The word stalemate is one of the most important chess terms. As the last hope for players defending a lost position, it can turn players games from a loss into a draw. It can cause frustration, happiness, excitement and aesthetical pleasure.
Stalemate in Chess: Definition
The definition of stalemate in chess is the following: Stalemate is a special type of draw. It occurs in a situation where the player who is to move has no legal move but isn’t in check. According to the chess rules, stalemate ends the game with a draw.
Stalemate is a resource which usually arises in the endgame. The player who defends a worse position can – often by giving away material – try to aim for a stalemate in certain positions in order to not lose the game.
At first glance, the rule might seem counterintuitive. Why should the game end in a draw if you player deprived the opponent of any legal move? Shouldn’t it end in a crushing victory for the stronger side? There has already been plenty of debate on this question. However, the current rules of chess define stalemate as a draw and it’s not likely that this rule will be changed any time soon.
For this reason, we don’t want to add another opinion on the topic in this article. Instead, we’d like to teach you how you can benefit from stalemate in your own chess games.
One the one hand, we want to introduce you to stalemate as an important defensive resource when you’re defending a hopeless position. On the other hand, we also want to sharpen your eye for your opponent’s stalemate ideas when you have a clearly better position.
To understand the key idea of stalemate, let’s take a look at an easy example:
Stalemate is a common motif in pawn endings. It is Black to move in the diagram above, but the Black king has no legal square to move to. Due to the fact that the Black king is not in check, we have a stalemate on the board. The game ends in a draw.
In the following, we want to show you some basic stalemate patterns that every chess player should be familiar with.
Stalemate in Beginner Chess Games
Stalemate occurs very often in chess between beginners, especially in scholastic chess. Players know the basic rules of chess, but they only have a vague idea of how to mate the opponent in certain situations. The next example is a classic:
Objectively speaking, this position is completely winning for White. He is a whole queen up and Black only has a king. Still, many beginner players are not familiar with the winning mating pattern. Instead of bringing the king closer to the enemy’s king in order to help the queen give checkmate, they take away even more squares from the opponent’s king.
In the diagram above, the move 1.Qc7 looks like a powerful move at first glance as it traps the Black king in the corner. The problem with this move, however, is that the king is not in check and can’t make any moves. As Black does not have any other pieces to move on the board, the position is a stalemate. Instead, White could have simply mated Black in two moves by starting with 1.Kc6! Kb8 (Black’s only legal move) 2.Qb7#.
Stalemate in Chess Endgames
Stalemate is most likely to occur in the endgame. On the one hand, it can occur as a hidden resource for the player who is losing in order to save a half point. On the other hand, stalemate ideas are of great importance for many theoretical endgames:
Stalemate in Theoretical Endgames
The endgame of king + bishop pawn vs a queen which is not supported by its king is a draw:
It is important to note that the weaker side can use the same defensive resource to defend in the endgame king and rook pawn vs a queen that isn’t supported by its king:
White’s king is in check. However, White does not have to play 1.Kf8?, giving up the h-pawn. He can go for 1.Kh8! Now, Black has no time to move his king closer as a move like 1…Kc2 would be stalemate.
Stalemate is also an important defensive resource in more complex theoretical endgames. Let’s take a look at the endgame rook + bishop vs rook. In theory, this material combination is a draw. In practice, however, even strong grandmasters are often not able to save the game. In this endgame, there are two main defensive setups – the Cochrane position and the second rank defense. Knowing the latter is highly important for tournament players:
These examples also teach an essential lesson:
The importance of studying theoretical endgames can’t be underestimated. If you are familiar with the most important theoretical endgames and know which positions are drawing or winning, you can actively aim for them in your games – no matter if you are attacking or defending. If you are defending a worse position and know that the endgame rook + bishop vs rook is a draw due to the second rank defense, you can try to actively aim for this position.
Stalemate in Practical Endgames
Stalemate is a valuable tool that can help to save a completely lost or inferior endgame.
In most cases, stalemates come about due to an error. A player ignores a defensive action and leaves the opponent with one or more sacrificial pieces on a silver platter in order to arrive at the desired position.
Sometimes, there are really surprising ways to draw the game via stalemate in chess:
Stalemate in Grandmaster Games
Even chess grandmaster sometimes make the mistake of allowing a stalemate. The image on the right refers to a little joke on Super-Grandmaster Anish Giri’s high tendency to make a draw against his opponents. In the 2016 Candidates Tournament, for example, Anish Giri drew all his fourteen games.
Let’s take a look at some serious game which ended with a stalemate.
Bernstein – Smyslov (1946)
The former World Chess Champion Vasily Smyslov (1957-1958) had a winning rook endgame, but he overlooked a stalemate trick:
Stalemate has even occurred in World Chess Championship games. The game Anand – Kramnik, Mexico 2007, is a good illustration.
Stalemate in Chess Compositions
Stalemate is a common theme in chess compositions. This following composition was designed by the famous chess composer Leonid Kubbel.
Conclusion – What is Stalemate in Chess?
For every beginner, it is key to get to know the most important chess terms. Now that the confusion about stalemate in chess has been cleared up, keep an eye out for opportunities to use these ideas and go ahead and take advantage of it! Stalemate is a useful defensive resource to aim for when you have a bad or even hopeless position.
In order to be successful in chess, you need to understand openings, middlegame positions, have a solid endgame technique, spot chess tactics and a lot more.
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To conclude, we leave you with a chess puzzle to solve yourself (see the diagram below). Of course, it’s all about stalemate: