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7- Stalemate is not an option


In standard chess, a player whose king is not currently in check but cannot make a move without the said king becoming in check is said to be “stalemate.” Since standard chess does not allow a player to place their own king in check, such a player has no legal moves and the modern rule, which first appeared in 14th century Italy, declares that the game is a draw. (Apparently, many felt that with one player in such a dire situation as to have no legal moves, it would be reasonable to simply call the game off.)

In the earlier days of chess however, a stalemate was actually a win for the player forcing the stalemate. Since all moves by the opponent would place their king under direct attack, it had seemed perfectly natural to declare that the “stalled” player had lost the game.


The stalemate rule would have a long and varied history. In East Asia, placing the opponent in a stalemate situation was simply not allowed and if it did happen inadvertently, the player had to retract the move and make another one. In France, there was a time when the stalled player – who had after all no legal moves – was forced to skip a turn and let the opponent have two consecutive moves. And in Russia, there was a time when a stalemate was actually a loss for the stalemating player, apparently a penalty for creating a stalemate situation. (The Russians would eventually abandon this peculiar idea but not before it had moved to England where, surprisingly, it survived until the 19th century.) The Italian rule would slowly spread across the continent until it became the most popular version and that is why the modern rules declare a stalemate to be a draw.

Many players do not agree with the stalemate rule. The chess grandmaster Larry Kaufman once said: “In my view, calling stalemate a draw is totally illogical since it represents the ultimate ‘zugzwang’ where any move would get your king taken.” As for the British master T.H. Tylor, he has argued 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.”


The adoption of the stalemate-is-a-draw rule introduced a substantial change to the endgame. In one way or another, the objective of the game had always been to capture the opponent’s king and this could be achieved either through checkmate or stalemate. This all changed with the introduction of the new rule as from now on the game could only be won through checkmate. It may well have been the intent but this was nevertheless a change to a practice that had lasted more than 700 years. Furthermore, it had become possible to see a victory slip away due to a mere technicality for which there was no real-life equivalent.

Example of a stalemate (under the rules of standard chess):


Black plays the knight to b3 and white is now in check. White, who can no longer win this game, plays Kd1. Black must now play the bishop in order to save it but no matter where they play, white no longer has any legal moves. In spite of black’s clear superiority, standard chess declares that this game is a draw.

Unfortunately, the new rule would have another consequence and this time no doubt unintended. Due to the way knights move around the board, it so happens that two knights can force a stalemate but not a checkmate. From the early days of chess when stalemate was not a consideration, and also later when a stalemate was a win, two knights could win the game. But following the introduction of the new rule, that was no longer the case. In spite of being a clear superiority, a two-knight ending was usually a draw, something the American master Edmar Mednis once called “one of the great injustices of chess.”

In Chess 99, where it is not illegal to place one’s king in check, a stalemate situation simply cannot arise. A player who is not in check but cannot make a move without being in check is said to be “mate”. (Still required to make a move, the player would be expected to concede the game.) It naturally follows that in Chess 99, as it was in the original game of chess, two knights can win the game.

And there is still one more point to consider. It has been argued by some that making a stalemate a win for the stalemating player would put a greater emphasis on material gain by making an extra pawn a greater advantage than it already is. This may be true under the rules of standard chess since an endgame with a king and a single pawn versus a lone king will often conclude in a stalemate as the inferior side must absolutely prevent the pawn from promoting [to a queen]. If a stalemate was declared a win, then an extra pawn would definitely be a greater advantage.

Although a simple mate is a win in Chess 99, an endgame with a king and a single pawn versus a lone king should be a draw since promotions are limited to bishops and knights and neither one can, except in unusual situations, force a mate. The inferior side need not stop the pawn from promoting and can easily avoid a mate situation thereafter. An extra pawn in Chess 99 is actually less of an advantage than it is in standard chess.

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