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Stalemate

Example of stalemate
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Black to move is in stalemate. Black has no legal move since every square to which his king might move is under attack by White. (Polgar & Truong 2005:33).

Stalemate is a situation in the game of chess where the player whose turn it is to move is not in check but has no legal move. The rules of chess provide that when stalemate occurs, the game ends as a draw (i.e. having no winner). During the endgame, stalemate is a resource that can enable the player with the inferior position to draw the game rather than lose. In more complicated positions, stalemate is much rarer, usually taking the form of a swindle that succeeds only if the superior side is inattentive. Stalemate is also a common theme in endgame studies and other chess problems.

The outcome of a stalemate was standardized as a draw in the 19th century. Before this standardization, its treatment varied widely, including being deemed a win for the stalemating player, a half-win for that player, or a loss for that player; not being permitted; and resulting in the stalemated player missing a turn. Some regional chess variants have not allowed a player to play a stalemating move. In different versions of losing chess, another chess variant, stalemate may or may not be treated as a draw.

In popular usage, the word stalemate refers to a conflict that has reached an impasse, and in which resolution or further action seems highly difficult or unlikely.

Simple examples

Diagram 1
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Black to move is in stalemate, Burn vs. Pilsbury, 1898.

Diagram 2
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Black to move is in stalemate.

Diagram 3
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Black to move is in stalemate.

Diagram 4
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Black to move is in stalemate.

Diagram 5
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Black to move is in stalemate.

With Black to move, Black is stalemated in diagrams 1 to 5. Stalemate is an important factor in the endgame - the endgame set-up in diagram 1, for example, quite frequently is relevant in play (see King and pawn versus king endgame). The position in diagram 1 occurred in an 1898 game between Amos Burn and Harry Pillsbury and also in a 1925 game between Savielly Tartakower and Richard Réti. The same position, except shifted to the e-file occurred in a 2009 game between Gata Kamsky and Vladimir Kramnik.

The position in diagram 4 is an example of a pawn drawing against a queen. Stalemates of this sort can often save a player from losing an apparently hopeless position (see Queen versus pawn endgame). In that position, even if it were White's move, there is no way to avoid this stalemate without allowing Black's pawn to promote. (White may be able to win the resulting queen versus queen ending, however, if the white king is close enough).

In diagram 5, black had forced the position to become stalemate, seeing that the white bishop could not force the black king to go away from the queening square of the rook pawn.

Stalemate in the endgame

As the previous section suggests, stalemate is a typical element of the endgame (Pachman 1973:17), often enabling the player with the inferior position to draw the game (Hooper & Whyld 1992:387). Concerning chess, below are some examples of this from actual play.

Anand versus Kramnik

Anand vs. Kramnik, 2007
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Before 65...Kxf5, stalemate

In this game between Viswanathan Anand and Vladimir Kramnik from the 2007 World Chess Championship, Black must capture the pawn on f5, causing stalemate (Benko 2008:49). (Any other move by Black loses.)

Korchnoi versus Karpov

Korchnoi vs. Karpov, 1978
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Position after 124.Bc3-g7

An intentional stalemate occurred on the 124th move of the fifth game of the 1978 World Championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi. The game had been a theoretical draw for many moves (Károlyi & Aplin 2007:170), (Griffiths 1993:43-46). (The white bishop is useless; it cannot defend the queening square at a8 nor attack the black pawn on the light a4 square. If the white king heads towards the black pawn, the black king can move towards a8 and set up a fortress.) However the players were not on speaking terms so neither would offer a draw by agreement. Korchnoi said that it gave him pleasure to stalemate Karpov and that it was slightly humiliating (Kasparov 2006:120). (Incidentally, as of 2014 this is the longest game played in a World Chess Championship final match, and also the only World Championship game to end in stalemate before 2007 (Fox & James 1993:236).)

Bernstein versus Smyslov

Bernstein vs. Smyslov, 1946
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Black to move ...
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.. fell into a stalemate trap.

Sometimes a surprise stalemate saves a game. In the game between Ossip Bernstein and Vasily Smyslov, Black should win by sacrificing the f-pawn and using the king to support the b-pawn. However, Smyslov thought it was good to advance the b-pawn, because of the skewer of the rook if it captures the pawn once it is on b2. Play went:

1... b2??
2. Rxb2!

Now if 2... Rh2+ 3. Kf3! Rxb2 is stalemate. Smyslov moved 2... Kg4 and the game was drawn after 3. Kf1 (see Rook and pawn versus rook endgame) (Minev 2004:21).

Matulović versus Minev

Matulović vs. Minev, 1956
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White to move
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Stalemate if White had played 4.Rxa6

In the Bernstein-Smyslov game, the possibility of stalemate arose because of a blunder. It can arise without one, as in the game Milan Matulović versus Nikolay Minev (at right). Play continued:

1. Rc6 Kg5
2. Kh3 Kh5
3. f4

The only meaningful attempt to make progress. Now all black moves (like 3...Ra3+?) lose, with one exception.

3... Rxa6!

and now 4.Rxa6 would be stalemate. White played 4. Rc5+ instead and the game was drawn several moves later (Minev 2004:22).

Williams versus Harrwitz

Williams vs. Harrwitz, 1846
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Position after 72.Ka1
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Position after 84.Rb3! If Black takes the rook either way, the result is stalemate.

In the game between Elijah Williams and Daniel Harrwitz, Black was up a knight and a pawn in an endgame. This would normally be a decisive material advantage, but Black could find no way to make progress because of various stalemate resources available to White. The game continued:

72... Ra8 73. Rc1 Ke3
Avoiding the threatened 73...Nc2+.
74. Rc4 Ra4 75. Rc1 Kd2 76. Rc4 Kd3
76...Nc2+ 77.Rxc2+! Kxc2 is stalemate.
77. Rc3+! Kd4
77...Kxc3 is stalemate.
78. Rc1 Ra3 79. Rd1+ Kc5
79...Rd3 80.Rxd3+! leaves Black with insufficient material to win after 80...Nxd3 81.Kxa2, or a standard fortress in a corner draw after 80...Kxd3.
80. Rc1+ Kb5 81. Rc7 Nd5 82. Rc2 Nc3?? 83. Rb2+ Kc4 84. Rb3! (see diagram)

Now the players agreed to a draw, since 84...Kxb3 or 84...Rxb3 is stalemate, as is 84...Ra8 85.Rxc3+! Kxc3.

Black could still win the game until his critical mistake 82...Nc3??. Instead, 82...Nb4 wins - for example: 83.Rc8 Re3 84.Rb8+ Kc5 85.Rc8+ Kd5 86.Rd8+ Kc6 87.Ra8 Re1+ 88.Kb2 Kc5 89.Kc3 a1=Q and wins.

Carlsen versus van Wely

Carlsen vs. van Wely, 2007
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Position after 109.Rd2+, before 109...Bxd2, stalemate

This 2007 game between Magnus Carlsen and Loek van Wely ended in stalemate. Sixteen-year-old Carlsen had adroitly used the "second-rank defense" in a rook and bishop versus rook endgame for 46 moves. The fifty-move rule was about to come into effect, under which Carlsen could claim a draw. The game ended with

109. Rc2-d2+ Bxd2

stalemate (Nunn 2009:200).

More complicated examples

Read main article: Desperado (chess)

Stalemate can also occur with more pieces on the board. Outside of relatively simple endgame positions, such as those above, stalemate occurs rarely, usually when the side with the superior position has overlooked the possibility of stalemate (Pachman 1973:17). This is typically realized by the inferior side's sacrifice of one or more pieces in order to force stalemate. A piece that is offered as a sacrifice to bring about stalemate is sometimes called a desperado.

Evans versus Reshevsky

Evans vs. Reshevsky, 1963
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Position before White's 47th move
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Position after 50.Rxg7+!, the eternal rook

One of the best-known examples of the desperado is a game by Larry Evans versus Reshevsky, which was dubbed "The Swindle of the Century". Evans sacrificed his queen on move 49 and offered his rook on move 50. White's rook has been called the eternal rook. Capturing it results in stalemate, but otherwise it stays on the seventh rank and checks Black's king ad infinitum (i.e. perpetual check). The game would inevitably end in a draw by agreement, by threefold repetition, or by an eventual claim under the fifty-move rule (Averbakh 1996:80-81).

47. h4! Re2+ 48. Kh1 Qxg3??
After 48...Qg6! 49.Rf8 Qe6! 50.Rh8+ Kg6, Black remains a piece ahead after 51.Qxe6 Nxe6, or forces mate after 51.gxf4 Re1+ and 52...Qa2+.
49. Qg8+! Kxg8 50. Rxg7+!

Gelfand versus Kramnik

Gelfand vs. Kramnik, 1994
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Position after 67.Re7
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Possible stalemate

The position at right occurred in Gelfand-Kramnik, FIDE Candidates match, game 6, Sanghi Nagar 1994. Kramnik (Black), down two pawns and on the defensive, would be very happy with a draw. Gelfand (White) has just played 67. Re4-e7?, a strong-looking move that threatens 68.Qxf6, winning a third pawn, or 68.Rc7, further constricting Black. Black responded 67... Qc1! If White takes Black's undefended rook with 68.Qxd8, Black's desperado queen forces the draw with 68...Qh1+ 69.Kg3 Qh2+!, compelling 70.Kxh2 stalemate (second diagram). If White avoids the stalemate with 68.Rxg7+ Kxg7 69.Qxd8, Black draws by perpetual check with 69...Qh1+ 70.Kg3 Qg1+ 71.Kf4 Qc1+! 72.Ke4 Qc6+! 73.Kd3!? (73.d5 Qc4+; 73.Qd5 Qc2+) Qxf3+! 74.Kd2 Qg2+! 75.Kc3 Qc6+ 76.Kb4 Qb5+ 77.Ka3 Qd3+. Gelfand played 68. d5 instead, but still only drew.

Troitzky versus Vogt

Troitzky vs. Vogt, 1896
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White, on move, sets a trap with 1.Rd1!
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Position after 3...Qxd1, stalemate

In Troitzky-Vogt, 1896, the famous endgame study composer pulled off an elegant swindle in actual play. After Troitzky's 1. Rd1!, Black fell into the trap with the seemingly crushing 1... Bh3?, threatening 2...Qg2#. The game concluded 2. Rxd8+ Kxd8 3. Qd1+! Qxd1 stalemate. White's bishop, knight, and f-pawn are all pinned and unable to move.

Stalemate in studies

Rhine, 2005
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White to play and draw
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Incredibly, the possibility of stalemate allows White, three pieces down, to draw.

Stalemate is a frequent theme in endgame studies (Hooper & Whyld 1992:388) and other chess compositions. An example is the "White to Play and Draw" study at right, which was composed by the American master Frederick Rhine in 2005 and published in 2006 (Benko 2006:49). White saves a draw with 1.Ne5+! Black wins after 1.Nb4+? Kb5! or 1.Qe8+? Bxe8 2.Ne5+ Kb5! 3.Rxb2+ Nb3. 1... Bxe5 After 1...Kb5? 2.Rxb2+ Nb3 3.Rxc4! Qxe3 (best; 3...Qb8+ 4.Kd7 Qxh8 5.Rxb3+ forces checkmate) 4.Rxb3+! Qxb3 5.Qh1! Bf5+ 6.Kd8!, White is winning. 2. Qe8+! 2.Qxe5? Qb7+ 3.Kd8 Qd7#. 2... Bxe8 3. Rh6+ Bd6 3...Kb5 4.Rxb6+ Kxb6 5.Nxc4+ also leads to a drawn endgame. Not 5.Rxb2+? Bxb2 6.Nc4+ Kb5 7.Nxb2 Bh5! trapping White's knight. 4. Rxd6+! Kxd6 5. Nxc4+! Nxc4 6. Rxb6+ Nxb6+ Moving the king is actually a better try, but the resulting endgame of two knights and a bishop against a rook is a well-established theoretical draw (Fine & Benko 2003:524) (Müller & Lamprecht 2001:403) (Staunton 1847:439). 7. Kd8! (rightmost diagram) Black is three pieces ahead, but if White is allowed to take the bishop, the two knights are insufficient to force checkmate. The only way to save the bishop is to move it, resulting in stalemate. A similar idea occasionally enables the inferior side to save a draw in the ending of bishop, knight, and king versus lone king.

Roycroft, 1957
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White to play and draw
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Final position

At right is a composition by A. J. Roycroft which was published in the British Chess Magazine in 1957. White draws with 1. c7! after which there are two main lines:

Stalemate in problems

Sam Loyd
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Shortest stalemate

Sam Loyd
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Stalemate with all pieces on board

Some chess problems require "White to move and stalemate Black in n moves" (rather than the more common "White to move and checkmate Black in n moves"). Problemists have also tried to construct the shortest possible game ending in stalemate. Sam Loyd devised one just ten moves long: 1.e3 a5 2.Qh5 Ra6 3.Qxa5 h5 4.Qxc7 Rah6 5.h4 f6 6.Qxd7+ Kf7 7.Qxb7 Qd3 8.Qxb8 Qh7 9.Qxc8 Kg6 10.Qe6 (diagram at left). A similar stalemate is reached after: 1.d4 c5 2.dxc5 f6 3.Qxd7+ Kf7 4.Qxd8 Bf5 5.Qxb8 h5 6.Qxa8 Rh6 7.Qxb7 a6 8.Qxa6 Bh7 9.h4 Kg6 10.Qe6 (Frederick Rhine).

Loyd also demonstrated that stalemate can occur with all the pieces on the board: 1.d4 d6 2.Qd2 e5 3.a4 e4 4.Qf4 f5 5.h3 Be7 6.Qh2 Be6 7.Ra3 c5 8.Rg3 Qa5+ 9.Nd2 Bh4 10.f3 Bb3 11.d5 e3 12.c4 f4 (diagram at right). A variation of this game has even occurred in a tournament game.

Double stalemate

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Double stalemate position

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Another double stalemate

There are peculiar chess compositions featuring double stalemate. At left and at right are double stalemate positions, in which neither side has a legal move. Such positions are not seen in practical play. There is also a bizarre chess variant, Patt-schach, that begins from a double stalemate position. Each player begins by making an illegal move (although they cannot capture enemy pieces with these illegal moves, and the rules of check and checkmate are still respected), and then normal play begins. Since all pawns are just one step from promotion, they may only promote to captured pieces: if no pieces may be captured, pawns ma not move to the last row.

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Fastest known double stalemate: after 18...dxe3

The fastest known game ending in a double stalemate position was discovered by Enzo Minerva and published in the Italian newspaper l'Unità on 14 August 2007: 1.c4 d5 2.Qb3 Bh3 3.gxh3 f5 4.Qxb7 Kf7 5.Qxa7 Kg6 6.f3 c5 7.Qxe7 Rxa2 8.Kf2 Rxb2 9.Qxg7+ Kh5 10.Qxg8 Rxb1 11.Rxb1 Kh4 12.Qxh8 h5 13.Qh6 Bxh6 14.Rxb8 Be3+ 15.dxe3 Qxb8 16.Kg2 Qf4 17.exf4 d4 18.Be3 dxe3.

History of the stalemate rule

The stalemate rule has had a convoluted history (Murray 1913:61). Although today stalemate is universally recognized as a draw, for much of the game's history that has not been the case. In the forerunners to modern chess, such as Chaturanga, stalemate was a win for the side administering it (Murray 1913:229,267). This practice persisted in chess as played in early 15th-century Spain (Murray 1913:781). However, Lucena (c. 1497) treated stalemate as an inferior form of victory (Murray 1913:461), which in games played for money won only half the stake, and this continued to be the case in Spain as late as 1600 (Murray 1913:833). The rule in England from about 1600 to 1800 was that stalemate was a loss for the player administering it, a rule that the eminent chess historian H. J. R. Murray believes may have been adopted from Russian chess (Murray 1913:60-61,466). That rule disappeared in England before 1820, being replaced by the French and Italian rule that a stalemate was a drawn game (Murray 1913:391).

Assume that Black is stalemated. Throughout history, such a stalemate has at various times been:

Proposed rule change

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" (Reinfeld 1959:242-44). Years later, Fred Reinfeld wrote, "When Tylor wrote his attack on the stalemate rule, he released about his unhappy head a swarm of peevish maledictions that are still buzzing." (Reinfeld 1959:242) Larry Evans calls the proposal to make stalemate a win for the stalemating player a "crude proposal that ... would radically alter centuries of tradition and make chess boring" (Evans 2007:234). This rule change would cause a greater emphasis on material; an extra pawn would be a greater advantage than it is today.

Effect on endgame theory

If stalemate were a loss for the player unable to move, the outcome of some endgames would be affected. In some situations the superior side can force stalemate but not checkmate. In others, the defending player can use stalemate as a defensive technique to avoid losing (under the current rule). If the proposed rule change were made, both of these situations would become wins for the superior side instead of draws.

Diagram 1
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Black to move, stalemate

Diagram 2
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Black to move, stalemate

Diagram 3
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Black to move, stalemate

Chess variants

In losing chess, stalemate is not necessarily a draw (Alexander 1973:107). Depending on the variant, stalemate can be a draw, or a win for either the player with fewer pieces (a draw results if the players have the same number of pieces) or for the stalemated player. In xiangqi, a stalemated player loses.

Stalemate as a metaphor

Stalemate has become a widely used metaphor for other situations where there is a conflict or contest between two parties, such as war or political negotiations, and neither side is able to achieve victory, resulting in what is also called an impasse or deadlock or Mexican standoff. Chess writers note that this usage is a misnomer since, unlike in chess, the situation is often a temporary one that is ultimately resolved, even if it seems currently intractable (Golombek 1977:304) (Soltis 1978:54).

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