Game 12 of the 2016 World Chess Championship got everyone nice and mad. It was the last game in regulation of a grueling 12 game match. The score was tied at 5.5/5.5. Karjakin shocked the chess world by beating Carlsen in game 8. But Carlsen answered by winning game 10, all other games were drawn. If anyone wins game 12, they become World Champion. I was a giddy chess fan eager to see the best strategies from both players. I mentally prepared myself to potentially observe a 7 or 8 hour marathon.
Unfortunately there was no battle that day. Carlsen and Karjakin quickly played 30 moves, the contractual minimum, and agreed to call the game a draw. The entire game took 30 minutes.
When I’m angry at someone it’s usually because I feel like they stole something from me, or I feel they owe me something. In this case I was mad because I wanted a fight. Maybe I paid for a ticket (I didn’t), I might have cancelled work to see this fight (I did), and it didn’t happen. It sucks. And it is a unfortunate aspect of chess that players can show up and decide not to play that day. Picture yourself as a tournament organizer, and you put up $100,000’s of dollars to put on a world class chess tournament, spend months preparing, hire dozens of people, and pay Grandmasters to come play chess, and then during the tournament those GM’s don’t even play. It’s horrible. Is there a way to prevent “grandmaster draws” from happening?
What is the strategic core of “Grandmaster Draws?”
Want to solve a problem? Get to the core and change something. So what is the motivational core of grandmaster draws? I think it’s naive to assign laziness or cowardice as motivations of these GM’s when they decide to not fight. When Carlsen played a 30 minute game 12 it was an intelligent strategy that worked brilliantly.
The core of grandmaster draws is this: players want to apply effort when they will get the the most value out of that effort. If they are in a situation or game where their effort will net them little value, then they will chose not to apply effort and save that effort for a more opportune moment.
Think about it like this: you’re in a 100 mile ultra-marathon, four marathons back to back, two in the dark (yes they exist). You get to mile 88 and there is a hill that is a mile up, and a mile down.
If you’re smart you will walk up the hill. Why? You’re very tired. Running up the hill will take a lot of energy and you won’t go that much faster than walking. So just walk.
Then run a little faster down the hill. Why? You’ve saved up energy. Running down the hill will take very little energy and you’ll go much faster. Use this strategy and you’ll go further and faster than your opponents who stubbornly run up the hills.
Both Carlsen and Karjakin (although the onus of the decision falls upon Carlsen, who had the white pieces for game 12) believed they would get more value from their efforts in the rapid games.
This problem is not unique to chess, not even close
Ok, the New York Yankees can’t show up to Fenway Park, and play a 3 1/2 hour game of baseball in 15 minutes then hit the showers. This is unique to chess, and it sucks. But you know does happen in baseball? Intentional walks. You’re a pitcher, and Sammy Sosa (go cubs) is coming to the plate. Sammy has .378 batting average and hits home runs often. There are runners on 2nd and 3rd and two outs. Who is batting after Sammy Sosa? The opposing teams pitcher, who hasn’t batted in 16 weeks because of inter-league play, a horrible hitter. What do you do?
For the love of all that is good walk Sammy Sosa, and save your energy for the horrible hitter. Walk up the hill, run down. Oh, and when you’re deliberately walking a power hitter, make sure the pitches are far enough away so he can’t actually hit them…
On May 11th, 2017 the Golden State Warriors played their division rivals, The San Antonio Spurs. The Warriors didn’t play their 3 star players, and lost the game by 22 points. Why? Because The Warriors were finishing up a long road trip and everyone was very tired. San Antonio is a very tough team. So rather than try to win the game they chose to walk up the the hill, so they could save energy for their easier games (they have won the last 5 games since losing to San Antonio).
If you think about this strategy in terms of a sport like Poker, it happens every hand. You look down at a bad hand like 2-7 off-suit, and you instantly decide to fold. It’s very difficult to get value out this hand, so why try? Why risk it? Think about this strategy in the context of a larger Poker tournament: It’s a 1,000 person poker tournament and only the top 100 players get paid $12,000. There are currently 101 people left in the tournament, the next person eliminated will be the ‘bubble boy’ and receive no money, everyone else will. This is a very polarized situation; people will either be very aggressive or extremely conservative. I’ve seen people fold kings pre-flop, the second best hand in poker, for fear that something unlikely would happen and they would be the dreaded ‘bubble boy’. If I were in this situation I would “walk up the hill” by leaving the table and going to a sports bar until the bubble had burst (provided I had enough chips to pay the blinds/antes).
The truth is no one, in any sport, can apply maximum effort at all time. Chess is judged most harshly for this human characteristic because the problem is so naked in chess.
Moving towards the solution, next week!
Obviously there is no 100%, fail-safe, solution to this problem. But I have something to add to this conversation.