Friday, September 17, 2010

Taking the Draw

by IM David Pruess

Not only do I not offer, or make a lot, of draws, but I am not offered draws very often. So the other night, as I was playing in the SF Mechanics match against the Miami Sharks, it came as quite a shock to me when my opponent, GM Renier Gonzalez, offered me a draw in the following position.

My first thought was that we must be doing badly on other boards-- because I thought my opponent was doing quite well, and we were the only board in the match where Miami held a significant rating advantage. So maybe they were doing so well on the other boards that he wanted to solidify the match score by making sure of a half point from our game. But after quickly checking the other boards, they were about as I had last seen them: about balanced. My outlook on my own position was a bit pessimistic, because my opponent had just recently played a move that I had not expected, and which disrupted my sense of where the game was heading:

It's natural to feel an aura of pessimism after this kind of event, even if it has not changed the evaluation too much. Of course, in the game, you don't know how much it should have changed the evaluation, so it's not so obvious if the position has really gotten much worse, or if you are under the influence of your emotions. The answer to that problem, as usual in chess, is to do some work and figure out what's actually going on in the position.

But on this day, the unpleasant turn of events was swiftly followed by this draw offer. My confidence was what was being questioned, and honestly I had not been at all confident going into this game. At some point, I could sit down to a game opposite the U.S. Champion expecting I'd probably brutalize him; but the past year or so, I often go into games with a "realistic" assessment that my opponent is stronger than I am, or at least with a distinct and unpleasant awareness of my own weaknesses. Before this match, I had felt that I was the most likely to blow the match of anyone on our team... and I had been nervous about the game for a couple days. Did not sleep well the night before. During opening preparations, every position I reached did not seem good enough to me. (note: when you are really confident, you are more easily satisfied while preparing "oh yeah, if I get this position, I'll be able to take it from here;" whereas when you are unconfident, you need to see a really good evaluation or a position that perfectly suits you to feel you have looked far enough). I had trouble getting out of bed that day, and felt like I was dragging with everything I did.

This could also be because the last time I played this same opponent, I had an overwhelming position, with, in addition, few losing chances, but managed to blow it and even lose. That could have contributed to my lack of confidence against him: I knew that getting a good position against him was at best the start of the battle. And if I ever did not have a good position, I'd really feel pessimistic about my chances. Especially since I knew that generally, I might be better in the opening, equal in the middlegame, and worse in the endgame. So as the game advanced, if I wasn't doing really well, my chances of being outplayed would just be increasing.

Now, in terms of team match strategy, it's a bit unusual to offer a draw at a stage in the game where both players have about 30 minutes left. It gives you the opportunity to wait, holding on to the draw possibility, and judge how the games on the other boards go, then decide if your team needs a draw or a win. I examined the three remaining games carefully: they seemed about balanced. However, I was quite confident in our young boards 3 and 4, Daniel Naroditsky and Yian Liou, being stronger than their opponents. So after I calculated a bit and realized that GM Patrick Wolff was holding a draw with black against GM Becerra on board 1, I realized that a draw would just put the match in the hands of the two kids, and that was a safe place to put it. I felt uncomfortable sitting around waiting in case of a change (seemed too gimmicky to me, and rude to the opponent) so I agreed to a draw.

If it had been an individual event, I knew for sure I wouldn't have taken the draw. Even if I slightly disliked my position (which I did), I would have played on in order to make myself suffer for not having played incisively enough in the earlier part of the game. But the USCL is a different ball game: you are partly there to play your chess, but you are also there to try to help your teammates score 2.5 points out of 4 every day. For me at least, that always takes priority in a USCL match.

The match followed my expectations: the Becerra-Wolff game followed a short forced sequence I had expected, and soon ended in a draw:

Yian Liou's position was totally equal but he had 40 minutes against 1. He moved back and forth for a long time, and eventually his opponent blundered into the c3 idea to win the blockaded isolated pawn. (The position was equal because white's c2 pawn was just about as weak as black's d4 pawn. In these positions, in order to defend it's important to place your pieces attacking c2, NOT defending d4).

And Daniel Naroditsky played gloriously, as he had the week before, and became our team's early-season MVP. Good dynamic strategic chess:

This of course confirmed for me that I had probably made the right decision in taking the draw. However, I could not shake the bad feelings off. I still felt like my draw was a lie, and I had lost the game, but had the result masked by my opponent's mercy. While thinking a few minutes during the game, I had been planning that if I needed to keep playing, my move would have to be Nd2, hanging the d4 pawn, with the tactical idea of Nxd4 Ndb1 opening the queen on the d-file and winning back the d5-pawn. But I had not analyzed the move out very precisely because of all the emotions. And without an analysis I was convinced of, I had a bad instinct about this plan-- it felt like the kind of plan that has a hole in it. I would have collapsed and lost in a few minutes if the game had go on, the thought kept nagging me.

Finally, on Friday, I had a little time (an hour) to prepare myself for the California State Championships starting the next day. Played a couple blitz games against 1200 rated opponents-- nope, that's anti-prep, cut it out, David. Solved a few tactics trainer problems. Ok, good. Now, how about just a short bit of serious analysis. I pulled out our beautiful chess board, and set up the final position again. Time to test my idea!

I was very happy to find that I was doing well. I no longer felt like a complete schlump for the moves I had made earlier in the game. A weight slipped off my shoulders, and I went back to work.

My analysis pgns did not copy over here, so if you want to see them, they are here: