The main objective in the game of chess is to checkmate your opponent, which means putting the opponent’s king in a position where it is under attack and cannot move to any safe square. If you play checkmate, you win. If your opponent plays checkmate, they win. A player can also win by resignation if their opponent ends the game by conceding defeat.
The rules of winning and losing are simple, but what is a draw in chess?
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the various draw rules in chess with practical examples.
A draw can be a fair result, a game-saving result, or a heart-breaking result. I encourage you to read on not only to learn this fundamental aspect of chess, but also to see how I recently was on the brutal, heart-breaking side of chess draws.
1. Draw by Agreement
The first and simplest type of draw happens when the two players agree to call it a draw.
This typically happens when a position is dead and the two players don’t see any way to make progress, so they just shake hands and bid farewell. The game ends in a draw by agreement.
Sometimes, an endgame position is theoretically known to be a draw with best play, and chess grandmasters have enough trust in each other’s ability, so they just save time and agree to a draw.
There are no specific rules governing this type of draw; you can offer your opponent a draw at any moment, and you can choose to accept or refuse a draw offer as you see fit. However, for obvious reasons, you shouldn’t offer a draw when your opponent has a clear winning position; it’ll just make you look bad.
Agreeing to a draw can be a wise decision or a poor one, depending on which side the position favors. You therefore need to have some chess knowledge to be able to evaluate the position at hand and judge whether a draw is sensible.
Personally, I have refused draw offers many times, but I have also had a few draw offers refused. When that happens, I try extra hard to make my opponent regret their decision, but unfortunately, that doesn’t always pan out well.
2. Threefold Repetition
Another way a draw can happen is by threefold repetition. This is when the same position on the board occurs three times with the same player to move. The threefold repetition rule was introduced to prevent endless repetitions and ensure that games can progress. Let’s take a look at an example.
In this position, White is down a rook and two pawns, and checkmate is unstoppable on the next move. Fortunately, White can save the game by giving perpetual (repetitive) checks on c7 and c8. Black cannot block the checks, and is forced to move their king back and forth between a8 and a7. Once the position is repeated three times, the game ends in a draw and White escapes defeat.
A draw by perpetual check is a very common form of drawing. If you have a winning position, keep an eye out for moves which may lead to the possibility of perpetual checks. You don’t want to let the game slip and give your opponent a chance to escape with a draw.
On the other hand, if you’re down heavy material and the game looks hopeless, don’t give up and always look for ways to save a draw. You may have something.
3. The Fifty-Move Rule
The fifty-move rule was designed to prevent overly prolonged games. If no captures or pawn moves occur within the last fifty moves by both players, the game ends in a draw. This rule is essential in preventing games from dragging on indefinitely in seemingly drawn endgames. Also, it saves spectators from dying of boredom.
In this position, Black is up an overwhelming amount of material, but White amazingly managed to completely seal the position. The only way for Black to possibly make progress is by sacrificing a rook to open up some space, but as long as White only moves the king for the rest of the game and doesn’t capture anything, there is absolutely no way for Black to break through.
If the game doesn’t end in a draw by threefold repetition, it will eventually end in a draw by the fifty-move rule. Usually, though, the players would be smart enough to realize that the position is locked and would agree to a draw on the spot.
4. Insufficient Material
A game can be declared a draw if neither player has sufficient material to deliver checkmate. This happens in the following cases:
- King vs King
- King and bishop vs King
- King and knight vs King
- King and bishop vs King and bishop
- King and knight vs King and knight
Theoretically, it is impossible to checkmate with only these pieces, so there is no point in playing on. The game ends in a draw by insufficient material.
Saving the best till last.
A stalemate occurs when a player has no legal moves left, but their king is not in check. In other words, their king is not under immediate threat, yet they have no legal moves available for any piece. This results in a draw.
Stalemates can be a tactical masterpiece, allowing a player with a seemingly losing position to salvage a draw through clever maneuvering. Let’s take a look at an example.
White is about to deliver checkmate, while Black is completely hopeless and doesn’t even have enough material to dream of winning. However, Black can save the game by moving the bishop to h4, checking the king and skewering the queen.
A skewer is an x-ray attack on a valuable opposing piece that has a less valuable piece behind it. If you're not familiar with it, I suggest you read my article where I explain the three main chess tactics.
If White captures the bishop with the king, the Black king will have no legal moves, but it’s not in check, so the game ends in a draw by stalemate.
If White realizes this and chooses not to capture the bishop, no matter where they move the king, the bishop can capture the queen and the game ends in a draw by insufficient material!
A Heartbreaking Stalemate
A stalemate is not always a game-saving resource. Sometimes, a player with a completely winning position brutally stumbles into stalemate. Unfortunately, I have recently been a victim to this devastating experience. Let me share my pain with you.
After 63 moves in a challenging game, I was able to reach this completely winning position:
I was about to promote my pawn into a queen, and my opponent couldn’t capture it as it was protected by my knight. So, my opponent captured my knight and I promoted to a queen with check:
Here, I had a very smooth ride to victory with an unstoppable checkmate in two moves. Instead, I chose to take my opponent’s rook after the king moved. And guess what? Stalemate.
Despite being up a whopping 17 points of material, I didn’t win this game. What a shame.
On the bright side, I learned a valuable lesson from this game, and I thought I’d share it with you.
If you have any questions about draw rules in chess or any other topic, please feel free to leave me a comment. I’d love to have a chat with you.