Friday, April 24, 2009

A Prolegomena to a Theory of Drawing Lines (Part 1)

There are always plenty of reasons to agree to a short, agreed or semi-agreed, "grandmaster" draw. Perhaps you are tired. Or looking for an easy day after a hard defeat. Or preparing to face a difficult opponent the next day. Maybe the round is starting too early in the morning. Or maybe the Real Madrid game is on TV. There are also more sinister reasons.

In any event, the "whys" of grandmaster draws are almost infinite. But that still leaves the question of "how." Even if you and your opponent both know that you are going to agree to a draw, you still need to go out there and play some moves. If you try to agree to a draw on move one, the organizers might not like it.

What follows is my attempt at a survey of a little-studied branch of chess opening theory: the theory of drawing lines. It turns out that there are a great variety of standard lines that lead to short draws, either by producing a perpetual check or a sterile position. Some players even specialize in certain lines.

I propose that it doesn't make sense to classify these openings according to the usual ECO code or the common names of openings (Queen's Gambit, King's Indian, etc.). Instead, I suggest a subjective classification based on the style of "game" that the opening produces. After all, given that the objective result of all of these games is the same--a draw--only the subjective, aesthetic aspects of the openings are relevant criteria for classification.

Symmetrical Exchanging Lines

These lines are perhaps the simplest way to agree to a draw: produce a symmetrical position with no imbalances, trade off some pieces, and sign the score sheets--what could be easier?

  1. The Exchange Slav. Perhaps the most popular drawing line of all. As with so many of these drawing lines, as we shall see in a later post, White can actually play for the win in the Exchange Slav, but if he wants a draw, then he can choose the following line: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 cd 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bf4 Bf5 7.e3 e6 8.Bd3 Bxd3 9.Qxd3 Bd6 10.Bxd6 Qxd6. In my database, 190 games ended as draws in this position. After 11.O-O you get another 105 draws; 11...O-O 274 more 12.Rac1 84 more (alternatively, 12.Rfc1 113 more draws) and so on. In total, I count at least 1335 draws in twelve moves or fewer in this line. Some players are connoisseurs of this variation. GM Ognjen Cvitan, for example, has "played" 36 draws of no more than 16 moves in the Exchange Slav. Other avid practitioners include Ionescu (36 draws), Panchenko (27), Milorad Knezevic (23), Vadasz (23), Naumkin (22), and Kirov (20).
  2. The Symmetrical English (1). Another symmetrical drawing line goes: 1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.Nf3 Nf6 6.O-O O-O 7.d3 d6 8.a3 a6 9.Rb1 Rb8 10.b4 cb 11.ab b5 12.cb ab. This line is not as popular as the Exchange Slav--there is actually a lot of play left in the position--but nevertheless I count at least 170 early draws in this line. Hulak has 9 draws in this line. Our friend Cvitan has 3. (Indeed, if you want to learn the theory of drawing lines, you can do worse than to study Cvitan's games.)
  3. The Symmetrical English (2). 1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.e3 e6 6.Nge2 Nge7 7.O-O O-O 8.d4 cd 9.Nxd4 Nxd4 10.ed d5 Nxd5 12.Nxd5 ed. I find 62 draws in this position, with dozens more on the moves immediately before or after it, including the classic Hulak-Cvitan, Sarajevo 1988, which continued 13. Be3 Be6 14. Qd2 Qb6 15. Rac1 Rfc8 16. h3 h5 17. Rfd1 1/2-1/2 Hulak is again a frequent player, with at least 12 draws, although he does not match Csom's 19 games in this line. Even Tal played 4 short draws (as Black) from this position.
Incidentally, Csom might be the all-time champion of grandmaster draws. My database has 643 Csom draws of fewer than 20 moves. Cvitan is close behind with 588. By comparison, such supposed "draw masters" as Kramnik and Leko have only 166 and 103 such draws, respectively.

In the next installment, I will turn to the always exciting draw by perpetual check.

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