Victory By Stalemate


“The underdog wins if he doesn’t lose.” – Old Axiom, Unattributed

A Different Path To The Top

In most countries, Masters and Grandmasters comprise a small, tight-knit community (In case the thumbnail didn’t give it away – I’m referring to chess).

Those with top rankings usually keep a close eye on the rising contenders. In fact, they can often predict, with surprising accuracy, which players will one day make it to their level – and who won’t…

Years ago, there was a rising star – with a seemingly bright future – making his way up the ranks at a pace that surprised even this fellowship. Veterans at this level are rarely surprised – so it provoked their inquiry into how

After a game, each player’s Elo Rating rises or falls, depending on the outcome. The adjustment is proportional to the difference between each player’s rating (the higher rated player has more to lose).

The standard strategy assumed, is to play for a win…

However, if the rating difference is high enough (predicting a win to be unlikely) it’s a better strategy to play for a draw. When the rating spread is high enough, a draw can award a lot of points.

Playing for a draw was nothing new in and of itself – it’s a typical for a losing player to try to force a stalemate. The odds are much better, however, from an even game than a losing one. Few, if any, had ever devised specific strategies for an outset approach of this kind.

The result turned a lot of heads…

Defying Expectations

The unexpected nature of such a strategy makes it doubly effective. Strategic unorthodoxy can confuse one’s opponent, disrupting their concentration. They may waste precious time analyzing the strategy, or perhaps fail altogether in doing so…

When we believe we know our adversary’s goal, we make certain assumptions about his tactics. When these are defied, they become a burden, instead of their former advantage. The flow of the game breaks familiar patterns and becomes difficult to predict. The more unfamiliar the approach – the stronger this effect will be.

Ironically, many of his games which were played for a draw ended with a win – against opponents who should have held the upper hand.

Advantage Of The Underdog

The larger lessons here apply far beyond the game of chess:

•When you’re the underdog – you don’t have to win to come out ahead.
•Commit to achievable goals – don’t overreach.
•Unexpected strategies can be frustrating to play against.
•Force your opponent to commit to a win – before you do; Use this commitment against him.
Thinking time is a resource – raise the thinking cost of countering your strategy.
•Defying convention can produce impressive results.

Try thinking outside of a “have to win” mindset – you might surprise yourself with what you come up with.

Oh, and in case you were wondering – Sergei Shipov went on to become a Grandmaster, ranked 23rd in the world at the peak of his career. He still writes on chess and other strategy topics.

He is best known for his flexible strategy duet – The Complete Hedgehog.