When Is the Right Time to Resign?

When Is the Right Time to Resign?

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Paul asked:

When should a player resign? I’ve heard that a good rule of thumb is when you’re the equivalent of a rook down. Is that a good rule of thumb?

Dear Paul:

There is no dyed in the wool answer to this question – it really depends on your playing level and the level of your opponent. There’s an old saying: “Nobody ever won a game by resigning.” As far as I can tell, the old saying is 100% correct. However, things aren’t quite so black and white concerning a “proper” resignation.

For example, if you’re 3 pawns up with a winning attack and suddenly you feel a gun pushed against your crotch under the table (your opponent looking at you insanely and smiling), resignation might be a wise move.

I also witnessed a tournament game (I was 14 years old and I’m not making this up) where a lovely blonde was losing badly when she suddenly looked at her opponent and said, “I’ll sleep with you if you resign.” Some guy was walking by at that exact moment and almost fell over when he overheard her offer. In this case, even though you’re winning, resignation might be acceptable.

I’ve witnessed two games where one guy would threaten his opponent bodily harm if he didn’t resign (even if the opponent was winning). One instance had a very large, scary dude verbally making it clear that it was either “resign or die.” The other had a young 30-something guy, in a position with equal chances, send a note under the table to his ancient foe making it clear that a physical beating was in store if he didn’t find a way to lose. In both these cases, smile kindly at your skinhead opponent, get up while saying, “I have to go to the bathroom.” and head straight for the tournament director! Or, if you happen to be a student of mine and if I happen to be at that tournament (watching … I don’t play anymore), head straight to me and I’ll take care of the situation (As I did in these. I sharpen my teeth to fine points for a reason).

These are, of course, anomalies, and resignation tends to make a little more sense in the real world. But, even in this “real” world, things are open to interpretation. 

At the highest levels of the game, a player might resign even if he’s not down anything and not in danger of being mated. Why? Because his position might be so pathetic that he understands that he’s just wasting his time and that defeat is a foregone conclusion. Here’s an example:

Topalov - Anand, Wijk aan Zee 2007

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.g3 Ba6 5.b3 Bb4+ 6.Bd2 Be7 7.Bg2 c6 8.Bc3 d5 9.Ne5 Nfd7 10.Nxd7 Nxd7 11.Nd2 0-0 12.0-0 Nf6 13.e4 dxe4 14.a4 Nd5 15.cxd5 Bxf1 16.d6 Bxg2 17.dxe7 Qxe7 18.Kxg2 f5 19.b4 Qd7 20.Qe2 Qd5 21.f3 exf3+ 22.Nxf3 h6 23.Re1 Rfe8 24.Qc2 Rad8 25.Bd2 Qd7 26.Kf2 Rc8 27.Bf4 Qd5 28.Re5 Qd7 29.h4 Ra8 30.Bd2 Rac8 31.Qc4 Kh7 32.Bc3 Qd6 33.Ne1 b5 34.Qc5 Qd8 35.Nd3, 1-0.

Black could have played on, but he was disgusted by his position and just didn’t want to look at it anymore. He’s also facing an endless, passive defense where White can pressure him with ideas like Nf4, a4-a5 and/or h4-h5. A glance will tell you that all Black can do is go back and forth and pray for a miracle as White takes aim at black’s pawns on e6 and c6, while also setting up a possible d4-d5 tactical shot (for example: 35…Qd7 36.h5 Qf7 37.Nf4 Re7?? 38.d5!, gin). Most grandmasters would have played on since they had nothing to lose (but time) by doing so. They would have understood that it’s pretty much hopeless, but why not putter about for a while and see how White puts the finishing touches on the position?

Of course, an amateur should never resign such a position since his opponent is capable of doing who knows what kind of insane thing.

There are also many well-known situations where resignation is expected at the top levels, but should be played out in the amateurs. Here’s one common example:


This is a classic Lucena Position, and it’s completely hopeless. All titled players (who are playing Black against other titled players) would (and should!) resign immediately. But should you resign this. No! Not on your life! There are a couple reasons to play on:

You might not know that it’s hopeless!

You know it’s hopeless, but you don’t know if you’re opponent knows how to win it. Test him!

You might know it’s hopeless (perhaps you read an article about this position but don’t know how to win it yourself), and if you’re playing a master, you will also know that he will most certainly crucify you here. Nevertheless, you should play on so he can demonstrate the winning technique. Thus (in effect) you are forcing your esteemed opponent into giving you a free chess lesson. One of the best ways to learn is via personal experience. Reading something from a book tends to fade rather quickly, but actually experiencing it in over the board play will stick with you.

Here’s how the Lucena Position should be handled: 1.Re2+ (Not only chasing black’s King away from the action, which is always a smart thing to do in Rook endgames, but also giving his own King access to f7) 1…Kd7 (1…Kf6 2.Kf8 allows White to promote his pawn with no muss and no fuss) 2.Re4! (The key to this endgame, which prepares to build a “bridge” for his King. The more natural 2.Kf7 Rf1+ 3.Kg6 Rg1+ 4.Kf6 Rf1+ 5.Ke5 Rg1 forces White to march his King all the way back to g8 and start the whole process over again) 2…Rh2 3.Kf7 Rf2+ 4.Kg6 Rg2+ 5.Kf6 Rf2+ 6.Kg5 Rg2+ 7.Rg4, 1-0. Now it IS time to resign!

This same, “I know I’m busted, but I want to see how he finishes me” mentality is acceptable in almost any situation. For example, if you’re a relative beginner and find yourself in a King and Rook versus lone King endgame, everyone (your grandmother included) will understand that you’re doomed. But if you’re not sure how to win that endgame yourself, why not let the opponent show you how it’s done?

Thus there isn’t any “if I’m a Rook down I should resign” rule of thumb. Resign if you’re so inclined, but play on if you feel you might get lucky or if you want to learn by watching your opponent’s winning technique.

There are things you should NOT do when it’s time to give up (and I’ve seen them all):

* Don’t kick over the pieces. Yes, we all understand that this signifies your intention of ending the game, but why be a public jerk when you can enjoy your jerkiness privately at home?

* Don’t offer a draw when you have a lone King versus your opponent’s Queen and Rook. This is insulting and immature, and if you do it, you should consider moving in with the “kick over the pieces” dude (a match made in heaven).

* Don’t get up from the table and let your final hour run down. Yes, your opponent will win by time forfeit, but why punish him by forcing the poor guy to sit there? This makes you yet another candidate for true love with Mr. “kick the pieces” guy.

Again, don’t let people tell you when you should or should not resign. Only resign if you feel comfortable doing so, but please be a gentleman when you do finally decide to give up the ghost.

Paul, thanks for the question. It was a good one, and I appreciate you asking something that I'm sure many other players have wondered about.

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