The art of letter-writing

Nowadays, a number of chess tournaments have adopted the soccer-style scoring system of three points for a win and one for a draw. The London Classic is an example, as is the Grand Slam Final, currently just underway in Sao Paulo. The system is alleged to promote more fighting play, and to discourage draws, although I am far from convinced that it does so, either in chess or even in soccer. However, rather than enter the debate itself, I prefer just to recall one of the finest letters I have ever read in a chess magazine. It appeared in the December 1974 issue of Chess, under the title “Not Entirely Serious?”. The letter was written by my former Kent team-mate, Rory O’Kelly, ever the master of the sarcastic. Readers should bear in mind that the 3-1-0 proposal had been put forward, a couple of months earlier, in the same magazine, by Michael Basman, whose unbalancing style of play tended to lead to more than its fair share of decisive results!

Dear Sir

With regard to the proposals recently made in your columns, by Mr Basman, I would like to offer a suggestion, which, though novel, should be acceptable to all rational people. Like many spectators at congresses, I have often been distressed by the excessive number of wins.  Though some are genuinely hard fought, the majority show only a dreary alternation of madmen attacking each other with blunt instruments and fools putting pieces en prise. Some draws are also bad games, of course, but who would deny that most of the real rubbish played in England every year ends in a win for one of the players? As Mr Basman has pointed out, the weekend congresses, where competitors are systematically exhausted by fatigue and crazed by the lust for financial gain, are the worst offenders. As a partial solution, I would like to propose a new scoring system: three points for a win, two for a draw, zero for a loss.

The benefits of this are obvious. In many tournaments, under the present system, the leaders draw quickly with each other and then try to beat as many of the weaker players as possible. The new system would diminish the value of such rabbit-bashing, while making it highly desirable to inflict defeats on close rivals. This would surely be a good thing.  To take a more abstract approach too, it is clear that the games which any player draws will tend to be played against stronger opposition than those which he wins. Why, then, should a draw be worth only half as much as a win? I am sure that readers will believe that I have many still more ingenious arguments, which I omit for the sake of brevity.

Mr Basman, of course, might point out that this scheme would tend to favour players of a particular style. He might even suspect that I could be such a player, attempting to introduce a system which would enable me to score better in tournaments than other players, undoubtedly stronger than myself, who would unfailingly beat me in any match. Should he voice such suspicions, of course, I could reply only by assuring him solemnly of my single-minded devotion to the interests of truth, beauty and chess.

R O’Kelly

London, 10 December 1974

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