• 15,729 Reads
  • Other



     The existing rule has this in its favour, that it appeals strongly to the sporting instincts of mankind; and the last chance which it affords to a player who appears to be hopelessly beaten, never fails to add a new zest to a game in which the interest has begun to flag, and has been the origin of some of the most ingenious master-play known.   -  H. J. R. Murray.

"The stalemate is the penalty for mauling without killing.” -New Statesman, 1957.


     Back in 1893 the wonderfully innovative English player and deviser of numerous devious game-saving stalemates, Wordsworth Donsthorpe, suggested a change in the game of chess that would eliminate stalemate completely - the abolition of "Check."  With the support of James Mason (whom Pyotr Romanovsky considered the strongest player up to the 20th century) and Joseph Blackburne, Donisthorpe proposed that "check" should be eliminated in both the annoucement of and the acuality - that the King should be captured like any other piece with the idea that it's a logical action with logical results. By allowing the King to be captured, there would be no Stalemate since, if the King must move, he simply moved to a space where he would be captured next move, making any stalemate position effectively Mate-in-one.

     "The Saturday Review" of Aug. 12, 1893 considered his proposal and dismissed it:
          The temptation to agree with Mr. Donisthorpe is very great when
          we consider how largely the rule would diminish the number of draws.
          But with the disappearance of stalemate all play for the opposition
          would go by the board, and that would destroy one of the most
          interesting features of the end-game. No phase of chess is more
          engrossing or critical than the final play of what is known as a pawn
          game; and nothing contributes more to the interest of such a game
          than the ultimate race for opposition.

     In an article about other interesting rule changes, "Chess Weekly" (published from 1908-10 by W.E. Napier, Magnus Smith and Charles Nugent) Emmanuel Lasker is also mentioned as following the same logic:
          We believe that it is absurd that a player whose strategy brings him
          to the ending with a king, bishop and pawn against a lone king
          should be robbed of victory merely because his pawn is on the rook
          file the eigth of which cannot be covered by his bishop.  It is a
          player's move.  He cannot move without putting his king n check. 
          Why should he not lose?  It may be mentioned that Dr. Lasker is of
          the opinion that the stale-mate rule should be abolished, a fact,
          while does not prove the case, adds weight to the contention.

     Wikipedia offers this about efforts to change or eliminate Stalemate:
          Periodically, writers have argued that stalemate should again be
          made a win for the side causing the stalemate. Grandmaster Larry
          Kaufman writes, "In my view, calling stalemate a draw is totally
          illogical, since it represents the ultimate zugzwang, where any move
          would get your king taken" (Kaufman 2009). The British master
          T. H. Tylor argued in a 1940 article in the "British Chess Magazine" that
          the present rule, treating stalemate as a draw, "is without historical
          foundation and irrational, and primarily responsible for a vast
          percentage of draws, and hence should be abolished"

     Still others have echoed what they think was Tyler's claim that "Capablanca, Reti, Lasker, Nimzowitsch and many other top players have argued for a change in the Stalemate rule as well" [see Tyler's 1941 article at the end of this one].  While indeed these players did bemoan the potential of "tod des remis" or death by draw, none but Lasker seemed too concerned with Stalemate.

     Stalemate is treated as a draw, but draw and stalemate aren't synonymous. Capablanca was concerned with draws.  In 1925 he wrote, "...there is cause for concern with regard to draws. It may be that we have not yet reached the point of being able to make draws at will, but if we have not arrived, we are not far away." By this he meant that at some point he felt knowledge would allow all master players to simplify any game into a draw - in which stalemate played but a minor role. 

     The first two Belle Epoch tournaments at Monte Carlo had the following rules:
          -- A won game counts 1 point. Drawn games have to be replayed;
          in case of a draw each player receives one-quarter of a point: if the
          drawn game between the same players is again drawn, then each man
          receives one-half point for both games; in case the game is won by
          either party, the winner receives an additional half point, a total
          therefore of three-quarters of a point for both the games, while the
          loser gets one-quarter. (This rule was also in force last year.)

          -- Two players cannot call a game drawn until they have appealed to
          the director of play, who may allow the draw or ask the players to
          proceed with play.

     Again, this has nothing to do with Stalemate itself, but with draws in general. It's clear that when considering Stalemate, there are two ideas at play: 1. The argument of the logic of the rule and  2. The attempt to eliminate unnecessary draws. 

     There have been some very minor calls to alter, revoke or revise the Stalemate Rule or at least to change the way it is scored but these pebbles tossed into the waters have barely caused a ripple let alone changed the course of the river.

     Whatever the case and whatever one's position on this,  it might be interesting to look at the deveolpment of Stalemate throughout time.


     First, let's remember Daniel Willard Fiskes' admonishment, confirmed by Murray: "Before the seventh century or our era, the existence of chess in any land not demonstratable by a single shred of contemporary or trustworthy documentary evidence . . . Down to that date it is all impenetrable darkness."


     Let's travel back the to the early days of the Indian game Chaturanga.  This was the popular game played all over India in various forms using various rules.  We really know very little about the game for certain.   As Murray wrote, "We possess no native Indian works on chess of any antiquity. Our knowledge of the rules of Indian chess prior to the 11th century is derived from two brief references in Arabic works."    Chess moved to Islam via Persia.   Al-Suli, the great 9th-10th century Shatranj player wrote, "And the form is the form of chess which the Persians took from the Indians and which we took from the Persians."   He also stated, "Another Indian Rule is that when the King cannot find a square into whicn to move, and the other King have nothing wherewith to checkmate him, the first King has won. But this is not a Persian rule.'"   This tells us that the earliest rules of Chaturanga considered the side whose king is stalemated the winner and that Shatranj, the Arab game and direct precursor to chess, didn't use this rule.

     Persian and Indian chess were analogous of war.  In fact Murray claims that considering these games as "Kriegsspiele" or "War Games" is the only rational understanding of the origins of Chess.   With this is mind Murray wrote, "The earliest rules of the game depended upon the parallelism between chess and warfare, and the two main methods of winning the game in early times, viz. checkmate, and the ' baring' of the opponent's King, appear to have been the logical results of the parallelism. The convention—necessary to secure order in the new game,—that the play should proceed by alternate moves, resulted however on occasions in the occurrence of a new situation to which the parallelism of real warfare gave no comparison admitting of a definite decision. This situation, to which we give the name of Stalemate, answered as nearly to a condition of things in which one monarch retired to an impregnable fortress as to anything else. " [BCM, July 1903]

     As noted previously, the earliest known Stalemate rule was the Indian rule that gave victory to the stalemated party.  This rule, even in Chatarunga didn't seem to have lasted too long, though it may have sustained in isolated areas of that vast and diverse country.   In the 1600s-1700s the rule in India was very muddled and varied. In some areas a Stalemate was a draw.  "When a King is imprisoned without standing in check, and no other of his pieces can move, he may slay the piece of his enemy in his vicinity which imprisons him"  was a rule given by Bhatta Nilakantha in his description of the "Intellectual Game" in his "Bhagavantabhaskara."   While Tiruvengadacharya  Shastri (Shastree) in his 1814  "Essays of Chess Adapted to the European Mode of Play"  wrote,  "If one party get into that position the adversary must make room for him to move. In some part of India he that is put in this predicament has a right to remove from the board anyone of the adversary's pieces he may choose."

     Stalemate as a win for the one delivering the mate was common in Arab chess (one could win by checkmate, stalemate or baring the king).   In Medieval chess there is little evidence of stalemate.  However, not much is known about Stalemate in the games the Muslims introduced to Europe and it is unreferenced in the places where we get most of our indirect as well as those where we get our direct information.  No early medieval literature mentions Stalemate, neither does the Italian  Cessolis nor does the Castilian, Alfonso X.   One hint we do have, but which can't be interpreted for certain,  is that in some problems the term "tractum pro tractu" is included indicating that all moves must be made alternately.  This "might" suggest that alternate moves weren't always the case and that we might speculate that in a statemate situation, the stalemating side held the king in suspension while he, himself, continued moving until he was able to checkmate or gain a decisive advantage.

     After the advent of the new Queen, "scacchi alla rabiosa,"  Stalemate began appearing in texts. The Spaniard Lucena called it "mate aogado,"  with the player who was stalemated losing half his stake.   Ruy Lopez, also a Spaniard called it "mate ahogado" with the same result. (A. M. Elmore still called it "El mate Ahoyado" in his 1847 Peruvian book, "Estudios del axedrés, conteniendo una introduccion sistematica al juego.").  So, in Spain Stalemate was considered an inferior win but more than a draw.  In Italy at this time, Stalemate was treated indentical to a draw.

     Around the 17th century the common rule in England harkened back to the early Indian treatment that Stalemate was a win for the stalemated side.  Not much is known why this was.  Murray speculated that chess arrived in Europe not only through the advance of Islam in the south, but also from Russia, where the Indian rule was in effect, in the north possibly through trade routes involving the Hanseatic League.  The evidence is circumstantial however. 
     The first mention of this Stalemate rule in England occured in Arthur Saul's 1614 book, The Famous Game of Chesse-play" ["He that hath put his adversary's King in a stale, loseth the game, because he hath disturbed the course of the game, which can only end with the grand Check-mate"].   Francis Beales' 1656 edition of Greco's games also assumes that the stalemated side wins.  This illogical rule was a feature of English chess for about two centuries.  Philidor, who played in both Paris and London,  tried in vain to effect a change in that rule.  The fascinating Jacob Henry Sarratt, in his 1808 "Treatise on the Game of Chess," put forth his rule #24:
    If the King be stale-mate, the game is a drawn game.
    Formerly, at Parsloe's Hotel, where several of the first players in Europe held a club, he who stalemated his adversary lost the game; on the contrary, in Turkey, he who stale-mates his adversary wins the game.  In France, Italy, Germany, &c. stalemate has always been considered a drawn game.
     It seems totally repugnant to the nature of chess, that a player should win the game, because his adversary has stale-mated him. If it were generally adopted, every player might have a twofold object in view, thai of check-mating his adversary, or that of compelling his adversary to stale-mate him.
     Philidor says, that, in an edition of Greco's Treatise, published in London in 1856, stale-mate is considered a won game, but that edition is incomplete, edited by a person who knew nothing of chess, and who was even ignorant of Greco's name, for he calls him Biochimo, instead of Giochimo: it is beside unquestionable, that Greco followed the rule adopted by all Italian players of eminence, such as Paolo Boi; Lionardo da Cupri [sic]; Salvio ; Carrera; Marano; Gianutio, &c. ; and  they uniformly considered stale-mate as a drawn game.

     Shortly after the rule that Stalemate is a draw became standard in most of England.

     In the mid 1800s a strong attempt was made to codify the rules of chess for "the purpose of abolishing the several crude collections of ambiguities, which are now received as the 'Laws of Chess,' and to establish in their stead one general and comprehensive code" [Fiske].    Many thinkers from across the globe participated, particuarly Carl Jaenisch of Russia,  Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa of Germany and Howard Staunton of England.
    According to the "Book of the First American Chess Congress" by Willard Fiske, "It [the 1851 London Tournament] also originated the movement now going on for a general revision of the chess laws and the adoption of a unversal code - a movement which will be, in its results, of vast utility."

     The 1857 Ameican Chess Congess also established a Code Committee (consisting of Geo. Allen, Henry Vethake, Samuel Lewis, Paul Morphy and Hyachinth Agnel).  "Just now, too, it would serve a good purpose in enabling the American chess public to pronounce upon the adoption or rejection, as far as this country is concerned, of the revised code by Jaenisch, Heydebrandt von der Lasa, and Staunton, which will be published in a few weeks"  They urged approving Staunton's revisions.

     Interesting enough, the bulk of what was discussed in and among all these countries was en passant, castling, universal notation and the 50 move rule. Stalemate seemed to have been naturally agreed upon as being a draw.  Staunton, in his "Chess Praxis," published in 1860, laid out the revised code. As for Stalemate, he wrote:
A Stalemate is when a player, whose King is not in check, and whose turn it is to play, has no move except such as would put his King in check. In which case the contest is at an end, and it is called a Drawn Game.

     This was the first internationally involved and agreed upon codification, virtually setting the Stalemate rule in stone.

    After FIDE was established as the international governing body for chess, it dictated the rules or codes of chess. Stalemate remained a draw under FIDE's auspices.


Published in the "BCM" in Feb.1940 (p.88-89) :


Online Now