Friday, April 22, 2011

You Can't Win If You Fear Losing

Grandmaster Alexander Onischuk, having the white piesces, drew his game yesterday with Grandmaster elect Samuel Shankland. It was an especially good result for Shankland because there will now be a playoff between these two players for a spot in the finals. GM Maurice Ashley, commenting on the game from the St Louis Chess Club, was incredulous at the draw; the choice of opening by Onischuk; and the fact that Al did not seem to even try and win the game. The previous day Shankland had only drawn with GM Ben Finegold in a position in which he had an extra pawn and what looked to be good winning chances. A win would have put him in a much more favorable position. FM Mike Klein reports on the website ( Their game was one of the few in the tournament to be settled with imbalances everywhere. “I’m really disappointed with my game today,” Shankland said. “Ben sacrificed a pawn for what I thought was insignificant compensation.” Asked why he agreed to the draw, Shankland said there was too much risk in the position. “I’m either going to get mated or run my pawns through. I saw that Alex (Onischuk) had a bad position. But I don’t like losing a White against the lowest player in the competition.”
GM Jan Ludvig Hammer, a GM from Norway visiting the championships said on the webcast that he was against draw offers being allowed. "A draw is offered by a player who is afraid to lose," Hammer said. That about sums up Sam Shankland. A chess player cannot play the game with fear of losing. I will be surprised to see him advance after the tie-break games. If he does somehow make it, I am willing to wager he will not ever become US chess champion.
The poll question on the St Louis Chess Club website today is: What do you think is the best way to discourage short non-fighting draws?
The four possible answers are: 1) Ban the draw offer (A.K.A. Sofia-Corsica rules); 2) No draw offers before move 30 (or another move number); 3) Impose a financial penalty; 4) The full opprobrium of your peers and the weight of an inexorable slide into an immoral society is enough.
Although I loved #4 I voted for #1.
Offered draws are killing chess. I have lost games because I refused to take a draw many times. I recall Patrick Tae, an expert at the time, asking me why I had refused his draw offer in an equal position. "Because I wanted to beat you," I answered. "That's crazy," he said. Even I have not been immune to offering the draw. At the 103rd annual US Open in Cherry Hill, NJ, I offered a draw after time control in a better position to a youngster named Gary Huang, an expert who out-rated me by a couple of hundred points. He looked at me quizzically, got up from the board (I learned later he had gone to ask his coach if he should accept the offer), returning to agree to split the point, to my relief. The fact is that it was late at night and I had no energy whatsoever. If he had continued he would probably have won, no matter the position on the board. I was just about to turn 52 at the time. It was the first time I actually felt old(er) at the board; not wanting to try and win a better, although murky, game. To quote Vince Lombardi, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." In the case of a young man like Sam Shankland, one could substitute the word "fear" for "fatigue."

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