Rule Changes That'll Never Happen, Part 1: Stalemates

OBIT
OBIT
Aug 23, 2009, 12:00 AM |
41 | Fun & Trivia

Of course, you all know the story. It's practically American folklore. There at the San Mateo Chess Club one night, a blitz tournament was in progress. A long struggle took place in a game involving a Russian immigrant named Boris Hrinczechowitsch, a.k.a. "Hrini", and Ojay Sampson: sports hero, movie star, and incredibly likable guy.

It had to be over 100 moves into the five-minute game, with both players under extreme time pressure, when the incident occurred. Sampson blitzed a move, reaching a stalemate position. Hrini instantaneously picked up his king to move it, then realized he was in stalemate. He claimed a draw. The situation seemed simple enough. No legal moves. The king not in check. "Thanks for half point," he said.

"Not so fast," said Ojay. "You picked up your king. You have to move. King captures are legal in blitz, you know."

The Tournament Director was summoned. And, one would suspect, the TD would have ruled in favor of Boris, notwithstanding the public stature of Mr. Sampson, were it not for one additional and most unfortunate circumstance: There was a lawyer in the room. Sampson's lawyer to be specific, the Honourable Robert "Corky" Corkin.

Arguing on Ojay's behalf, Corkin contended that Sampson was quite correct in his assertion that, inasmuch as king captures are not expressly prohibited by the rules of speed chess, the act of physically touching a chess piece must be regarded as prima facie evidence of intent to move and therefore legally binding, irrespective of subsequent events which may have abrogated the completion of the actual move; moreover, since Hrinczechowitsch himself admitted to lifting the piece off the board, the position on the board must be regarded as contaminated, ergo there was no way to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the stalemate position had in fact ever existed. Boris could only stammer in his defense, "But it was stalemate! No moves! Draw!"

The poor TD was in a quandary. Faced with a Gordian Knot of a problem, he did what all TDs instinctively do when a tough decision has to be made: he (shudder!) got creative. In the time-honored tradition followed by all TDs since tournament play began, he devised a resolution that was sure to tick off both players, along with the largest possible number of other players in the same tournament.

The TD's decision: Ojay 3/4, Boris 1/4. Jaws dropped throughout the tournament hall, and Sampson and Hrini lost all composure. The two players attacked the TD, stabbing him repeatedly with the pointed ends of bishops. And you all know the rest of the story - despite the famous "bloody bishop" and several hundred DNA samples that appeared to link Sampson to the murder, Ojay was acquitted thanks to Corkin's brilliant defense. Corkin's allegations that Ojay had been framed by a jealous former spouse (who had died three months before the actual homicide) led to a unanimous verdict from the jury, who were all then invited to the huge victory party at the Sampson estate that evening. Meanwhile, Hrini, a man of modest income, was sentenced to six life sentences and would likely have gotten the chair had not the jury recommended leniency because "he seems like a really nice man".

Of course, as chess players we are not interested in debating the ludicrous way our judicial system works. (Leave space here for the chess.com's disclaimer that the opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the staff.) As chess players, the only question that interests us is: "How can my knowledge of the Sampson case make me a better player?" Well, OK, I suppose the answer to that question is: It can't. However, the murky finish to the Sampson-Hrini game brings up a good point about a certain peculiar aspect of chess, that being the stalemate rule. So, let's talk about the stalemate rule, the one rule of chess whose illogic gives the American justice system a run for its money.

As we all know, a stalemate occurs when a player is not in check, but his position is so dire he cannot make a single move without exposing his king to capture. The verdict in this scenario: Drawn. Now, think about this objectively for a moment. Does this result make sense to you? If a golfer hits a ball so far into the woods he has no shot, would it make sense to award him a par? If a boxer has been pummeled to the point where he can no longer defend himself, would it make sense to call the fight a draw? Clearly, the rule is illogical. Far more logical would be to treat a stalemate position is a kind of "zugzwang checkmate" - the king, under compulsion to move, must surrender in lieu of throwing himself to the wolves.

When a reader made just this proposal in a letter to Larry Evans for a "Chess Life" column many years ago, GM Evans defended the rule by trotting out some positions where one player saved a half point with a nifty combination to force stalemate. This included a position from one of his own games, in which he swindled Sammy Reshevsky out of a half point. Personally, I think this game is sufficient reason to think Evans is unqualified to offer his opinion on the matter - the rule saved his butt once, so how is the guy going to say it's a bad rule? Be that as it may, though, here is the key moment from that game:

In this position, Reshevsky played 48...Qxg3?? Then, to hear Evans tell the story, Evans reached his right hand across the board, to which Reshevsky extended his own hand, thinking Evans was offering his hand in resignation. However, instead of a handshake, Evans grabbed his queen and played 49. Qg8+!! 50. Kxg8 Rxg7+! Note that both 51. Kxg7 and 51. Qxg7 produce stalemate. Even trying to keep the game alive with 51. Kf8 does not work, since Black, rather than take the queen (when he would still be down material), continues 51...Rf7+! 52. Ke8 Re7+!, etc. The king can never leave the back rank, so it's either capture the rook for another stalemate or submit to a perpetual check.

Oh, sure, the saving combination in this game is very nice, along with all the other examples offered by Evans in that column. Even so, I don't consider this a valid justification of the stalemate rule. Take any rule, or better yet invent some new rule, and a clever problemist will use the rule as the key to some nifty combination. In fact, an area of problem composition called Fairy Chess is full of odd pieces that are used to create some really elegant compositions. Does this mean adding one or two of these odd pieces would improve the game? I don't think so.

Aside from eliminating an illogical rule, awarding a win for a stalemate would have the added benefit of reducing draws, a definite problem in top level chess. Now, some players will say to that, "Oh, come on, blowhard writer. I've been playing tournament chess for years, and I've never had a game end in stalemate. I doubt one game in 5,000 does. The increase in decisive games would be trivial." Well, actually that's not true - stalemates are a lot more prevalent than you might think. Many textbook draws - king plus pawn vs. king, for example - are drawn because playing out the position would ultimately lead to stalemate. The stalemate never actually occurs on the board because the ending is never played out to the point of stalemate. For example, this is the finish to Gligorich/Fischer from the 1959 Candidates tournament:

In this position, the sixteen-year-old Fischer played 55...Rc8 56. Rxc8 (not trading rooks allows the Black king to get in front of the pawn for another easy draw) Kxc8 57. Kc4 Kb8!, and the two players agreed to the draw, seeing that the Black king has "the distant opposition." Well, yes, getting the opposition is the key to this draw, but a stalemate is the ultimate result if the game is played to the bitter end: 58. Kc5 Kc7 59. Kb5 Kb7 60. Kc5 Kc7 61. b5 (the king moves are making no progress) Kb7 62. b6 Kb8! 63. Kc6 Kc8 64. Kc5 Kb7 65. Kb5 Kb8 66. Kc6 Kc8 67. b7+ Kb8 68. Kb6, reaching stalemate. So there you go - make stalemates a win for the stronger side, and you will see a tangible drop in the percentage of drawn games.

For players with less radical impulses, here's another suggestion I've seen in print: make a stalemate worth more than a draw but less than a win. For example, a stalemate could be worth .7 to the stalemater, .3 to the stalematee. Actually, that sounds like a worthwhile idea - it retains the elements of stalemate for the diehard purists, and it adds a new element to the scoring system. If this .7/.3 result for a game ending in stalemate is adopted, maybe you'll see fewer of those 6-way ties at the end of a weekend Swiss.

In conclusion, let me encourage all of you to write to your congressmen and USCF representatives, urging them to abolish stalemates for the benefit of the great game of chess. And, I know what many of you are thinking right now: "Mr OBIT, your comments are all very interesting, and you make logical points, but do you honestly believe a rule that has been around for centuries has a snowball's chance in Hades of ever getting revoked? Can't you accept the fact that stalemates are part of the game and here to stay?" All right, learned colleagues, I must admit you are absolutely correct in this regard. This is a rule change that will never, ever get adopted. Grandmasters would need months to learn new endgame theory. Books would have to get revised. The change would cost millions. So, regardless of how many players like this idea, the change will never happen, no way, nohow.

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