Stalemate: the long and the Short of it

by Paul Lillebo
8/2/2014 – English GM Nigel Short is known for his strong views and his controversial, often very provocative articles. He recently expressed the view that the "stupid rule" of stalemate, where the attacking side has completely immobilized the enemy but does not win the game, should be abandoned. Our expert Paul Lillebo, an admitted Short fan, begs to differ – and gives sound reasons for this.

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Stalemate: the long and the Short of it

By H. Paul Lillebo

I’ve been a fan of the irrepressible English GM Nigel Short for a long time, so when Nigel expresses a forceful opinion about chess I take it seriously. Those of us who recently enjoyed his online commentary on the Norway Chess 2014 tournament were treated (again) to Nigel’s strongly held opinion about what he might politely call a chess anomaly, or more colloquially “a stupid rule”, namely the rule that scores stalemate as a draw.

Nigel holds forth for the idea that a stalemate should be scored as a loss for the stalemated player. Since he has promoted many good ideas – such as critiquing the “football” scoring of three points for a win by pointing out that the victory then goes to the player with the most losses (just as the tie-break rule favoring “most wins with black” similarly favors the player with most losses as White) – I thought his “stalemate = win” campaign was worth some thought. I’d therefore like to follow up Nigel’s remarks by inviting to a colloquy about the pros and cons of the stalemate rule.

In practice, the stalemate idea is often used to rescue the weaker side from a probable loss. The weaker side typically tries – often by giving away material – to force a position where the stronger side has no choice but to stalemate the weaker. Usually this involves an oversight of the drawing line (a blunder, really) on the part of the stronger side, who thereby contributes to the stalemate, if only through carelessness. (Nigel feels this should be rewarded with a full point.)

Nigel’s problem with the idea of stalemate – if I understand him right – is that it unfairly overturns the good work that a player has put into obtaining a decisive position, and rewards a losing player’s inferior play by allowing him to resort to a cheap trick to save his position. I agree that a reasonable argument can be made against the stalemate rule: after all, when our opponent is stalemated, he is in fact incapacitated.

It seems only logical that when we’ve incapacitated the opponent the game shouldn’t be scored as equal. We can also argue that, since each side is required by the rules to make moves in turn (passing on your turn is not permitted), when a player is unable to make a move as required by the rules, he shouldn’t be rewarded for it with a half point. Nigel brought out the fact that being stalemated was in earlier days considered a loss, and that the legendary World Champion Emanuel Lasker also considered the present rule to be idiotic.

Let’s subject the stalemate draw rule to a little informal analysis. Several sections in FIDE’s Laws of Chess contribute to the stalemate rule. The basic definition is in section 5.2.a, which reads in part:

“The game is drawn when the player to move has no legal move and his king is not in check. The game is said to end in ‘stalemate’.”

If one wishes to make Nigel happy (and who doesn’t?), there are at least four potential rule changes, some more interesting than others, that could achieve that noble end:

1. First and most straightforward (though least artistic): we could simply change rule 5.2.a to say that a player who is unable to make a legal move on his turn loses the game (whether the king is in check or not). Problem solved – a “stalemate” would now be a loss. But how satisfying is this?

To my mind, the “moral” argument that the stalemated player doesn’t deserve a draw runs up against the moral argument that a player who doesn’t achieve the aim of the game doesn’t deserve a win! The aim of the game – if we need a reminder – is to checkmate the opponent’s king. (“Checkmate” is really an announcement to the enemy king that he can’t avoid immediate capture. The custom of ending the game before the actual capture, I suspect, has something to do with ancient courtesy toward the monarch.) So in stalemate we haven’t really achieved our goal. We’ve marched our army to Babylon or wherever, and we’ve besieged the palace. The enemy king is ours, except that we don’t actually have him bound in our tent. He’s still untouched in his palace – we can hear the music and the dancing girls. Somehow that doesn’t sound like we’ve finished the job. We’re supposed to deliver an enemy king, dead or alive, and we haven’t got him. So have we won the battle where we sit mired in the mud, or have we simply blown it?

2. Another rule change that would avoid stalemate altogether would be to forbid a player from making a move that leaves the opponent without a legal move. This rule (according to Wikipedia) apparently occurs in some chess variants and has at times been enforced as a loss for the stalemating player (!), and it certainly prevents stalemate, but seems totally at odds with the aim of the game. Chess is a game with an aggressive purpose; bringing in a rule where the attacker must concern himself with providing his victim elbow room hardly deserves a hearing.

3. The third possible rule change is more meaty, and has interesting consequences beyond avoiding stalemate. This seems to be Nigel’s choice: he pointed out that we could solve the embarrassment to our game of having such a stupid rule as the stalemate draw (that’s not a direct quote, but I think I got his sense), and also experience the satisfaction of actually capturing the evil king by changing the rule that forbids the king from committing suicide. FIDE’s rule 1.2 says in part,

“Leaving one’s own king under attack, exposing one’s own king to attack and also ‘capturing’ the opponent’s king are not allowed.”

But why these prohibitions? What is gained by this rule? What is wrong with the idea that if a player is careless enough to put his king en prise, the opponent could take it and thus end the game, as in blitz chess? If we throw out this rule that forbids suicide, a stalemated king would have to make a move that places him en prise, whereupon he would be captured. (It is possible to construct a legal position where the king is entirely hemmed in by his own pieces, none of which have a legal move – in which case voiding the suicide clause wouldn’t help: we’d still have a stalemate; but such a position seems just theoretical – I’ve never seen it in a game.) Nigel is right: this is the rule that creates the dilemma of stalemate. Without this rule there is essentially no stalemate. So a simple way to make Nigel happy is to abandon this rule, and make the defending king self-immolate in a stalemate situation. Of course, the defender could simply resign instead, but the outcome would be the same: the “stalemated” side loses.

4. A fourth rule change that would alter the stalemate rule would be to allow a player to pass on his turn. The relevant rule is Article 1.1:

“… chess is played between two opponents who move their pieces alternately …”

So when it’s your move you must make a move. But why should passing not be allowed? What would be the effect of a player saying “I pass” on his turn? In most cases, this would merely lose a tempo and allow the opponent to improve his position. But there are cases, such as in a zugzwang or triangulation situation, or in play with the knights, where losing a turn may help a player. On the other hand, if one player can pass, so can the other, seemingly eliminating the advantage of passing.

In a stalemate situation one player has no legal move and would therefore have to pass. The opponent has a choice: he could pass to bring about the draw (three consecutive passes = draw, say), or he could make a move. For example, illustrating with a classical king and single pawn stalemate from Nigel Short’s own practice:

Sokolov-Short, Staunton Memorial Tournament, 2008

Short has just played 64…Kf3-g3, stalemating his opponent. White to play would have to play 65. pass, and Black would play 65…Kf3. If White is now allowed to pass again, we get nowhere. So for a pass rule to help Nigel out of the stalemate draw it has to be limited to positions where there is no legal move. In that case, after 65. pass Kf3, White would have to play 66.Kh2, and Nigel would win.

But the pass rule won’t help us out of all stalemate situations. For example, if the pawn is on a rook file, the black king’s sidestep (Kg3 in this case) does not give White a legal move, so the position would still be a draw (unless we invoke the suicide rule above). So allowing (actually requiring) a pass when there’s no legal move would allow the stronger side to win many stalemate situations, though perhaps not enough to make Nigel fully happy.

As we see, there are several ways to make Nigel partly happy, but what if these proposals make more chessplayers less happy? A utilitarian would attempt to sum and compare the resulting happiness and unhappiness to decide on the “best” course of action. I’m not convinced that happiness is additive, or even quantifiable, so I’ll try a qualitative approach.

For those who wish to make chess a simpler game, getting rid of the stalemate draw is a good way to go. Gone would be much of the subtlety of endgame theory, such as the “opposition”, triangulation, concern over “rook pawns” with the wrong bishop, and in general most pawn play. We may ask whether such complications add to or detract from the game.

For me, the answer is clear. The possibility of stalemate sets additional difficulties in the way of the stronger side on his way to a win. It gives an opportunity for the defender to overcome material and positional deficits, and to use his wits to give the stronger side a final opportunity to go wrong. Remove the stalemate draw and we have a materialistic game where the winning method would be to win a pawn and transition to the end game. This would impoverish the game as well as the world of chess composition, where many a beautiful idea has been spun around the stalemate theme.

The diagram is just one example of the surprising turn of events and the dangers that are still found in many positions even when the game is completely won. Here, Black to move wins easily, but he has one hurdle remaining: he must avoid stalemating White.

Carl Pilnick-Samuel Reshevsky, New York 1942 (US. Ch.)

Black to move

Reshevsky played 92…g4??, planning after 93.Qxg4 to win the pawn ending after 93…Qe1+ and Qg3+, exchanging queens. But Pilnick answered 92…g4 with 93.Qf2! and Reshevsky had to accept the draw. Did Reshevsky deserve a full point for blundering and failing to convert the win?

I find myself in agreement with the late GM Larry Evans, who called the suggestion to make stalemate a win for the stalemating player a "crude proposal that ... would radically alter centuries of tradition and make chess boring." (This Crazy World of Chess, cited in Wikipedia).

The question in the end is, should we change the aim of the game of chess? Instead of checkmate, should the aim be just to lay siege, to immobilize the enemy, as some propose? In boxing, you can win a match by knock-out (i.e., you’ve actually beaten the enemy) or on points (you’ve bothered the enemy more than he has bothered you). In chess, our tradition over some centuries has been that you have to beat the opponent to get the win. The suggestion to change that, to grant a win for cornering the opponent, for petering out in inaction while failing to find the coup de grâce, will take much of the complexity, subtlety, intuition, risk, and beauty out of the game, and with it interest for the game. The question deserves (perhaps) further discussion, but I see nothing but loss for the game if we follow this suggestion.

In part two, which will appear shortly, I will show you a number of practical and artistic cases
of stalemate. If you have any favourites yourself please send them in for possible inclusion.

Topics: chess rules

Paul Lillebo, life-long chess lover, is a retired biologist and earlier U.S. naval aviator with a recent master's degree in early American history, who divides his time between Oslo, Norway and North Carolina, USA.
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GrayDuck GrayDuck 8/25/2014 04:35
His arguments were unconvincing because he presented no evidence for them.

We have had over a century of use of the stalemate rule and what is the result? Chess is still fun to play, but very few people follow the game as spectators. In my country (the United States), spectators expect a winner and a loser and feel cheated if none results. Moreover, the high frequency of draws misleads people into thinking that the game is simple and has been solved the same way tic-tac-toe (draughts) has been solved. I would like to see at least one high-level tournament abolish the stalemate rule for a while to see the result.
Timothy Chow Timothy Chow 8/24/2014 09:07
Richard Flacco argues that "the compulsion to move was never meant to force you to leave a safe square and walk into capture!" Whether or not there was a conscious intention, it is currently accepted that Zugzwang positions are elegant. That is, creating a situation where your opponent loses because of the compulsion to move is a perfectly good way to win a game.

And as I have already argued, the original rule that the capture of the king ends the game is clearly more elegant than the complicated and confusing checkmate rule. It is only because we have accustomed ourselves to the rule that it seems natural. Imagine inventing a new game with something as complicated as the checkmate rule as the definition of a win. It would be laughed out of the room.
Timothy Chow Timothy Chow 8/24/2014 08:50
I believe that most of the objections that people voice against the STALEMATE rule are better phrased as objections to the CHECKMATE rule. Logically, chess should end with the capture of the king. That is how the game was designed originally, and it is also far more commonsensical than the current checkmate rule, as almost anyone who has tried to teach chess to children knows. If you favor the checkmate rule, let me ask you this: why not instead have the game end when one player can checkmate next turn against any defense, and make it illegal to make a move that allows the opponent to checkmate? Then Kramnik's notorious 34...Qe3?? against Deep Fritz in the 2006 Man vs Machine would have been simply illegal and Kramnik would probably not have lost the game. Well, the answer is obvious. Such a rule would just complicate the game with essentially no benefit. But the same criticism applies to the checkmate rule in its current form. It complicates the game with essentially no benefit.

Changing the checkmate rule back to the rule that capturing the king ends the game (and that moving into check is legal) would make the rules simpler and more logical and would have no effect on any play past the beginner level, EXCEPT that most of the positions that are currently labeled "stalemate" would turn into losses for the stalemated side. The end result would be nearly identical to what opponents of the stalemate rule want, but it would be arrived at via a much simpler and more logical argument, and we wouldn't even have to change the stalemate rule itself! There would still be a small number of "true" stalemate positions in which the side to move literally has no legal moves (even when exposing the king to check is legal), and these could be declared draws. There would therefore still be room for elegant artistic draws by stalemate.

So, opponents of the stalemate rule: I highly recommend that you switch to arguing against the checkmate rule instead. It is a much stronger logical argument and the end result coincides exactly with what you want.
mannytoo mannytoo 8/24/2014 07:08
Where's the fun in that (gettin rid of stalemate)? It adds another exciting dimension to chess like en passant. Besides, ultimately the goal is to mate the king. That's why some combination of pieces in the endgame which cannot mate the king are declared draws. By this token, a stalemate should also be a draw because you cannot mate the opponent properly--if only for the fun of it. Maroczy bind also incapacitates the opponent (at least to some degree) but so what?
Ronny Kaluge Ronny Kaluge 8/24/2014 05:13
@John Trmop one of the possible positions is this:
white pawns: d2, e3, f2, g3
white knights: f1, h1
white rook: g2
white bishop: h2
white king: g1

black pawns: d3, e4, f3
black king: g4
John Trmop John Trmop 8/23/2014 05:44
"It is possible to construct a legal position where the king is entirely hemmed in by his own pieces, none of which have a legal move"

I have tried but failed to produce such a position. Would be very interested in seeing one...
Richard Flacco Richard Flacco 8/6/2014 12:55
The rule prohibiting moving one's King into check trumps the rule obliging one to move, because it should. Calling a stalemate a case where the stalemated player has "passed", and therefore one in which the opposing player has opportunity to move again and again, would be unacceptably inelegant (chess is great largely because of the elegance of its design). If you can't checkmate the opponents King, but could only take him if he were compelled to move into check, you should perhaps get .7 points for such a draw (changing the win/draw/loss compartmentalization would, again, be unchessically inelegant). The compulsion to move was never meant to force you to leave a safe square and walk into capture!
Niima Niima 8/3/2014 03:34
I also disagree with GM Nigel Short because stalemate adds content and drama to chess. Sometimes in life, you make many good moves, but you still do not get what you deserve. Stalemate is a reflection of that. It also allows the near impossible. The weaker side strives against all odds, and the impossible happens - he survives. This also happens in life. To remove stalemate would deprive us of aspects of chess that resemble life.
thlai80 thlai80 8/3/2014 02:12
It's not totally senseless. In Chinese chess (xiangqi), stalemate is a lost to the side with no legal move. Furthermore, perpetual check and repeating moves would be a lost to the side doing it.
koganpiek koganpiek 8/3/2014 12:01
Another possibility would be to change the points you get for a win a draw or a stalemate. For instance Draw 2 points for each player. Stalemate 3 for the stronger side and 1 for the weaker side. Normal mate 4 points for the winner and 0 for the loser. I believe this could be interesting also in matchplay as there are more results to play for.
genem genem 8/2/2014 11:08
I agree with Lillebo's statement that:
"Remove the stalemate draw and we have a materialistic game where the winning method would be to win a pawn and transition to the end game. This would impoverish the game..."

Removing stalemate as a special additional means of drawing a game would paradoxically decrease the draw rate (which currently is way too high at 60% among elite grandmasters).

A common argument against stalemate-as-victory is the practical observation that some players will likely delay or reject sensible draw offers on the hope that they can stalemate their opponent by playing deep into the endgame phase. It is argued that too much human energy would be squandered at the board for these longer endgame games, which would usually end in a draw anyway.

More than a few actual stalemates seem merely for an enjoyable pre-arranged draw. Scanning Mega Base for stalemates, it is easy to find nearly perfect repetitions of the following two silly stalemate games:

-------- 1

[Event "Wch U16 Girls"]
[Site "Menorca"]
[Date "1996.??.??"]
[Round "10"]
[White "Frenklakh, Jennie"]
[Black "Shahade, Jennifer"]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]
[ECO "A80"]
[WhiteElo "2090"]
[BlackElo "2110"]
[PlyCount "28"]
[EventCountry "ESP"]
[Source "ChessBase"]
1. h3 f5 2. d4 e5 3. Qd3 f4 4. Qg3 e4 5. Qh2 Be7
6. a4 a5 7. Ra3 Bh4 8. Rg3 e3
9. f3 Qe7 10. c4 Qb4+ 11. Nd2 d6
12. c5 Be6 13. c6 Bb3 14. d5 b6 {Stalemate}

-------- 2

[Event "WLS-ch"]
[Site "Cardiff"]
[Date "1996.??.??"]
[Round "6"]
[White "Hughes, Gareth"]
[Black "Dyce, Andrew"]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]
[ECO "A00"]
[WhiteElo "2175"]
[BlackElo "2115"]
[PlyCount "19"]
[EventCountry "WLS"]
[Source "ChessBase"]
1. e3 a5 2. Qh5 Ra6 3. Qxa5 h5 4. h4 Rah6 5. Qxc7 f6
6. Qxd7+ Kf7 7. Qxb7 Qd3
8. Qxb8 Qh7 9. Qxc8 Kg6 10. Qe6 {Stalemate}