Prepared by Natalia Sadowska - Women's World Draughts Champion.
I’m regularly asked this question, not only during interviews, but also by friends or newly met people who rarely have the chance to hear about mind sports in the press and media. Trying to find the answer to the question, I recognised the draughts subject as a broad one and realised it won’t be encompassed in a few paragraphs. At the beginning, I would like to emphasise that all opinions and observations included in the text are personal and based on my 20-year career in draughts.
I started my adventure with draughts at home, in my grandfather's room. After school, I would leave my backpack at the doorstep and play a game with my grandfather to relax. Interestingly, I only had chess at home, so the chess pieces served as draughts pieces, which didn't bother me at all.
What attracted me to draughts more than to chess, was the quick action in draughts, and the fact I could often capture. In draughts, as we know, capturing is compulsory, thus my grandfather's stones were quickly overtaken, which gave me satisfaction and motivation to continue playing, and above all, was really enjoyable for an 8-year-old girl.
One day I learnt that a draughts contest was to be organised in my primary school. Training with my grandfather was not in vain. I won in the girls’ group and I was invited to participate in the next stage, i.e. the municipal tournament. I ended up with a bronze medal and the whole family knew this was just the beginning of my adventure with draughts.
I suppose I‘ll refer here to a common element in every sport: the desire to win. Each victory in my case, was followed by an explosion of euphoria, while failure by the sea of tears.
I obviously wasn't the best and lost a lot of games in my first tournaments. I couldn’t come to terms with it, so I trained with whoever I could, and actually whoever I "caught" during the tournament. I asked senior trainers to analyse the gameplays and point out my mistakes. I still admire this little girl I was, her enthusiasm and courage. As you can see, every approach is good to climb up the summit.
Moving on to the more technical aspect of draughts, the biggest advantage of Polish draughts (as I specialise in this variant) is their beauty - even several-move (!) combinations. For those who haven’t come across this concept yet, the combination means giving in a certain number of pieces, and then capturing more or the same number of the opponent’s pieces, but with a much better position on the board. Even with my 20-year career, I can still be surprised, I still discover new ideas and motifs which haven’t been included in the reference literature yet. My friends happen to ask me if I haven’t got bored with draughts yet. I look at them with a smile and answer honestly with a firm: "No".
The combinations are certainly the most important and indispensable element of a forward figuring in draughts. My position seems completely hopeless and then it turns out that I am saved by a beautiful and hidden combination, which even ends up in the reference book!
The second feature of this game I can think of, and the one proving the beauty of draughts, is the sacrifice, i.e. giving up a piece to gain positional compensation. For those who begin their adventure with draughts, it will certainly be one of the most difficult elements of the game. To give away your pieces and capture your opponent's pieces - sounds logical, but to give away a piece and keep playing? This requires a developed ability to figure out many forward moves, to predict skillfully, to be imaginative and creative! The plan like that does not work from a move to a move, it is usually a well-thought-out sacrifice, which when consistently finished, evokes admiration. Remember that in draughts, the material gain is of great importance, as each piece has the same value (unlike in chess), and numerous positions with an advantage pawn are considered a winning game. Thus, the sacrifice is very controversial, but the player who will carry it successfully until the end of the game, is even more admired. In the history of draughts we will probably find thousands of gameplays with beautiful sacrifices, whereas there are games where the player sacrificed two (!) pieces and continued to play. Believe me, such gameplays happen to geniuses at draughts, and their games are immediately recorded in the latest reference literature.
*Interestingly, the algorithms of draughts computer programmes, due to a large number of combinations, do not analyse the possibility of giving in two pieces and further play, so only a human can find such a solution during the game.
Describing the beauty of Polish draughts I purposefully mention the above trait at the very beginning. This sport does not force to do anything and allows a lot. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? I mean here - the only thing that limits you is your courage, or ... lack of it, actually! I have never been a supporter of learning by heart, I have always strived for such challenges which require logical thinking as well as understanding the driving mechanisms to raise my level of knowledge and to succeed. That's what draughts are like. You don't have to spend 5 hours a day painstakingly learning the variants by heart, which you often little understand of at the beginning of your draughts exploration. Certainly, there is a lot of reference which works out in detail most of the famous openings and shows which strategies are the best ones. However, it's not the most important thing in draughts, and it's not the most important thing to succeed. Draughts need to be understood, the rhythm felt and the possibilities learnt. You need to learn the plans which are feasible during the game and have to strive to implement them.
A 10 x 10 draughts consist of a hundred squares. A hundred squares, which we can use according to our vision, idea or creativity. The winner is not the one who knows the reference literature by heart, but the one who can cleverly conduct his "20-man army" during a five-hour battle. The winner is the one whose strategy on the battlefield as well as the resources he used in it, will be more effective.
As a lover of mind sports, I used to try many board games and mental-skill games. I have never played chess professionally, i.e. I have never participated in an official chess tournament. I only played this game at a social level, while many draughts players had the pleasure of playing both games simultaneously and for some reason they chose draughts. I am lucky they shared their thoughts and feelings with me and I will try to summarise these briefly.
We definitely have to start with this point. As above mentioned, the theory is important in draughts, but it is placed at a lower level in the draughts’ hierarchy. Meanwhile, in chess even 10-year-olds need to know a large part of their openings-related stuff by heart.
Similarly, in the case of draughts-64, where the theory is an indispensable element at a higher level, so in this respect both disciplines, chess and 64-square draughts, can be compared. International draughts (Polish draughts) are not so much based on the theory and it was this feature, which made some "draughts-chess players" choose 10x10 board draughts.
Following this, we can find another feature that brings players to draughts. As the theory rules in chess, a lot of Grandmaster gameplays are repeated and end up in a draw after several moves. This is not interesting for the player, and even less for the viewer if they watch the same shots once more. Yet again, we can recall draughts-64 since an analogous situation takes place here quite often, whereas it doesn’t in Polish draughts. Certainly, the openings (i.e. first 15-20 moves) are repeated, but we have so many possibilities in Polish draughts where continuation of openings always develops in a different direction. Therefore, we won’t find in the database such combinations that copy gameplays from before 5, 10 or 20 years ago.
If I were to list the differences between draughts and chess, I'd actually find them everywhere. The only similarity is the board. However, a feature which especially appeals to children determined to go for draughts rather than chess, is the mandatory capture. In chess, we can only force certain moves, attack the pieces and it is harder for us to predict what will be the opponent’s choice, whether he will capture our piece or not. It is much more interesting in draughts, when the opponent makes one mistake and faces a combination, then he remains without a solution. Captures are compulsory and half of the pieces may disappear from the board in just a few moves. This makes draughts a much more dynamic and effective sport.
At one training, which I conducted for the Polish youth team, I asked the children: “Why do you play draughts and what do you like most about them?”. They all shouted out unanimously that draughts were helping them at school (especially in mathematics). Several kids noticed a significant improvement in memorising faster. Draughts sharpen the so-called visual memory. This is due to the need to imagine hundreds of possible positions, which can happen after our own or the opponent's moves during the gameplay. Therefore, our imagination works constantly during the 5-hour game. There are numerous advantages of mind sports. Still, for me the most important ones are as follows:
One of the girls answered that she liked draughts, as despite her young age, everything during the gameplay depends on her, unlike "in normal life". As a child, you depend on your parents at every level of your life. During the tournament, you are on your own and the chance is in your hands. It is also extremely interesting that less than a 10-year-old child is so much aware of the responsibility for his actions (in this case, for playing the game and his ups and downs in draughts). This proves that draughts do not only help at school, but also create a person in his or her personal life and develop very important qualities, which can affect success in other areas of life.return