Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Half a point?

A couple of Saturdays ago my club team in Spain arrived at the final round of the 2009 league season, sitting just above the play-off zone. A win would guarantee us another season in top division and a 2-2 draw would almost certainly do as well. Meanwhile the same was true for our opponents - who, like us, were seeded quite low in the rankings and had therefore done a little better than expected. We were the home team. When the visiting team arrived, their captain approached us and offered us a prearranged draw on all four boards.

We turned them down. I don't know for sure whether any of my colleagues was minded to accept, but of its nature such an arrangement can only work if everybody agrees to it. I didn't, we didn't, and when the match actually took place we went on to win 4-0. Subsequently we were praised for our principle and our adherence to the principles of "fair play". (The English term is used in contemporary Spanish.)

There was some irony in this, since although my own motives in refusing the prearranged draw included a degree of principle, they were more pragmatic than anything else. Of course I thought we ought to play, perhaps as much as anything else because I'm a football supporter - I recall such incidents as the West Germany v Austria match of 1982 and the principle, flouted in that particular game, that other teams who may be affected by your result are entitled to expect you to perform your best. It's a sport thing.

But I was also aware that we were the stronger of the two teams - and that if things went wrong and we lost, we would almost certainly be stronger than anybody we met in a play-off. Had this been a last-chance situation and the opposition stronger, I can't be sure I would have felt quite so able to take a stand on principle. Which makes it questionable how much of a stand on principle it actually was.

To be honest, I was more concerned by what other people might think. There would be nothing secret about the arrangement - even if there hadn't been other matches going on in our playing room, everybody would have known about it before the weekend was out. And then - or so I thought - people would remember for a very long time how we'd been too cowardly to play. Surely better actually to lose than to acquire a reputation as somebody afraid to.

Moreover, I wondered whether any team that did make such an agreement might be subject to sanctions. I had no idea of what the rules said on the subject, or what they did not say, but even if I had, it is possible to find yourself in trouble for doing something that is within the letter of the rules but some way outside its sprit. (While I rather doubt that Aragonese chess is much guided by the experience of English county cricket, I confess I had a particular long-ago Benson and Hedges match at the back of my mind.) Might it not be possible that we could prearrange a drawn match to avoid the chance of relegation - and find ourselves administratively relegated in response?

Sporting principle, the existence of a second chance, concern for reputation, the fear of blowback. Whichever order you put these things in, all of these things indicated the wisdom of playing the games and playing them properly. But in my mind, the questions of reputation and possible penalties were undoubtedly uppermost.

It appears, though, that that my fears were entirely groundless. Because on looking at the other match scores in the final round, as I did a couple of days after our apparent sporting and ethical triumph, it appeared that pre-match agreements were common practice - and not at all morally frowned upon, let alone subject to any penalties or fear of same. Of sixteen matches in the division, no fewer than four finished in 2-2 draws with all the individual games being halved. I've located the game scores of three of these matches: twelve games, none of which made it beyond seventeen moves and most of which reached their conclusion in about half that time. (The fourth match I haven't yet found, although I have no reason to think it was any different.) It is, apparently, normal. Standard operational practice. Absolutely the done thing.

I'm surprised by this, perhaps because I was under the impression that artificial draws were frowned upon in contemporary chess to, perhaps, a greater extent than was the case in my youth. I can recall plenty of 2-2 draws in Olympiads, both those prearranged and those negotiated by the captains in the middle of the playing session. I wasn't aware (quite possibly through lack of observation) that they were so common now. I had thought that, as witness the introduction of the Sofia rules, not playing genuinely competitively was not well thought-of nowadays.

As it happens, I have no real objection, as mentioned on this blog any number of times, to the short draw where professional reasons dictate it. But the prearranged drawn match, particularly in the last round of a competition, seems to me a little more controversial than that.

However - isn't it a question of what people do that matters? If it's considered acceptable, widely, within a given community, to prearrange a drawn match, is it not, in fact, acceptable pretty much by virtue of this? Questions of sporting ethics are difficult, often contradictory, and can't properly be addressed without reference to custom and practice. In practice, if not entirely in principle, what's OK is what people decide is OK.

Still, I think I'd rather things were otherwise. And just as with my decision to play a proper match rather than a charade, there's a good measure of pragmatism involved. Because what do I do if the same situation recurs in another season? What happens then?

[Thanks to Chris Manners for help.]


Chris Morgan said...

How about a rule stating that a certain amount of moves have to be played before a draw is agreed?

Anonymous said...

That has been tried in the past. There are always means of getting round it though.....

Anonymous said...

And double it if one of the players is leading the last round


Anonymous said...

If George cannot even spell his
name correctly, then I would guess
it is not his real name

an ordinary chessplayer said...

An interesting question: If a practice is accepted, does that make it acceptable? I think not, but then I have absolutist tendencies.

I have agreed to short draws, with black. I am not proud of that, but it is in line with an ethical theory of mine, which I won't go into here. However, the only consideration I would give to a *pre-arranged* last round draw would be the best way to say no. Talking about an individual game, of course.

I'm not sure the ethics of pre-arranged results is different for team events. But clearly the practice is different, and I speculate the reason lies in group dynamics. When the 2-2 proposal is made, the need to consult one's team-mates leads to consideration of the option that might be individually rejected unthinkingly. That need might break my taboo, and before reading of your experience I would probably have allowed myself to be ruled by the majority. *Not* consulting one's team-mates can be construed in various ways -- being a leader (not so many examples), being principled (very few examples), or simply being inconsiderate (a biggie). That evaluation probably greatly depends on the final result. Which distresses the absolutist in me.