Who needs stalemate – let's abolish it!

7/6/2012 – Stalemate is one of the more difficult concepts in chess: the game ends not with the capture of the enemy king, but one move earlier, when he is in check and cannot move out of it. Even more baffling, says reader Matt Bishop, is when the king is not in check but would have to move to an attacked square on the next move. That is a draw. Matt pleads for a radical revision of the rules.

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Who needs stalemate – let's abolish it!

By Matt Bishop

Simply put a "stalemate" in chess occurs"when a player, whos turn it is to move, has no legal moves left to make... this is deemed a draw". We "Anti-Stalematers" would like you to consider a few arguements for why the stalemate rule should be abolished. And then we will provide a simple, elegant alternative solution.

First look at why we should abolish stalemate. First of all stalemate used to be a win, until it was changed to be a draw in the 19th century. Before this standardization, the treatment of stalemate varied widely, including being deemed a win for the stalemating player, a half-win for that player, or a loss for that player; not being permitted; and resulting in the stalemated player missing a turn.

Secondly we must consider the contradictory and obscure nature of the current rules:

  1. You must move when it is your turn, i.e. you cannot "pass" on your move. Even if it will mean suicide you must move if you can. But: if you cannot move, its a draw! This is a contradiction. If you can move in zugzwang you must move, even if it meansa falling on the sword. But if you can't move (which is the highest level of zugzwang) you get out of jail on a free card with a draw.

  2. It is illegal to move into check. Even though a king may be surrounded in aan all-out attack, he sometimes can't be killed because he cant legally step into check. This is like a lawyer arguing a silly legal technicalities to get his defendent off the hook, when everyone knows the logical outcome of the court case.

  3. If you cannot move, you are powerless, without options, restricted, suppressed and dominated. It violates the spirit of the game if this saves you and gets you half a point.
  4. The whole plan and point of chess is to put an attack on the king. But at some stage the stalemate rule comes along and says: "great, but don't attack the king too well! Be careful to prance around him when you are totally dominating him, otherwise it could easily end in a draw!"

  5. Making a stalemate a win would in no way make endgame play any easier. In fact, it would probably make it harder. It's true that K+P vs K would be easier, but K+R+P vs K+R would be tougher. In general this endgame would still be drawn for most positions that are drawn under the current rules, but make a stalemate a win and a fair percentage of K+R+P vs K+R become winnable. The endgame K+B vs K or K+N vs K would now be winnable in some situations, but not in general – everything would depend on how close the opposing king is to the corner.

  6. Chess is, by nature, already very drawish to begin with. We don't need to give players who have been outplayed cheap tricks to save the game (and produce even more draws).

  7. Capablanca, Reti, Lasker, Nimzowitsch and many other top players have argued for a change as well. I've taught many people chess – they all laugh at the stalemate rule as illogical. Probably you did too, when you first saw it...

  8. Rules change all the time in other games (e.g. the offside in soccer). In chess the stalemate rule was changed many times in the past (see below), so why not do it one more time?

  9. * Some argue that draws by forcing stalemate can be "artistic". Agreed, however, winning by forcing stalemate can also be highly artistic.

Solution: The goal of chess should simply be to capture the king! It should be legal to step into check, after which the opponent would capture the king on the next move and win. This simple change would solve the whole stalemate problem and make the chess rules more logically consistent. It is much more logical, elegant and simple to have the one rule, "capture the king and you win", as opposed to the current definition of mate: "when the king can't legally move without moving into check". Which version sounds more in the spirit of the game?

History of the stalemate rule (Wikipedia)

The stalemate rule has had a convoluted past. For much of the game's history stalemate has not been considered a draw. In the forerunners to modern chess, such as Chaturanga, stalemate was a win for the side administering it. This practice persisted in chess as played in early 15th-century Spain. However, Lucena (c. 1497) treated stalemate as an inferior form of victory, which in games played for money won only half the stake, and this continued to be the case in Spain as late as 1600. The rule in England from about 1600 to 1800 was that stalemate was a loss for the player administering it. That rule disappeared in England before 1820, being replaced by the French and Italian rule that a stalemate was a drawn game.

Assume that Black is stalemated. Throughout history, a stalemate has at various times been:

  • A win for White – in 10th century Arabia and parts of medieval Europe.

  • A half-win for White – in a game played for stakes, White would win half the stake (18th century Spain).

  • A win for Black – in 9th century India, 17th century Russia, on the Central Plain of Europe in the 17th century, and 17th-18th century England. This rule continued to be published in Hoyle's Games Improved as late as 1866.

  • Not allowed – If White made a move that would stalemate Black, he had to retract it and make a different move (Eastern Asia until the early 20th century). In Hindustani and Parsi chess, two of the three principal forms of chess played in India as of 1913, a player was not allowed to play a move that would stalemate the opponent. The same was true of Burmese chess. Stalemate was not permitted in most of the Eastern Asiatic forms of the game, specifically in Burma, India, Japan, and Siam until early in the 20th century.

  • The forfeiture of Black's turn to move – in medieval France, although other medieval French sources treat stalemate as a draw.

  • A draw – This was the rule in 13th century Italy and was ultimately adopted throughout Europe, but not in England until the 19th century, after being introduced there by Jacob Sarratt.

Stalemates in World Championship play

The first World Championship game to end in stalemate (and at the same time the longest game played in a World Chess Championship final match) was the fifth game of the 1978 World Championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi. The game had been a theoretical draw since move 70. However the players were not on speaking terms, so neither would offer a draw by agreement. Korchnoi said that it gave him pleasure to stalemate Karpov and that it was slightly humiliating.

[Event "World Championship 29th"] [Site "Baguio City"] [Date "1978.07.27"] [Round "5"] [White "Kortschnoj, Viktor"] [Black "Karpov, Anatoly"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "E42"] [WhiteElo "2665"] [BlackElo "2725"] [PlyCount "247"] [EventDate "1978.07.??"] [EventRounds "32"] [EventCountry "PHI"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1999.07.01"] 1. c4 Nf6 2. d4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 c5 5. Nge2 d5 6. a3 Bxc3+ 7. Nxc3 cxd4 8. exd4 dxc4 9. Bxc4 Nc6 10. Be3 O-O 11. O-O b6 12. Qd3 Bb7 13. Rad1 h6 14. f3 Ne7 15. Bf2 Nfd5 16. Ba2 Nf4 17. Qd2 Nfg6 18. Bb1 Qd7 19. h4 Rfd8 20. h5 Nf8 21. Bh4 f6 22. Ne4 Nd5 23. g4 Rac8 24. Bg3 Ba6 25. Rfe1 Rc6 26. Rc1 Ne7 27. Rxc6 Qxc6 28. Ba2 Qd7 29. Nd6 Bb7 30. Nxb7 Qxb7 31. Qe3 Kh8 32. Rc1 Nd5 33. Qe4 Qd7 34. Bb1 Qb5 35. b4 Qd7 36. Qd3 Qe7 37. Kf2 f5 38. gxf5 exf5 39. Re1 Qf6 40. Be5 Qh4+ 41. Bg3 Qf6 42. Rh1 Nh7 43. Be5 Qg5 44. Qxf5 Qd2+ 45. Kg3 Nhf6 46. Rg1 Re8 47. Be4 Ne7 48. Qh3 Rc8 49. Kh4 Rc1 50. Qg3 Rxg1 51. Qxg1 Kg8 52. Qg3 Kf7 53. Bg6+ Ke6 54. Qh3+ Kd5 55. Be4+ Nxe4 56. fxe4+ Kxe4 57. Qg4+ Kd3 58. Qf3+ Qe3 59. Kg4 Qxf3+ 60. Kxf3 g6 61. Bd6 Nf5 62. Kf4 Nh4 63. Kg4 gxh5+ 64. Kxh4 Kxd4 65. Bb8 a5 66. Bd6 Kc4 67. Kxh5 a4 68. Kxh6 Kb3 69. b5 Kc4 70. Kg5 Kxb5 {The game is now a theoretical draw, with White's extra bishop unable to control the queening square at a8, nor attack the black pawn on the light a4 square. If the white king heads towards the black pawn, the black king can move towards a8 and set up a fortress.} 71. Kf5 Ka6 72. Ke6 Ka7 73. Kd7 Kb7 74. Be7 Ka7 75. Kc7 Ka8 76. Bd6 Ka7 77. Kc8 Ka6 78. Kb8 b5 79. Bb4 Kb6 80. Kc8 Kc6 81. Kd8 Kd5 82. Ke7 Ke5 83. Kf7 Kd5 84. Kf6 Kd4 85. Ke6 Ke4 86. Bf8 Kd4 87. Kd6 Ke4 88. Bg7 Kf4 89. Ke6 Kf3 90. Ke5 Kg4 91. Bf6 Kh5 92. Kf5 Kh6 93. Bd4 Kh7 94. Kf6 Kh6 95. Be3+ Kh5 96. Kf5 Kh4 97. Bd2 Kg3 98. Bg5 Kf3 99. Bf4 Kg2 100. Bd6 Kf3 101. Bh2 Kg2 102. Bc7 Kf3 103. Bd6 Ke3 104. Ke5 Kf3 105. Kd5 Kg4 106. Kc5 Kf5 107. Kxb5 Ke6 108. Kc6 Kf6 109. Kd7 Kg7 110. Be7 Kg8 111. Ke6 Kg7 112. Bc5 Kg8 113. Kf6 Kh7 114. Kf7 Kh8 115. Bd4+ Kh7 116. Bb2 Kh6 117. Kg8 Kg6 118. Bg7 Kf5 119. Kf7 Kg5 120. Bb2 Kh6 121. Bc1+ Kh7 122. Bd2 Kh8 123. Bc3+ Kh7 124. Bg7 {Stalemate!} 1/2-1/2

The second time in history (in our knowledge) that a game for the World Championship was decided by stalemate executed on the board was in the 2007 reunification match between Viswanathan Anand and Vladimir Kramnik:

[Event "World Championship"] [Site "Mexico City"] [Date "2007.09.15"] [Round "3"] [White "Anand, Viswanathan"] [Black "Kramnik, Vladimir"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "C42"] [WhiteElo "2792"] [BlackElo "2769"] [PlyCount "130"] [EventDate "2007.09.13"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "14"] [EventCountry "MEX"] [EventCategory "21"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2007.10.02"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nxe5 d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4 5. d4 d5 6. Bd3 Nc6 7. O-O Be7 8. c4 Nb4 9. Be2 O-O 10. Nc3 Bf5 11. a3 Nxc3 12. bxc3 Nc6 13. Re1 Re8 14. cxd5 Qxd5 15. Bf4 Rac8 16. Qa4 Bd7 17. Qc2 Qf5 18. Qxf5 Bxf5 19. Bb5 Bd7 20. d5 Ne5 21. Bxd7 Nxd7 22. Bxc7 Rxc7 23. d6 Rxc3 24. dxe7 f6 25. Rad1 Rc7 26. Nd4 Ne5 27. f4 Nc6 28. Nxc6 bxc6 29. Rd6 c5 30. Ree6 c4 31. Rc6 Rexe7 32. Rxc4 Rxc4 33. Rxe7 Ra4 34. Rb7 h6 35. f5 Rxa3 36. Kf2 h5 37. g3 a5 38. Ra7 a4 39. h4 Ra2+ 40. Kf3 a3 41. Ke3 Ra1 42. Kf2 Kf8 43. Kg2 a2 44. Kh2 Ke8 45. Kg2 Kd8 46. Kh2 Kc8 47. Kg2 Kb8 48. Ra3 Kb7 49. Ra4 Kb6 50. Ra8 Kc5 51. Ra7 Kd5 52. Ra4 Ke5 53. Ra5+ Ke4 54. Kh2 Kf3 55. Ra3+ Kf2 56. Ra4 Kf1 57. Kh1 Ke1 58. Kg2 Kd1 59. Ra7 { Black has been unable to win this with the rooks, so he tries to do it in the pure pawn endgame:} Rc1 60. Rxa2 Rc2+ 61. Rxc2 Kxc2 62. Kf3 Kd3 63. g4 hxg4+ 64. Kxg4 {A gasp went through the audience: had Anand miscalculated, wasn't he now lost?} Ke4 65. Kh5 $1 {No, stalemate saves the day.} Kxf5 {Black must play this or lose. Stalemate!} 1/2-1/2

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