too. It can produce a change in attitude or emotion, and to be honest it can also distract a player and use up his time.

    Maybe not "playing a straight bat", but it part of the game.

    Conversely, when playing online, I have experienced people offering draws nearly every move regardless of the position, which is plainly unfair and bad gamesmanship, but at least on-line you can generally mute the opposition.

    1. As you point out, draw offers aren't always a terrible thing. There are also some amusing things written about their strategic use, for example in Simon Webb's Chess for Tigers or in Jay Bonin's book Active Pieces. I think many improving players agonize about them much more than they should, which is very distracting, or automatically take them, which isn't good for their game in the long run. I was an example of both tendencies.

      That said, if it makes a lot of sense in a particular set of circumstances, why not? The people who 100% refuse I think are more susceptible to then trying to justify that refusal, which can mean over-pressing and then losing.


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