The Evolution of Modern Chess Rules: Draws

Former US Chess Federation President John McCrary
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Former US Chess Federation President John McCrary


The question of whether chess was invented or evolved from earlier games may never be settled. Part of the discussion is semantic, since evolution and invention are two sides of the same coin! Evolution is a series of new inventions that build upon or combine earlier designs. Inventions are steps in evolution.   

Chess rules and customs, even today, are constantly evolving. Through research into old chess literature, I've made some original discoveries regarding how modern rules and customs have evolved to reach their current state. This series will explore some specific rule changes for chess that have evolved over the past few centuries.  





How did the concept of a draw evolve?  

In 1614, Arthur Saul published The Famous Game of Chesse-Play, which influenced later terminology and rules. In a lengthy passage, Saul notes: 

Many men on both sides were that the game were indifferent, and then I say, one of the gamesters should give over the game and draw the stake...  

In other words: in such a simplified game with no winning prospects for either side, either player might draw the stakes -- that is, declare the game a no contest. To avoid abuse of such a unilateral decision, the opponent could require that the game continue, but only if he bet to win at additional stakes.  

I was struck with the possibility that Saul's phrase draw the stakes might be the origin of the term draw in chess. The Oxford English Dictionary states that, before Saul's time, the term draw the stakes referred to sporting situations in which one withdrew either stakes or entry from a competition. Examples are a horse race being drawn by consent in 1698, and of bettors being advised to draw stakes in 1708.  


Petrosian-Fischern 1958
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Petrosian vs. Fischer, 1958. Position after 67.f7, draw agreed.


I also encountered the same theory in a different sport, discovered in the Dictionary of Cricket by Michael Rundell, which states:  

In fact, the word draw itself, in its sporting sense, derives from the practice of drawing or withdrawing the bets made on a contest when its issue was undecided.  

Examples given are cricket matches from the 1730s being called a drawn battle when the match couldn't be finished, and again when the teams drew stakes after reaching a tie score. 

By the late 1700s, chess books were using the term draw in a more modern sense. Robert Lambe's History of Chess used the term drawn game in 1764, and the expression showed up again in Miscellanies by Richard Twiss in 1787. Around 1800, an unpublished manuscript titled The War of the Chessmen described Giuoco Patto as: 

Drawn game. An ending in which the combatants lack the force or else the knowledge with which to give mate.  

The earliest clear statement directly mentioning players agreeing to a draw I found in a book titled Studies of Chess from 1805, which said: 

Of a Drawn game: If it not be superfluous to put it anywhere it must be added here, that whenever from the greatness of the loss on each side (the more potent pieces, and those capable of becoming so, being gone) or from any other cause, it becomes certain that neither party can give the other check-mate; the game is to be discontinued as insipid and useless, the players consenting to draw their pieces to court decision in a new party. 

By the early 1800s, draws were being defined mainly as simplified endgames where forcing a win was impossible, but by 1838, chess authors were recognizing that draws might be agreed several ways. Examples included when finding a win might be possible, yet both sides act on the defensive; neither party chooses to attack his adversary; or when the player attempting to win is pretty sure to overreach himself, and lose.  


Evans-Reshevsky 1963
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Evans vs. Reshevsky, 1963. Position after 50. Rxg7+. Swindled!


Yet draws were regarded as non-games, meant to be replayed, keeping with Saul's original idea that to draw stakes meant to leave the contest unfinished. A New Treatise on Chess in 1841 described a drawn game as being in law no game, adding: Drawn games of every description count for nothing.  

That began to change in the 1860s, when the practice of scoring draws as half-points was occurring in tournaments. Soon thereafter, the issue of players engaging in pre-arranged or non-competitive draws for the sake of tournament points became a concern and contributed to early criticism of chess professionalism.


Kramnik-Anand, 2004
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Kramnik vs. Anand, 2004. Position after 25. Rxh6.


Click here to jump to Part Two: White Moves First! in John McCrary's historical series on the evolution of modern chess rules.