The Stalemate Controversy

The Stalemate Controversy


The rules of chess have been well-understood and widely known for many centuries; they have been internationally standardized since the late 19th century. But despite the seemingly settled nature of the game, there is one issue with the rules that seems to be repeatedly garnering controversy from amateur and master alike: stalemate.

Since I keep seeing this issue brought up, I decided to dive into it myself and see if I can't find some order amidst the chaos. I am not certain I found a concrete answer, but I think the info I came across is fascinating.


I started my study with the history of the stalemate rule. I was very surprised to find that stalemate has been subject to controversy almost since its inception. Over the centuries, stalemate has been ruled a win for the stalemating player, a win for the stalemated player(!), a draw, a forfeiture of the move (of the stalemated player), or even simply illegal. Different countries had different standard procedures for the handling of stalemate, but eventually the French and Italian rule that stalemate was a draw became universally accepted. Shortly thereafter, in the early 20th century, the newly-formed FIDE codified and solidified the stalemate-draw rule.

But even since then there have been some who disagree with the rule. A simple search of this site will reveal numerous posts of players at all levels who argue that stalemate should count as a win (for the stalemating player). As far back as 1940, international chess player Theodore Tylor held that 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." More recently, in 2009 GM Larry Kaufman wrote, "In my view, calling stalemate a draw is totally illogical, since it represents the ultimate zugzwang, where any move would get your king taken."

Despite the dissenting views, stalemate as a draw obviously triumphed as the correct way to handle the situation, and has been settled now for a century. Though some may claim otherwise, the draw rule is not truly without historical basis. Italy and France were some of the first countries to follow this rule, as early as the 13th century. In 18th century Spain, in games played for stakes, the stalemater was awarded only half of the pot (similarly to the modern rule that stalemate gives a half-point). In the 19th century, England was the last European country to adopt the draw rule (though in England at the time stalemate was actually ruled a loss for the stalemater!).

A Draw?

The idea behind stalemate as a draw seems to be that stalemate is an inaccuracy in chess play. It takes the position that the goal of chess is checkmate, as opposed to capturing the king (which never happens in normal chess play). Therefore, if the stalemating player is incapable of achieving checkmate, they are not deserving of a win. Their opponent, though, is also unable to achieve checkmate, and since the game must end when there are no legal moves, a draw is the only logical conclusion.

Additionally, the currently accepted material values of each piece are partly determined by the stalemate rule. For example, if stalemate was a win, a pawn would have a greater relative material value, since K+P vs. K endgames would always be a win, not a draw. The traditional piece values would need to be reanalyzed if a change were made.

Much of modern endgame theory is based around the stalemate-draw rule as well. There are numerous endgames where the advantage would be skewed to one side if stalemate were not a draw, and it is my opinion that we would see even more resignations in high-level chess than we already see today. Any change in the rules could potentially rock the entire chess world, by forcing players at all levels to reexamine and modify their endgame play!

A Win?

Those who argue for stalemate being a win, believe that the stalemate-draw rule is illogical. The above-quoted argument that stalemate is the ultimate zugzwang is often the core of their reasoning. Even without going into a discussion about tactics, the logic of stalemate as a win is quite compelling. NM Sam Copeland put it very simply: "It is logical that depriving the opponent of any possible move constitutes complete and total victory."

When boiled down, though, it seems that those who argue for the stalemate-win have a fundamental difference from the stalemate-draw side: They see the goal of chess not as checkmate, but capturing the king. If the goal of the game is ultimately the death of the opposing king, then a king with no moves, even if not directly threatened, would be doomed. Checkmate is the direct threat of the end of the game; stalemate is the indirect threat.

We sometimes call games won when a player reaches a Mate-in-one position. The king has no way to escape, and often that player resigns right there. A stalemate could be considered to be a Mate-in-one (or more, depending on the position), but the only reason it isn't a win is because the opponent can make no moves at all! Or, if you don't like that comparison, let's look at it another way. Checkmate is just a capture-in-one. Mate-in-one is just a capture-in-two. Stalemate is (often) also a capture-in-two, so why isn't it a win?

Other Games

In other strategy games, stalemate is often a win. In Xiangqi, a widely played chess-relative, stalemate is automatically a win. In checkers, many players consider "stalemate" to be a win. This is not a true stalemate because it is not illegal to put your own pieces into threat, but the idea that when all pieces are trapped the game ends is the same. Some simply play until all pieces are removed from the board, which is just an extra move or two that isn't truly necessary--everyone already knows who will win. In Stratego, the game-winning piece, the flag, is an immovable piece. When all your movable pieces have been captured, leaving you with no legal moves (stalemate), you lose on the spot. It does not matter if your opponent still has the necessary pieces to get to your flag--the game is over anyway.

Though most would probably not even consider this a related game, Reversi has an interesting way to handle "stalemates": if one player has no legal moves, the other player gets to keep taking turns again until either (a) the game ends, or (b) the opponent has a legal move again. I bring this up because if applied to chess, a stalemate would almost always become checkmate eventually. In some cases, the game would not be over instantly! Consider the following diagram:

Interestingly, this is actually how stalemate was handled in Medieval France, before they adopted the stalemate-draw rule. Now, I don't really think that this is a valid option for the game of chess. The reason I decided to bring it up is because it shows another perspective from which we can look at the stalemate issue and see that it is only logical to call stalemate a win, because ultimately if played out, it would turn into a win every time.

So What's the Verdict?

Having put all that information on the table, are we any closer to settling the issue? Hardly. There are too many people on both sides of the controversy for a simple discussion to satisfy everyone. That's not to say it's impossible for there to be a meeting-of-the-minds over this topic, but I think it would take time, and a lot of effort. It's really a non-issue for many players, so there's also not a whole lot driving the issue home. As a result, the complaints just continue to morph into one form after another, never extinguished but never gaining traction. 

That said, maybe articles like these will help to get the average player thinking through the questions and finding answers or themselves. I like to think that putting everything out there may somehow help to bring a resolution to the issue—eventually. Did it get you thinking?

Over the course of my research and even the writing of this article, I do believe I have come to an final opinion. For me, it all boils down to this: what is the goal of chess—checkmate, or capturing the king? I have to say that I think the goal is capturing the king. Checkmate is the ultimate "trapped piece" tactic, and stalemate is the ultimate zugzwang. I think stalemate should be a win. 

Thankfully, though, the decision is not up to me. There are many other better chess players out there who can make that decision. My goal is simply to be a balanced voice in a topic that, strangely, can get very emotionally charged. I hope that I wrote an unbiased article, and I welcome any feedback from either side of the issue that might contain an insight I missed. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I hope that maybe one day we will see this issue resolved, but in the meantime, I'll just keep trying to get draws in games I should be losing. wink.png